By Catherine Ahmad Even the best-laid plans face many challenges. Nationally, law schools have recently been confronted with a mounting difficulty of persuading students to attend. Prospective graduate students are rightly concerned about the high tuitions demanded by schools for an education showing diminishing returns by means of post-graduate employment. Consequently, law schools are being presented with smaller applicant pools that contain lower average LSAT scores. According to a study conducted by Jerry Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, 33.4 percent of students entering law school in 2013 had median LSAT scores of 160 or higher, compared with 40.8 percent in 2010. Additionally, the number of newly enrolled students with scores at or below 149 increased from 14.2 percent to 22.5 percent during the same time period. The Washington and Lee School of Law, despite its prestigious reputation, has been unfortunately unable to escape these downward trends.
In response, the School of Law has recently developed a new strategic transition plan, which will begin during the 2015-2016 academic year. As part of this development, tuition will increase at an annual rate of 2 percent each year while financial aid will be reduced, and all salaries for faculty will be frozen for a three-year period. It should be noted that the School of Law is known for being one of the most generous law schools in regard to financial aid. As a result, this change will mark a transition to more standard levels of financial aid when compared to other law schools. Furthermore, the School of Law has adopted a new practicum curriculum for its 3L students in hopes of attracting applicants with a renewed focus on practical applications of legal study.
This new curriculum combines three major forms of experimental education: live-client clinics, externships, and simulations. The new program intends to help students develop and grow practical skills for use in the workforce. Explaining the reasoning behind adopting this program, Professor Moliterno writes, “The reformed third year is the place where law connects to representation activities and students understand the law in ways not possible when the final target is only the cognitive knowledge necessary to excel on an exam.” This new curriculum has received a significant degree of praise from those within the law community. William Henderson has stated, “To use a simple metaphor, W&L is tooling around in a Model-T while the rest of us rely on horse and buggy.” In many ways, the current 3L law students are excelling when compared to their predecessors but also when compared to their peers at similarly ranked schools. Additionally, the School of Law has made additional improvements to the 3L program in order to ensure that it provides students with all the skills needed to excel in law. Brant Hellwig, the future Dean of the Law School, writes: “In recent years we have provided additional support to our student body in their preparation for the bar exam, which appears to have enhanced our recent bar passage results. We intend to continue this programming in the future.” Based on these recent changes, the faculty of the School of Law aims to provide their students with the most innovative curriculum available in order to develop experienced and renowned lawyers in the professional world.
However, the School of Law still faces many challenges. On a national level, increasing amounts of undergraduates avoid applying to law school, and this trend also impacts the applicant pool at Washington and Lee Law. Furthermore, the first class that presented with this new experimental 3L curriculum did not succeed in the job market as well as hoped. The statistical limits of the new curriculum are expressed thus: “...only 49.2% of Washington & Lee’s 2012 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a law license, ranking the school 119th compared to other accredited schools.” These recent figures are troubling given how much resources and effort have been invested into the 3L curriculum.
However, these recent developments display the challenges that all law schools are facing, rather than just the law school at Washington and Lee. This new program has only been in place for a few years, and was initiated during a time of great strain on the job market for the legal profession. The program’s lasting impact on student job prospects remains imperative to assess, but it is far too early to truly know what that impact will be. All maintain hope that these changes at the Law School will begin to help students participate and succeed in the workforce.