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Washington and Lee University School of Law
Published February 2008, last updated November 2011
Nestled amongst the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, the Washington and Lee University School of Law stands out among the nation’s top law schools in more than one way. The school’s small-town location contrasts with the hectic setting of more urban peer schools and lends a quaint Southern feel to the gorgeous campus. “W&L,” as students and alumni affectionately call it, features a tight-knit community fostered by its small class size, isolated location, rich history, and unique Honor System.
Admissions at Washington & Lee are selective, and as with most law schools, LSAT score and undergraduate GPA are the biggest factors. The Class of 2014 boasted a median GPA of 3.65 and a median LSAT of 164. Applicants with “numbers” at or above these medians should stand a good chance of gaining acceptance. For the class of 2015, W&L is targeting a class size of 133. W&L Law does not charge an application fee.[ii]
Although W&L sets numerical benchmarks every year, the law school also considers other factors. The admissions office does not use a formula or index to compare applicants, and considers factors such as recommendations, personal statements, work or educational experience since college, and other unique talents or experiences. Diversity also matters along a variety of dimensions including race, gender, geography, sexual orientation, and life experience. Director of Admissions Brett Twitty says that he and an Admissions Counselor read each and every application, sending some to a faculty committee for additional review.
When to Apply
Interested students should apply early: while there is no early decision or early action program, the school’s website stresses that, “sooner is almost always better,” even for applicants who will have to wait to submit a later LSAT score. The admissions committee typically begins reviewing applications in November, once it has received a sufficient volume of files. Most decisions are sent out in January and February, and applicants who apply by March 1 can expect a decision by late March.
The following chart represents the number of admissions, waitlists and denials rendered between the months of September and April for the 2010-11 admissions cycle. For this cycle, W&L Law’s first deposit deadline was May 1 and 95.9% of all offers admission were extended prior to this date. The remaining offers (4.1% or 40 offers) were extended between May and August 22nd to candidates who received an initial decision of waitlisted.
As these two charts show, at W&L Law, it pays to apply early. While the school makes decisions on a rolling basis and has no early action program, for the 2010-11 cycle, it made 82.5% of its total offers of admission prior to February 1. Consequently, a candidate wishing to make herself as competitive for admission as possible should apply by early November (the school typically makes its first round of decisions in mid-to-late November – For the 2010-11 admissions cycle, this date was November 11th) and really no later than December 31. As the charts show, candidates who apply after February 1 are statistically less likely to be admitted and more likely to receive a decision of waitlisted or denied.
Multiple LSAT Scores
When considering applicants who have taken the LSAT multiple times, W&L puts the most weight on the highest score. However, the law school advises re-takers to sit for the December test, since February results will not be received until very late in the rolling admissions process. While cancellations and no-shows do not usually affect applications, Twitty urges applicants to submit addendums if they cancelled multiple administrations or failed to show for one or more LSAT.
Personal Statements, the Optional Essay, and Addenda
W&L Law requires a personal statement of no more than three double-spaced pages. According to Twitty, the most important part of a personal statement is that it be…well, personal:
Twitty stresses that the personal statement does not have to explain an applicant’s desire to go to law school, and he also cautions against any gimmick that puts the emphasis on form rather than substance. Furthermore, personal statements should not discuss W&L as a good fit or even a #1 choice, although these sentiments can be effectively addressed in addenda. Effective statements will vary widely, but Twitty identifies a few common elements:
In keeping with its emphasis on honor and integrity, Washington and Lee Law invites each applicant to submit an optional essay addressing an ethical dilemma with which he or she dealt. Failing to submit this essay will not hurt an application, but writing one can help the admissions committee flesh out whether the candidate is a good fit.
The Director of Admissions says that W&L has “a fairly liberal addendum policy.” If applicants feel there are substantive reasons for weak spots on their records—such as a low LSAT score or bad semester of grades—they should let the admissions committee know. However, Twitty warns applicants to choose their words carefully: “You should explain, not excuse.”
Letters of Recommendation
W&L requires two letters of recommendation, and Twitty says this is sufficient for the vast majority of candidates. In fact, submitting more than three letters can hurt an application. A strong and specific letter from someone who knows the candidate well is better than a generic missive from someone prominent. Twitty also cautions that letters from relatives, family friends, or others who essentially “have to like you” will be taken with a grain of salt. He recommends that applicants make sure their recommenders feel comfortable writing letters, and have sufficient time and materials (resume, etc.) to put together something worthwhile.
