Last August, the American Bar Association updated its standards to allow up to 30 credits of distance education towards the juris doctor degree, meaning that students can work toward a law career while rarely setting foot on campus.
Unlike other academic disciplines, law schools have been slow to embrace online coursework. But doing so could open the door to new and diverse students who are able to attain more robust networking opportunities out in the real world.
“Law schools are going to have to move into this space because students have had the expectation at the undergraduate level that this is going to be an opportunity that is available to them,” said Carla Pratt, dean of the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas.
New Hampshire and the Hybrid JD
The traditional law school experience can be a stumbling block for more established professionals who have financial or familial responsibilities that prohibit them from relocating for school.
Those folks comprise the target demographic of the University of New Hampshire School of Law’s hybrid JD program focusing specifically on intellectual property, technology and information law. Students still have to complete three-and-a-half-years of coursework, but they can do the vast majority of it online.
Megan Carpenter, dean of the UNH School of Law, thinks the program will allow the school to bring voices into the virtual classroom that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
“So far we have applications from people in the financial services industry, the tech industry and applications from doctors. So it’s sort of interesting, what an incredible classroom this is for people to bring a perspective to,” Carpenter said.
Still, law schools have to take care to ensure that the convenience of their respective programs didn’t overshadow the interactive or experiential components that round out an education.
Carpenter thinks online classrooms actually augment the educational experience in some ways. She’s able to offer guest speakers more flexibility since they can tune in remotely and real-time or group discussion boards ensure there’s still ample student participation.
“So whereas if you’re sitting in a classroom, you’re kind of listening but you’re checking out a little bit, online education really sort of requires students to be engaged and engages them with discussion questions and group work with their peers,” Carpenter said.
The end-goal is still all about getting out into the real world. UNH requires students to engage in a mock client setting or take on a residency at a law firm, government office or court for at least a semester.
Washburn's Third Year Anywhere
Faculty at Washburn decided to restrict online courses to the third year because they wanted students to develop a core foundation of in-person and in-depth classroom learning first. Once they actually began to dive into structuring their online curriculum, it turned out that the differences are negligible.
“Everything that we currently that we do in-person, there’s a way to do it online,” Pratt said.
To that end, Washburn recently announced its Third Year Anywhere program, where students entering their final year of law school can get a jump start on post-grad life by undertaking an externship in the city or geographic locale they plan on practicing in after graduation.
As the saying goes, one has to network to get work, which is great so long as the hiring partner at your dream firm regularly dines out at the campus dining hall.
“Students were a bit frustrated with the fact that they had difficulty accessing employers in the out-of-state markets where they intend to return home and practice in that market,” Pratt said.
Through the program, students can invest more heavily in their externships while still completing all of the necessary coursework online. Those interpersonal relationships can become critical post-graduation.
“Employers tell us that having a reference from someone in a local legal market means more to them than having a faculty reference,” Pratt said.