Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., has announced a plan to reform its third year by replacing all academic classes with “experiential” learning, such as actual interactions with clients.

The new third-year curriculum, which was approved unanimously by the law school’s faculty, will replace traditional classroom instruction with practical simulations, real-client interactions and the development of law practice skills. Project simulations will span the array of traditional subject matter, such as banking and corporate finance, securities law, environmental law and family law.

“For some time, members of the legal profession, practitioners, judges and scholars alike, have urged law schools to place greater emphasis on professionalism and learning in context,” Rodney A. Smolla, the law school’s dean, said in a news release. “W&L’s new third year responds to these needs by requiring students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors – the full complement of professional activity that engages practicing lawyers.”

Smolla was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.

Robert T. Danforth, the law school’s associate dean of academic affairs, said Smolla started the conversation about changing the curriculum even before arriving at the school in July. Danforth said the reforms are inspiring and could serve as a model for other schools.

“It’s the best and most interesting thing to happen to legal education in many years,” he said, adding he believes the new curriculum will prepare students to be better lawyers. “To me, the most important element of the proposal is that it creates a year of transition where the student is moving from simply being a student to being a practicing professional.”

The law school’s existing clinics and externship programs will also be modestly expanded. All third-year students will be required to obtain a Virginia practice certificate and participate in at least one real client experience during the year. At the same time, students will be immersed in a year-long professionalism program that explores what it means to be a lawyer by featuring topics such as legal ethics, civil leadership and pro bono service.

Instead of listening to lectures, third-year students will be presented realistic settings requiring them to use judgment, solve problems, work in teams, negotiate solutions and counsel clients.

For example, in a third-year advanced family law class, students will be asked to mirror real-life situations by negotiating prenuptial agreements for an intended husband or wife and do oral proceedings in a custody battle.

The art of lawyering will be examined throughout this and other classes as students will explore relationships between attorneys and clients, keep track of their billing hours and discuss how attorneys should handle clients’ expectations.

Lisa Hedrick, who was one of two students serving on the planning committee, said students had a chance to give their input on the new curriculum.

“I think it’s a great idea and a great step in the right direction towards a more meaningful education and a more practical education for our future careers as lawyers,” said Hedrick, managing editor of W&L Law Review. She will graduate this spring.

Plans call for the new curriculum to be implemented over the next three to four years. More information about the new curriculum is available online.

Several reports in recent years have pointed out the challenges law schools face in preparing students to become lawyers, including a report published in March 2007 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In the fall of 2007, a network of 10 law schools launched a project that aims to improve how law schools operate.