At least one letter should be from someone who knows a candidate’s academic aptitude, although non-traditional applicants shouldn’t worry if they have been out of college for too long to find a strong recommender. Conversely, applicants with little work experience should not feel like they have to include at least one letter that speaks to a professional context: two academic references are fine.
Transfers, Waitlists, and Miscellaneous Admissions Tips
Washington and Lee Law looks at all parts of a transfer candidate’s application—including undergraduate GPA and LSAT score—but weighs most heavily first-year law school performance and recommendations from law professors. Last year, W&L took twenty-two transfers.
The number of applicants waitlisted and the number who are eventually accepted varies from year to year. The Office of Admissions often knows accepted waitlist candidates “well,” so keeping in contact and expressing a continued interest in the school may pay dividends.
Twitty remarks, “Every contact you have with an admissions office, good or bad, will likely be noted in your file.” He encourages interested applicants to visit the school or otherwise contact the admissions committee. Says Twitty: “If we meet or speak with you, and we really like you, this impression can really help you as you move forward in the admissions process.”
While W&L notes each applicant’s undergraduate institution, the school stresses that “how you fared wherever you went to college is ultimately more important. The most recent first-year class represents ninety-five different universities and colleges.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Washington and Lee Law is fairly generous with merit scholarships. According to the most recent ABA data, W&L awards scholarships to 62.6% of its students, with a median grant amount of $15,000 a year. 18.5% of students receive scholarships of half-tuition or more. These grants are based primarily on LSAT and undergraduate GPA, and students above the school’s median numbers stand the best chance of garnering big awards.
Washington and Lee does not offer need-based grants to law students, and rarely matches scholarship offers from competing law schools. As of the 2010-11 academic year, 82% of current students were financing at least some part of their education, and the Class of 2011 graduated with an average indebtedness of $111,957.
Law School Culture
Although it traces its roots to the antebellum Lexington Law School, the Washington and Lee School of Law officially began during Robert E. Lee’s tenure as president of the college. Lee, who had great concern for professional development in the post-war United States and also instituted business and journalism courses, incorporated the School of Law in 1870. The law school boasts many prominent alumni, including seven U.S. Senators and a Supreme Court Justice. History looms large for today’s W&L Law students: the main campus Colonnade, just a few minutes’ walk from Lewis Hall, is a National Historic Landmark—as is Lee Chapel—and students say that the school’s traditions, along with the small, close student body, contribute to a remarkable sense of congeniality and camaraderie.
Thanks to W&L’s strong tradition of student governance, law students enjoy a significant degree of autonomy and are actively engaged in the life of the law school. With nearly fifty student organizations for a student body of around 400, W&L Law allows students the opportunity to truly shape life at the law school, and most students will hold a leadership position at some point during their time in Lewis Hall.
The Honor System
The Honor System significantly shapes life at W&L, both for undergraduates and law students. It is not codified, has been entirely student-run since 1905 and is the foundation of the “community of trust” that pervades on both sides of campus. While no list of honor violations exists, the system has traditionally been interpreted to proscribe lying, cheating, and stealing. The Honor System confers many benefits on W&L students. Students leave valuables sitting out with no fear of theft, and can purchase food from the law school snack bar on an “IOU” system after-hours. Professors take students at their word, exams are unproctored, and some classes even include take-home tests. Though most law schools are quick to claim that “cutthroat” competition does not exist on their campuses, the Honor System makes that claim especially convincing for Washington and Lee. These advantages quickly impress many visitors, as one TLS poster attests:
Some prospective students are concerned by Washington and Lee’s reputation as a homogenous institution. The following demographic information is from last year’s LSAC official guide, which publishes American Bar Association data (for an additional 5.2% students, their ethnicity was unknown):
According to W&L’s website, “diverse students” make up 17% of the Class of 2014. Women account for 55% of the same first-year class. The student body is young overall: the median age of the current 1L class is 23, with fifty-one members (42%) coming straight from college.
