virtual classroom
Virtually legal: could this be the future for law school classrooms? © iStock

A year’s tuition fees at Harvard Law School for its juris doctor degree — a graduate legal qualification — is $59,550. Housing, insurance, books, supplies and other expenses are likely to push that closer to $90,000. Even the tuition fees at less prestigious — but good — schools can be around $40,000 a year.

It is little wonder, then, that online, distance or hybrid law programmes are now being mooted as a more accessible option for would-be lawyers unable to afford the in-person campus courses.

The latest law school to say it will venture a hybrid JD programme is Syracuse University College of Law. From 2018, pending approval from the American Bar Association, students will take classes online then come to campus for weeklong residential sessions. The school, which hopes the programme will help reverse its enrolment decline, is delivering the course with edtech company 2U. The school’s intake for 2016 is up 14 per cent on last year, but — in line with the national trend — still almost a fifth lower than a decade ago.

The cost of tuition will be the same as the standard JD programme at Syracuse but the “opportunity cost” of attending will be “significantly lower”, says Nina Kohn, associate dean for research. “Students can continue working while completing their degree and will not have to move their families or leave their existing support systems,” she says.

Syracuse will be only the second law school accredited by the ABA to offer such a hybrid JD programme; Mitchell Hamline School of Law launched the first last year. In 1998, non-ABA-accredited Concord Law School rolled out the first online JD programme, and other non-ABA accredited schools soon followed.

Other law schools offer fully online master’s programmes for non-lawyers, but ABA accreditation standards mean no more than a third of a JD course can be delivered online, and only 15 per cent of the coursework.

“US legal education is at the intersection of a historic downturn in traditional applicants and the upsurge of high-quality distance education optionalities,” says Ken Randall, who served as dean at the University of Alabama School of Law for 20 years.

“US law schools can, and should, be reaching new and non-traditional students, whether preparing them for a full-time practice of law or enriching their lives and adding value to their careers in diverse professions. It’s right that accreditation is aimed at protecting consumers, but regulations must advance creativity and new ways of delivering quality education to diverse student groups.”

Mr Randall is a founder of Aspen-iLaw Distance Education, which provides online learning platforms to around a fifth of accredited law schools in the US. “For some law schools, online education is still a novelty,” he says. “But there’s an important role for online education in training the next generation of lawyers. Since their law practice will be technology-centred, their legal education should also optimise technology.”

In the US, the number of applicants and enrolments to law schools entered a downward spiral in 2011. Early indicators suggest 2016 may halt that decline, but it will not turn the tide. Last month, Indiana Tech University announced it would close its law school, with $20m losses, less than a year after it was provisionally accredited by the ABA. “The significant decline in law school applicants nationwide represents a long-term shift in the legal education field, not a short-term one,” explained the university’s president, Arthur Snyder.

Even elite law schools like Yale, Harvard and Stanford may need to explore and serve new markets for their legal education, before someone else does. “Law schools still using a pedagogy developed at Harvard almost a century and a half ago are slow to embrace change of any sort,” says Michele Pistone, professor of law at Villanova University and co-author of “Disrupting Law School”, a report published this year by the Clayton Christensen Institute. “Many law professors look upon technological change with about the same enthusiasm as they have for getting a tooth pulled.”

But according to David Amos, associate dean at the City Law School, University of London — which offers a distance learning LLM (master of law) in international business law — online programmes enable law schools to reach entirely new markets. “It allows us the possibility of addressing a broader audience both geographically and in terms of the profile of the students,” says Mr Amos.

“Students who can’t come to this country for visa or other reasons can now take our courses. Similarly, students in this country who would have difficulty in attending a face-to-face course for work or family reasons will now have more options open to them. They allow law courses to become more accessible.”

Technology also enables faculty to have an individual relationship with the student. “You’re able to monitor whether a student has accessed and engaged with the material. You can also check their progress by quizzes, tests and so on. This allows us to spot areas of concern and address them.”

However, Mr Amos concedes that online programmes will not necessarily be cheaper to deliver, particularly since legal materials must be updated regularly. He also has reservations about whether online courses can create as many opportunities for social learning. “Students learn better in groups where they can engage well with other learners and their tutor,” he says. “You can set up mechanisms to do this online but I’m not sure that they fully provide the sort of ‘value added’ you get with good face-to-face teaching.”

In South Korea, the country’s law schools are pushing the government to develop a national online legal education programme. The Korean Association of Law Schools is supporting plans by the ministry of education to set up an online law degree programme at Korea National Open University to widen access to students through more affordable tuition. This is planned at a quarter of what annual tuition costs at private law schools.

Back in the US, law schools including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University Pritzker are experimenting with and developing free Moocs (massive open online courses). However, these are not credit-bearing and will not count towards a degree.

“I see law schools adding innovation on to the existing curriculum, but do not see a lot of change happening at the core. They’re using the new technology to sustain what they are already doing,” says Ms Pistone, who adds that Villanova University is setting itself up as a “disrupter”. So, rather than trying to change the incumbent institution, she and colleagues have started a new programme outside the law school that will train non-lawyers to represent immigrants in the court and adjudication system.

“It’s an example of using online technology to provide an education more tailored to the needs of students and the needs of the marketplace. I hope it will be a model for other law schools in the future.”

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