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Inside the 3L Year: Jonathan Caulder on Turning Scholarship into Practice

In this post, 3L Jonathan Caulder discusses how the innovative third-year curriculum at W&L gave him the unique chance to see scholarship and practice come together.

I chose W&L Law for several reasons, one of which was the unique third-year program. I could not have predicted, however, that the program would offer a comprehensive experience to engage and critique the development of federal law. Indeed, the program afforded me the opportunity to publish a Note in the Law Review and then visit the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to watch the Justices hear oral arguments on my Note topic’s legal issue.

Roughly one year ago, I began researching potential legal topics for my Note submission to the Law Review. After exploring several options, I decided to write about a circuit split—a phenomenon where federal courts of appeals disagree over a legal issue. Circuit splits serve as ideal Note topics because SCOTUS strives to resolve circuit splits to promote uniformity in the law.

I researched several circuit splits and decided to write about the Truth in Lending Act’s (TILA) right of rescission. At that time, five courts of appeals disagreed over how a consumer validly exercises her right of rescission. After months of researching, drafting, and editing, I produced a final piece of scholarship that evaluated the arguments surrounding the TILA rescission circuit split. To my delight, the Law Review’s editorial board accepted my Note for publication.

This summer, I learned that two other courts of appeals also weighed in on TILA’s rescission issue, further deepening the circuit split. I also learned that SCOTUS agreed to hear an appeal to resolve the circuit split. I was thrilled that SCOTUS would hear the issue but also concerned that my Note would not be published in time. In essence, I was fighting against the clock to get my Note published. I beat that clock by one day.

Because of W&L Law’s unique third-year program, I had the opportunity to enroll in a wide range of practical experiences, such as clinics, practicums, and externships. Because I aim to practice litigation, I chose to take Virginia Supreme Court (soon to be Chief) Justice Donald Lemon’s Appellate Advocacy Practicum. This practicum provides students with simulated experiences to appeal cases. For example, we were assigned pending cases from the Supreme Court of Virginia and argued those cases in an adversarial setting to a panel of professors, who served as justices. Furthermore, we were given trial court records and had to draft appellate briefs as if we were appellate counsel.

In addition to oral advocacy and brief writing, the Appellate Advocacy Practicum also focuses on experiencing an appellate court’s atmosphere. To achieve this purpose, Justice Lemons arranged for us to visit several appellate courts. We started by visiting the Supreme Court of Virginia, where we watched a morning of oral arguments and observed Justice Lemons serve in his judicial capacity. Justice Lemons also informed the practicum’s students that we would visit SCOTUS.

This month, a perfect storm of events unfolded: (1) the Law Review published my Note on November 3rd, (2) SCOTUS heard oral arguments for the TILA rescission circuit split on November 4th, and (3) the Appellate Advocacy Practicum students visited SCOTUS on November 4th. The result was uncanny: I would be at SCOTUS to hear oral arguments concerning my published Note topic!

The SCOTUS visit was an exciting and unforgettable experience. Hearing the Justices question the oral advocates provided insight into how they would resolve the issue. Further, Seth Waxman, the former Solicitor General, argued skillfully on behalf of the lender in the case. To make the trip truly exceptional, Justice Lemons arranged for Justice Samuel Alito to speak with us briefly after the oral arguments. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Justices entertain and evaluate the TILA rescission circuit split.

This amazing experience would not have been possible without W&L Law’s commitment to an experiential third-year curriculum. I was able to identify an inconsistency in the law, write a piece of scholarship about it, publish that scholarship, and then visit SCOTUS to hear that inconsistency debated. I cannot think of a better way to practically engage in the development of law. I look forward to reading the SCOTUS opinion to see how the circuit split is resolved.

My experiences in W&L’s third-year curriculum are not limited to publishing a Note and observing SCOTUS debate the issue. I also serve as a judicial extern for the Honorable Michael Urbanski of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. This externship provides real world insight into how a federal trial court functions on a weekly basis. Together, the externship and the Appellate Advocacy Practicum have allowed me to observe three different courts in operation within a three-month period. The insight I have gained from these opportunities is invaluable and is not something I can learn from a textbook. I am grateful for my third year experiences thus far, and I look forward to additional opportunities to engage in the practice of law before commencement in May.