W&L stresses the academic benefits of its small student body. According to the ABA, a large first-year class averages 51 students, and 1L’s will take Legal Research and Writing as well as one substantive course in small classes of about 20. For 2L’s and 3L’s, small classes are the norm: even excluding seminars, over 75% of upper-division classes have less than 25 students. The school’s small size also makes registering for classes easier. On the flipside, Washington and Lee’s curricular offerings are relatively limited, especially when it comes to upper-level electives. As a result of W&L Law’s recent third year curricular reform, students will take fewer electives during their third year of law school. However, this loss of elective choice is balanced by the opportunity to “learn the law as lawyers do” through a variety of real and simulated practice experiences. In addition, in 2011, the W&L Law faculty voted to add greater flexibility to the third year, allowing students to take one or two “traditional” law classes in addition to their practicum courses and actual practice experiences if they so desired.
W&L Law students are enthusiastic about their professors. The school consistently ranks in the top-10 of The Princeton Review’s “Best Professors” ranking, based on student survey responses on how interesting and accessible faculty are. Students benefit from a 9.5:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and report that professors are genuinely interested in teaching. Other resources—such as the Office of Career Planning—are also more accessible than at many larger schools.
Washington and Lee’s third-year curriculum aims to prepare outgoing students for their careers with a healthy dose of real-world experience. The program stresses professionalism and the wide range of skills required of lawyers. The curriculum, which has been optional thus far, will become mandatory starting in the 2011-2012 school year.
The third-year principally consists of “practicum” classes designed to simulate actual practice situations. In addition to three of these courses, third-year students must participate in a clinic or externship and complete forty hours of legal service. A semester-long professionalism program, which involves practicing lawyers and judges, delves into legal ethics and civility, pro bono service, and civic engagement. Each semester begins with a legal skills “intensive,” with first semester’s offering focusing on litigation while second semester’s course addresses transactions (negotiations, contract drafting, etc.). In addition, while students can have a fully experiential third-year, 3L’s can also take one or two traditional elective courses over the course of the year if they so desire.
While many are excited about the new third year and some have praised it as a step towards creating more experienced and employable law graduates, others have expressed concerns. Noted professor Brian Leiter worries that the program restricts students’ choices of traditional electives and may make it difficult to recruit quality faculty members. Others have pointed out that while the changes may be good for the majority of students who enter traditional legal practice, they may hurt students interested in clerkships, academia, or other career paths.[vi]
Joint Degrees and the LLM Program
Washington and Lee is primarily a liberal arts college, and the School of Law is the only professional or graduate school on campus. However, W&L does offer a joint JD and Master in Health Administration degree in conjunction with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The accelerated program spans four-and-a-half years instead of the six it would take to complete each degree separately.[vii] W&L Law also confers an LLM in US law to graduates of foreign law programs. Tuition for the LLM program currently runs $44,900.[viii]
The law school offers four journal opportunities. Positions on the quarterly Washington and Lee Law Review are awarded through a write-on competition held at the end of 1L year. The top six participants in the writing competition earn spots; twenty more are chosen from a combination of grades (two-thirds of the composite score) and write-on score (one-third). Law students also edit the biannual Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, as well as the Journal of Energy, Climate, and the Environment, which publishes an annual symposium issue and will produce its first non-symposium issue in the spring of 2011. The German Law Journal, co-edited by faculty and students at W&L and Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, also offers opportunities for journal experience.[ix]
Clinics and Externships
W&L offers a number of clinical experiences. The Black Lung Clinic helps former coal miners and their family secure federal benefits for the damage caused by coal mine dust; the Community Legal Practice Clinic provides legal services to victims of domestic violence and senior citizens in Rockbridge County. The Tax Clinic and Criminal Justice Clinic also provide legal services to needy area residents. Washington and Lee also runs the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, which provides support to attorneys representing capital murder defendants throughout Virginia.
The Public Prosecutors Program places twelve 3L’s with the United States Attorney Office for the Western District of Virginia. The General Externship Program allows students additional flexibility when choosing how they wish to satisfy their actual practice requirement during their third-year of law school, while the Judicial Clerkship Program places students with judges at several different courts, including the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.[x]
Washington and Lee Law has a unique Moot Court setup. All second- and third-year students are eligible for internal competitions in six different disciplines (Negotiations, Client Counseling, Appellate Advocacy, Mock Trial and Arbitration); the top performers are then invited to represent W&L in regional or national events. The Moot Court Executive Board, made up of 3L’s, has a high degree of autonomy in administering internal competitions and making other program decisions.[xi]
In addition to journals and university-wide governing bodies, W&L offers nearly fifty student organizations. These range from career interest groups like the Tax Law Society and the Public Interest Law Students Association to recreational ones like the Fieldsport and Angling Society and the Washington & Lee Wine Society. There are also chapters of the Black Law Students Association, the Asian Pacific Americans Law Students Association, the Latin American Law Students Association and OUTLaw. According to the Office of Admissions, most students are involved in at least two or three organizations.
