Legal Practice Program: Preparing Students for the Practice of Law
Program helps students gain the skills they need to become practice-ready law graduates
By Brian Kelley '13
This fall, William & Mary Law School launched its new Legal Practice Program. The program introduces students to the most important lawyering skills over the course of their first two years of legal study and will ensure that William & Mary Law graduates are ready for practice when they enter the profession.
Legal Practice builds on the foundation of Legal Skills, William & Mary's former practical skills program. It has retained some of the same basic structure - dividing students into small "law firms" taught, in part, by adjunct professors - but the curriculum is much different.
"We retained the best aspects from the old Legal Skills program, including the emphasis on professional responsibility and practical simulations, while adding significantly more writing instruction," said Professor Meredith B. Aden, director of the Legal Practice Program. "Definitely, writing is the heaviest emphasis."
New first-year students are divided into one of 15 1L firms, which are taught by both adjunct professors who are practicing attorneys and full-time writing professors. Each firm has approximately 12 to 14 students.
"What's unique about us compared with other law schools is that we have writing professors as well as adjunct professors who teach non-writing skills (including client interviewing, client counseling, and negotiation)," Aden said. "And each firm also has a student writing and practice fellow who helps the writing professor and the adjunct professor with writing instruction and practical simulations."
The program also includes an increased emphasis on research instruction during the first year, and each firm has a reference librarian. The Advanced Research course curriculum has been incorporated into the 1L classes, and the librarians provide in-depth instruction on crucial legal research skills to all first-year students.
First-year students earn three credits each semester for Legal Practice. The curriculum focuses on objective memorandum writing and basic client and research skills during the fall semester and research and persuasive written and oral advocacy during the spring semester.
The new program also includes significant changes for second-year law students. In the spring, second-year students take an additional 2-credit Legal Practice class, but in the new program, they can choose from a menu of courses, including Appellate Advocacy, Pretrial Criminal, and Pretrial Civil. The classes are all taught by adjunct professors who are practitioners in the specific subject area in which they teach. Many are long-time adjunct professors from the prior Legal Skills program. These options enable students to select the course that best reflects their interests and career goals. Aden anticipates that this menu of courses will be expanded in the future.
In addition, students must take a two-credit Professional Responsibility course during their second or third year, Aden said. The Professional Responsibility course is a traditional, casebook-based class. This increased Professional Responsibility instruction complements the emphasis on professionalism and ethics in the first year Legal Practice curriculum.
Both years of the new Legal Practice program are graded on a traditional letter-grade system - a change from the Legal Skills Program's pass/fail system. Aden believes this is beneficial for students.
"Writing is the most important skill you have as a lawyer, and it is very important to hone this skill," she said. "Having [Legal Practice] as a graded course places the proper emphasis on the class."
Jordan Evans, a third-year student with experience in both Legal Skills and Legal Practice, has been impressed with the new program.
"Legal Practice is an improvement on what was a very innovative and substantively unique Legal Skills program," he said.
Evans, who currently serves as a writing and practice fellow for Legal Practice, said the program will help students compete in the job market, as they will have a more solid foundation in critical practical skills.
"The new program places a greater emphasis on writing, which makes sense considering how important writing skills are in the workplace," he said. "In your first year of law school, Legal Practice is likely the only way to gain these practical skills. Students at other schools are not always afforded these same experiences so early in law school."
New students enrolled in Legal Practice's inaugural semester gave the program high marks. They shared their thoughts about the program following William & Mary's introductory Law Week.
"The small firm groups were very helpful, especially our TA. He provided some great insight on how to better prepare for classes and balance school and personal life," one student said.
"I liked getting a chance to socialize with [the students in] our [Legal Practice] firms and with the rest of the law school before classes begin," another student said. "I also really liked meeting everyone I'll be working with for the Legal Practice program, and I am very happy with our adjunct and writing professors."
"My writing fellow, Tricia, went above and beyond to be a helpful resource and mentor to my entire class," said a third student. "I cannot say enough positive things about her. She did a truly wonderful job."
Before joining the faculty at William & Mary Law School, Aden served as the director of Legal Writing at Mississippi College School of Law, where she designed and implemented a Legal Writing program. She received her B.A. in economics from the University of Alabama and her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. She also earned her LL.M. in litigation and dispute resolution from The George Washington University Law School.