Online law school – opening up legal education to a new generation of learners

Online learning is a quickly growing field.  Most major educational institutions offer graduate degrees online, but historically online education has not been embraced by legal educators.  That is about to change in California.  In June 2019, the California State Bar announced changes which will allow State Bar accredited law schools to offer a fully online Juris Doctor Program, if approved by the Committee.

This is new territory for legal educators, sparking questions about why such a change is warranted, and how Juris Doctor Programs can be effective in the online modality. This article will attempt to discuss both.

Online Law Schools Help Increase Access to Justice

Expanding accredited legal education to include fully online programs has many advantages.  In its July 2019 report entitled “California’s Attorney Deserts: Access to Justice Implications of the Rural Lawyer Shortage”  (“Access to Justice”), the California Commission on Access to Justice investigated “attorney deserts,” defined as areas where too few (or no) attorneys live and work resulting in unmet legal needs for the residents.  Noting that “[o]ne measure of access to the legal system is access to an attorney” the Commission concluded that “[m]assive parts of rural California are attorney deserts…creat[ing] problems of access to justice, primarily in high poverty areas” (Access to Justice, page 1).

The Commission called attention to the “critically important role” that California law schools can play in solving this problem and encouraged legal educators to “think about their student pipeline, in particular applicants who hail from rural areas” because, as the Commission noted “those who grew up in rural places are generally more likely to return there” and “many graduates of Cal-accredited schools, especially those located in rural areas, tend to stay and practice in those locales”  (Access to Justice, page 12).  One way, then, to increase the number of attorneys serving rural communities is to allow students from rural areas to remain in those communities during law school.

The problem is that most of these areas are not just “attorney deserts” they are also “law school deserts.”  With only a handful of exceptions, almost all of the law schools in California are located in urban areas, forcing students from rural areas to leave their communities behind in order to attend an accredited law school.  Having an option of attending an accredited J.D. program offered online will allow students to stay in their communities and continue working while attending law school.  According to the findings of the Commission, this should result in an increase in attorneys from rural communities staying and practicing in those communities as well.

Online Law Schools Can Decrease a Student’s Overall Debt Load

The Commission also noted the challenges caused by increasing student debt, a problem made worse by the fact that jobs in rural areas presumptively pay less than those in a metropolitan environment (Access to Justice, page 9). This makes it very difficult for attorneys from rural and underserved areas to go back to their communities to practice.

An online program will allow students to incur far less student debt than the traditional law school model, thus increasing access to law school to students with less financial resources.  At a bare minimum, an online program allows students to stay in their communities, particularly rural communities with significantly lower costs of living (thus greatly decreasing living expenses during law school) and to work while attending law school, both of which combine to greatly decrease the total amount of debt at graduation.

Online Legal Education Can Offer a High-Quality, Rigorous, and Rewarding Experience

We know what you are thinking–  All of this sounds wonderful, but it only becomes a reality if the students pass the bar exam and become competent and ethical practitioners.  One of the first questions raised when discussing a fully online JD Program is this– how are you going to replicate the traditional law school model and ensure a high-quality, rigorous legal education?

The short answer is that replication of the old model should not be the goal.  The traditional law school model is focused almost exclusively on the Socratic Method, to the exclusion of other learning methods.  Pure Socratic Method is simply not possible given the flexibility afforded by online education.  What is possible, though, is to dramatically re-think how we teach law, to take the best parts of the Socratic Method and meld them with the best parts of innovative technology and learning pedagogy to create a rich, highly interactive online environment that caters to all different kinds of learners.

The truth is that while the traditional model is good for some learners, one method of learning is NEVER going to work for all learners, and that is ok.  Offering different ways of learning the law (all backed by research) will cater to all types of learners, rather than just one type.  After all, the traditional model will always be available to those who thrive in that modality, but online legal education provides an opportunity to those with different learning styles (and personal and financial needs) who are currently excluded from the practice of law.  Opening up access to the legal profession will lead to increased diversity and access to justice for those in underrepresented communities.

We are not in this alone.  In October we, the Dean and faculty at JFKU College of Law, attended a first-of-its-kind conference dedicated to online learning in legal education. There were over 100 attendees representing a wide array of law schools from all over the country– from large, top-tier state schools to smaller, regional and state-accredited schools.  Many of these schools are already offering innovative courses online, touting this pedagogical model as an excellent way to reach a brand new group of law students– people previously excluded from “the fraternity” because of circumstances other than pure ability, whether it be where you live, how much money you have, or whether you are able to move from your home and family to obtain a law degree.

The advances in technology and the tools available to create rigorous, interactive learning experiences are, in a word, amazing. While there are too many examples to list which allow students to interact with legal material in real-time, real-life situations, one point must be made clear: Gone are the days of a simple video of a professor in front of a white board, or a boring, static PowerPoint presentation.  No one wants that.  This is not where online legal education is going.

Perhaps most exciting is the increased student learning online education can provide.  In a high-quality online legal program, opportunities for both individualized feedback and weekly learning assessment is weaved throughout each class, each week. No longer will a student sit in a course for a semester with only a final exam to determine their comprehension of the material. The first opportunity to assess student learning should not be at the end of a course. Online legal education allows for students to interact with course content and then demonstrate their understanding of that content on a weekly basis.  Increased writing opportunities, MBE and PT practice, and problem-based learning are key attributes to good online legal education, all of which can be embedded into the classroom itself.

Effective online learning is not glorified correspondence school.  It can be highly interactive, challenging and rigorous.  It can be synchronous – done live with direct faculty to student and student-to-student interaction.  It can be asynchronous – with each student completing their weekly coursework at different times, but with all the same deadlines, interacting via group discussion boards, group videos, and/or peer-review projects.  It can be a mixture of the two –blending the best each has to offer.  The important thing is that, if done well with a keen eye towards maintaining the high-quality, rigorous standards of the legal profession, online legal education can meet the needs of the students, our communities and the legal profession.