Partly because of the schools rural location and small student body, intramural sports are huge. Football is especially popular: competitive students play undergrad and faculty/staff teams in the university-wide intramural league, while the Law School Football League engenders wide participation and a more relaxed atmosphere—perhaps because of the kegs provided by the Student Bar Association each Friday in the fall. During the winter, law students also field teams for law school-wide basketball and floor hockey leagues. Softball also brings out a large proportion of the student body for reasons that are more social than competitive.
The law school was originally part of the main campus, and for most of the twentieth century, sat on the historic Colonnade. In 1977, the law school moved to Lewis Hall, a more modern-looking building tucked in the woods near the undergraduate sports fields. Aesthetically, the building bears a more modern look than the neoclassical main campus, but students and visitors generally have good things to say about the facilities. Classrooms are relatively high-tech and campus computing runs smoothly.
Each law student gets their own “carrel” in the law library, which is open 24/7. On-campus dining options are somewhat limited, but not as bad as might be expected for such a small school: in addition to the “Brief Stop” café in the law school, law school students can also nosh at the Marketplace (main campus buffet-style dining hall), Café 77 (main campus quick eatery), and the E. Café (a kosher option located within the Hillel House). The athletics facilities are top-notch for a liberal arts school: a gym with cardio machines, free weights, and resistance machines is seldom too crowded for students to get a workout in, and the gym building also includes basketball, squash, and racquetball courts, a full-size pool, rowing machines, and a sauna.
The recession has hit all law schools hard, and W&L is no exception. According to US News and World Report, just 82.2% of the class of 2009 found employment by graduation (2008: 75%). Some employers require recent graduates to take the bar exam before the employers will extend an offer, so this figure should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, even nine months after graduation, 10% of the class of 2009 was still unemployed. Director of Admissions Brett Twitty is up-front about these hard times:
In addition, 1.8% of 2010 graduates were employed by the military, and .9% of 2010 graduates were “employed in an unknown field.”
The W&L degree has some national reach, but it may take a lot of legwork for students who want to work in far-away markets. Most graduates take first jobs in the Southeast or Mid-Atlantic regions, where W&L is most recognized and has a strong alumni presence. The Washington, D.C. area traditionally draws about a fifth of each graduating class, and many years have also seen a sizeable chunk go to New York. A number of graduates stay in the Commonwealth of Virginia (34 or roughly 27%, for the Class of 2010), where the highest number of candidates take the bar (2009 first-time passage rate: 83.7%, 1.02% higher than the state average). In addition to Virginia, the District of Columbia (18), New York (10), Maryland (9) and California (5) proved to be popular post-graduate destinations for members of the Class of 2010.
As do most law schools, W&L sends quite a few of its graduates to law firms. For the Class of 2010, 15 graduates (41.7%) went to work for firms with 101 attorneys or more. Of the remaining students who elected to enter private practice, 7 (19.4%) went to work firms with 26-100 attorneys, while 13 elected to work for firms with 2-25 attorneys.
W&L does reasonably well placing graduates in judicial clerkships: a fifth of each class typically clerks, with about half of those clerks finding employment with coveted Article III federal judges. According to Director of Admissions Brett Twitty, the school “emphasizes the importance of clerkships to all of our students, not just the top quarter or third of the class.” The small student body may also help students get to know their professors better, leading to strong letters of recommendation. An enthusiastic alumni base no doubt helps as well.
