Judging the Benefits of Experiential Learning

By: Samuel Gilleran, J.D. ’20

This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to participate in Wake Forest’s D.C. Summer Judicial Externship Program (the “Program”). Founded and directed by Professor Abigail Perdue, the Program places select 1Ls and 2Ls into unpaid externships with judges, special masters, and other federal adjudicators in Washington. The Program, which includes an evening course on judicial clerking, is a wonderful experience for many reasons, but I want to focus on one in particular: the significant difference between the externship experience and the traditional 1L curriculum.

Every lawyer remembers the terror of 1L year: the first cold call, the first memo, the first oral argument, and the first final exam. Although the fright generally fades over time, the 1L curriculum remains highly regimented. For instance, my thought process on a typical Tuesday went something like this: “From 10 to 11am, I will think about Criminal Law. Then, I will eat lunch. After lunch, from 1 to 3pm, I will think about Torts. Because I haven’t been called on recently in Torts, I should probably case brief extra carefully. After Torts, I will work on my LAWR memo.” Rinse and repeat until you meet the ABA’s required number of class sessions.

This is not to disparage the traditional 1L curriculum, which is the same almost everywhere. To the contrary, every law student needs a solid foundation to learn to think like lawyers. And we need to develop the legal research and writing skills necessary to articulate that understanding.

However, the externship was a completely different ballgame. I walked in to Chambers on my first morning and got oriented by the judicial assistant and the clerks. Moments later I was handed my first assignment — a real assignment, which affected the rights of actual litigants in an actual proceeding before an actual Article III judge. The canned problems I did during my 1L legal writing classes paled in comparison to this. Unlike the neatly packaged problems from class, the briefs in this case were not perfectly Bluebooked, and the arguments did not flow logically. No longer was there a single correct answer. Instead, there were several reasonable options to present to the judge. Many of the issues I encountered could have gone either way. Learning how to make judgment calls about how a supervisor – whether a judge or attorney – might consider an issue is a skill we had not considered during my 1L year, perhaps one that can only be developed through actual legal work in an externship or experiential learning environment.

The unpredictability of the externship was another key difference. During 1L year, you know all of your dates and deadlines well in advance, and surprises are rare. Thus, it is relatively easy to schedule your day. By contrast, during an externship, you can have your day entirely mapped out, but those plans can change at a moment’s notice when an unexpected and time-sensitive motion is filed. One moment you’re handling run-of-the-mill cases and the next, you’re contemplating a high-profile cause célèbre. This sudden gearshift is foreign to the 1L experience, yet the ability to swiftly change focus is necessary in the practice.

The stark differences between the way we are taught and the way we practice makes me wonder whether the 1L curriculum is designed to help new law students think like lawyers, but not be lawyers just yet. Yet the disconnect between the 1L curriculum and the practice experience only underscores the necessity for experiential learning opportunities like the Program throughout law school. Students need to gain practical experience early and often to understand what a day in the practice is really like. The D.C. Summer Judicial Externship Program helped me gain that understanding, and because of that beneficial summer experience, I now feel more prepared to practice after graduation.

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