Things I Wish I Would Have Known: Experiential Learning

Muir_Alicia 2When I began my law school application process, there were some questions that I already knew I wanted to ask the admissions team and current students. I planned to ask about employment rates, bar passage rates, student organizations, and the feel of the community. However, as soon as you go on a visit or interact with a law student, it will become apparent that law students have a long list of involvements outside of the classroom that typically involve so many acronyms it can feel like a different language. Through this experience, I realized that it was important to ask what opportunities students have to participate in experiential learning when deciding where to go to law school. For me personally, I realized it was important to me to feel like I would leave law school not just being able to think like a lawyer, but to understand how to actually be a lawyer upon graduation. When I visited W&M and learned about the various clinics, competition teams, externship opportunities and journals, I was impressed by all of the ways W&M law students can diversify their law school experience and gain practical experience.

Experiential learning is really important to think about when looking at law schools because when you start to take your doctrinal courses, it is easy to lose focus of the your “why”: the reason you came to law school in the first place. Many W&M students are pursuing a career in the law because of a core desire to help others and serve their communities. In fact, this is a goal of the school as a whole in that it seeks to produce citizen lawyers. In order to send its students into the world as citizen lawyers, W&M provides students with a variety of ways to gain legal experience while in law school. W&M has 10 clinics, 4 competition teams, 5 journals and 10 research centers. With a student body of about 700 students, every student at W&M has the opportunity to get involved in one or more of these offerings.

Legal Practice Program

One way W&M shows its commitment to experiential learning is through the legal practice program. The legal practice program includes 2 semesters of legal writing and notably 2 semesters of lawyering skills. The lawyering skills class specifically provides students with the chance to learn practical skills first-hand, the ones you’ll be expected to know during your summer work and post-grad employment. In the fall, students learn and then perform both a practice and a graded client interview, meeting with supervisor, and client advising meeting. In the spring, students learn to give presentations about a legal issue, to deliver oral arguments, and to negotiate. This part of the curriculum allows students to learn and refine skills utilized by practicing attorneys every day.

Journals

Besides the lawyering skills courses, students can engage in experiential learning by joining a journal. There are 5 journals at W&M: Law Review, Bill of Rights Journal, Business Law Review, Environmental Law and Policy Review, and the Journal of Race, Gender & Social Justice. By joining any of the journals, you can develop superior citation (bluebooking) skills that are helpful in practice while writing a note where you propose unique legal argument.

Externships & Clinics

Participating in an externship or clinic teaches you to apply and build on the material you are learning inside the classroom. Students at W&M can apply to extern for any type of employer for credit during an academic semester. They can work with attorneys on real cases through the various clinics at W&M. We have 10 clinics, soon to be 11 when the brand new Community Law Clinic launches in the Fall of 2021. Students can work with the clinics during the summer and/or during a semester since they can participate for class credit. These clinics provide current students with the opportunity to help real clients in a variety of legal fields. While I have not yet worked with a clinic, some other current students gave me their thoughts and reflections about their experiences:

Laura Brasier, 2L – PELE (Parents Engaged for Learning Equality) Special Education Advocacy Clinic
“Working at the PELE Clinic gave me the opportunity to work directly with clients and their guardians by attending IEP (individualized educational plan) meetings and eligibility meetings with educational professionals. It was a great way to apply the client advocacy skills that we learned in the Legal Practice Program”

Tim Allison, 2L – Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic
“Being a part of the Veterans Benefits Clinic was an amazing way to explore a new area of the law while providing necessary advocacy for veterans claims. I feel that spending my summer improving upon my client interaction skills and legal writing skills was immeasurably helpful to improving my capability to be a successful lawyer in the future.”

Dana Mirsky, 2L – Virginia Coastal Policy Center
“Currently, I am working with a partner to examine the regulatory and permitting processes for wind energy projects in Virginia in an effort to streamline state and developer collaboration with the military in selecting appropriate sites for wind farms. VCPC has given me the opportunity to gain insight into the particular challenges of policy work and learn about the work being done to address various coastal issues in Virginia.”

Competition Teams

Becoming a member of one of the 4 competition teams on campus is a great way to further your experiential learning opportunities. W&M offers the Alternative Dispute Resolution Team, National Trial Team, Moot Court Team, and Transactional Law Team. If you come to law school interested in exploring a certain area of legal practice, competition teams provide you with the opportunity to explore and build the practical skills required in various areas. Overall, students have the chance to learn by doing. As a member of the Alternative Dispute Resolution team, I will learn how to participate in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. Since I want to pursue a career in civil litigation and a majority of cases are settled before trial, these skills will prepare for me for practice after law school.

W&M competition team members also gave me some of their own reflections:

Sean Tenaglia, 2L – Trial Team
“Trial Team has pushed me to develop the critical skills that will allow me to excel in the courtroom and beyond. From crafting an opening statement to framing effective questions for witnesses to leaving the jury with a persuasive closing argument, my experience on the trial team has made me a more effective communicator and advocate for my future clients.”

Elle Profaci, 2L – Moot Court Team
“Being on Moot Court is a great experience. We write appellate briefs and participate in oral argument. As part of the team and in our Advanced Brief Writing class, I’ve really honed my ability to make precise legal arguments, which will be helpful in practice.”

Grace Myers, 2L – Transactional Law Team
“The Transactional Law Team gives students the opportunity to draft and negotiate common agreements, such as Asset Purchase Agreements. Being able to learn by doing and by interacting competitively with students from other students from other schools is immeasurably helpful in preparing me both for my studies and for a career in transactional law.”

There are countless ways for W&M Law students to gain practical experience and apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom to real-life situations. Between the legal research and writing program’s lawyering skills component, externships, clinics, journal, and competition teams, students are able to maintain a well-rounded and fulfilling schedule. Most importantly, in addition to W&M having plenty of ways to engage in this type of learning, our smaller student body helps to ensure that these opportunities can be taken advantage of by all interested students.

Alicia Muir is a 2L from Reading, PA, serving as Vice President of the Comparative Legal Student Scholars.