In 2010, 9.0% of graduates took jobs in public interest. Public service is a key component of the new third-year curriculum, and the school tries to support the public interest in other ways. Students who want to spend their summers working for public interest organizations can apply for funding, and the school subsidizes travel for interviews with public interest employers. The school also has a modest loan repayment program: the Shepherd LRAP has provided an average of $76,666 to recent graduates over the last three years. Prospective students who want to go into public interest work should weigh debt and likely salary outcomes, and also take into account government programs like IBR and federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Law School Efforts
In the shaky economy, W&L is encouraging students to take advantage of a tight-knit alumni network beginning in their first years of law school. The school is also urging students to meet frequently with the Career Planning Office, consider a wide range of markets and employment options, and take advantage of services like mock interviews. And of course, the new third-year curriculum largely represents an attempt to prepare students for a different, more competitive job market.
While over 90% of W&L Law students live off-campus, the School of Law does offer on-campus housing in the Woods Creek Apartments located in between the law school and undergraduate campuses. These apartments offer convenience and simplicity, but students are not lavish in their praise for the actual accommodations. Law students live in four-person apartments. Each student has a single room, but all four students share one bathroom and a small kitchen. The buildings are among the least aesthetically pleasing on campus, and rent works out to more than $700 a month (students must vacate the premises during Winter Break).
For those students who wish to live off-campus, there are many attractive and inexpensive housing options in the Lexington area. Many students rent apartments or houses in or around downtown Lexington, while some take advantage of the area’s natural beauty by commuting from locations in surrounding Rockbridge County. Some students also live in nearby Buena Vista, which offers especially cheap rent. Even within Lexington city limits, diligent searchers should be able to find well-maintained accommodations for less than $500 a month. Those who require a quiet environment should do a bit of research to make sure they don’t end up in one of a few undergrad “party house” areas.
Quality of Life
Many find Lexington’s historic atmosphere charming; others find it stifling. Lexington has about 7,000 residents, and is also home to the Virginia Military Institute. The attractive downtown area has a variety of boutique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. The town’s outskirts offer chain stores and restaurants, but one must drive close to an hour to find something that passes for a mall. There are only a couple of bars in Lexington, and the newly-opened Macado’s has become law students’ watering hole of choice.
In spite of the area’s limitations, most students seem happy to be at W&L Law. Part of this undoubtedly stems from the closeness of the student body: many law schools boast of a collegial atmosphere, but W&L students seem more adamant than most in insisting that students actually like, respect, and support each other. As one TLS poster puts it:
However, this small class size can also intensify the high school-like social aspects of law school. The same poster writes:
Since there are no other graduate programs and few young professionals in the area, opportunities to date or make friends outside of the law school are limited. Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Roanoke are each approximately one hour away. Richmond is a two-hour drive; the nation’s capital, three. Though many enroll at W&L Law despite the small town and student body but end up loving the atmosphere they engender, those who require lots of nightlife options might want to look elsewhere.
Aware of these circumscribed options, the law school, along with the university as a whole, does make an effort to bring exciting guests to town. Recent university-sponsored concerts have included such diverse acts as Gov’t Mule, Three 6 Mafia, Blues Traveler, Busta Rhymes, and Girl Talk. The school also brings in big-name speakers like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Senator Jim Webb, pundit James Carville, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Lexington’s surroundings are gorgeous, and W&L holds a special appeal for those who enjoy the outdoors: nearby mountains and state parks offer hiking and camping galore, and students can access the stunning fall colors of the Blue Ridge Parkway with just a fifteen-minute car ride. The immediate area around Washington and Lee has plenty of scenic trails and paths for runners and cyclists, while some of the best whitewater rafting and kayaking in the country can be found a couple of hours away on the Gauley River. Students also enjoy trout fishing and tubing on the Maury River and swimming or sunbathing at Goshen Pass and Panther Falls.
For those who can do without the hustle and bustle of city life, Washington and Lee has lots to recommend it: a charming and historic college town surrounded by pristine countryside, one of the prettiest campuses in America, and a small student body bound together by a community of trust and mutual support. Though tuition is relatively high, the cost of living is low, and problems like safety, theft, and parking are non-issues. The law school is also trying to prepare students for a shifting and uncertain job market through an innovative third-year program, the results of which remain to be seen.
The average W&L Law student does graduate with over $100,000 in debt, which should give pause to any prospective law student in the current economic climate. In addition to making a sober analysis of debt and job prospects, anyone interested in Washington and Lee Law should make it a point to visit. The school holds a special place in the heart of thousands of students and alumni for a reason, and it is worth seeing if this unique law school might win a similar place in yours.
Washington and Lee University School of Law
U.S. News Ranking: 30
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