Too Soon to Pronounce Washington and Lee Law School’s “Experiential Curriculum” a Hit with Law School Applicants

Bill Henderson has a post over at The Legal Whiteboard that has been getting a lot of attention in law school circles, praising W & L’s innovative curriculum, which focuses on practical lawyer skills, as both an educational success and as a hit with law school applicants.   Bill goes over some of W & L’s recent admissions data, and concludes:  “A sizeable number of prospective students really do care about practical skills training and are voting with their feet.  W&L has therefore become a big winner in the race for applicants.”

Some caution is in order here.  My understanding is that W & L’s median LSAT score was in the top 20 of law schools when it announced its experiential curriculum in 2008, and that it’s gone down every year since, while its GPA rank has, after a plunge, more or less returned to where it was.  As Bill points out, W & L had a banner “yield” last year, with many more students accepting offers than places available, with a substantial percentage of students being asked to defer, and the first-year class still filled beyond capacity.  So we’ll have to see whether future statistics reflect strong gains in GPA and LSAT ranks, or whether W & L is attracting many students, but the “best” (most sought-after because of their LSATs and GPA, which are for the most part all law schools care about thanks to US News) students are still avoiding it.

Even if W & L does wind up with increasingly strong classes while everyone else is struggling, it wouldn’t be clear that its curriculum is the primary cause, or perhaps a cause at all.  Washington & Lee has a tuition “sticker price” of around $42,000,  but is known for being among the most generous law schools with regard to financial aid.  Indeed, once financial aid is taken into account W & L may well have the lowest effective tuition for out-state-applicants of any law school in the U.S. News top 40, save for BYU (which has limited appeal to most prospective applicants) and perhaps the University of Alabama.  W & L  is also located in a small town with an especially low cost of living.  To the extent that law school applicants have become significantly more cost-conscious and reluctant to take on debt because of the awful legal job market, W & L is clearly one of the law schools most likely to benefit.  The lesson may, in fact, be that the best way to recruit students is to offer legal education at a lower cost than is offered by your competitors.

I’m not saying, however, that I know that W & L is not, at this point, receiving some reputational benefit among applicants due to its curriculum. But I at least suspect that this benefit would only really start to manifest itself if there were some evidence that W & L applicants have brighter career prospects because of this curriculum, i.e., that employers are, on a relative basis, more inclined to recruit W & L grads because of this curriculum.  There may be such evidence, but if so Henderson doesn’t mention it.  (My own experiences in the legal world suggest that hiring partners tend to be of the opinion that since THEY managed to get where they are without x or y–clinics, law and economics, legal writing classes, whatever–they couldn’t possibly be important hiring criteria.)

None of this, by the way, goes to Henderson’s main point, which is that W & L’s curriculum is proving to be an educational success–that, perhaps, should be the subject of a separate post.  And I think such experiments are great, there is no reason that all law schools should follow the same path.   And while, as Henderson mentions, some academics are skeptical that the curriculum, which depends in part on adjuncts, could be pulled off in Lexington, it’s also the case that it may be more important to have such a curriculum in such places, where students have relatively few opportunities to gain practical experience by clerking for a law firm part time during the school year.

But all that said, I don’t think Henderson provides sufficient data to conclude that “a sizeable number of prospective students really do care about practical skills training,” at least not the extent that W & L’s curriculum has actually improved the “quality” of students relative to who would be matriculating there if the law school had retained a standard curriculum.

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