Paul L. Caron

Monday, February 15, 2016

Can This Tech Company Save Legal Education?

ILawBloomberg BNA:  Can This Tech Company Save Legal Education?, by Brian Sheppard (Seton Hall):

Everyone knows that the number of people attending law school is down, but fewer people know that, in response, law school faculties are shrinking too. Many law schools have dialed down their efforts to hire new faculty and dialed up their efforts to convince existing law professors to retire. While this “right-sizing” effort might be economically sensible, it has given rise to a new problem: law schools are finding it harder to offer all of the classes that they used to.

No matter how small law schools get, the ABA accreditation standards require them to offer “substantial instruction” in diverse areas such as substantive law, legal reasoning, writing, and the history and values of the profession. Adding to the pressure, many law students arrive at school with dreams of entering particular areas and expect that the law school will provide suitable preparation for those fields. Courses in international human rights, health care compliance, and admiralty might not appeal to everyone, but they are vital to those who plan to enter those fields.

Two conditions need to be satisfied in order for a law school class to happen: a lecturer competent to teach it and a critical mass of students enrolled in it. Some classes are sure bets. Almost all of the classes taken in the first-year of law school are mandatory, and several upper-level classes are practically required because employers or bar examiners expect students to take them. Because of the predictable demand for these classes, law schools have a ready supply of full-time law professors who are prepared to teach them.

The challenge comes from the many important courses that are highly specialized. These days, there are fewer full-time law professors ready to handle them and fewer students interested in taking them. In our right-sized era, staffing problems (trouble finding a ready — and willing — lecturer) and enrollment problems (trouble getting enough students in a class to make it worthwhile) will be more commonplace. A law school facing both problems with a course will likely drop it from their offerings. If this happens too often, however, that school might run afoul of the ABA standard or alienate law students and potential applicants. What can be done?

Enter iLaw, a tech company that specializes in online legal education. Their idea is simple: use technology to connect law schools to a stable of top law professors who have expertise in the courses they need. For a law school that faces both a staffing and an enrollment problem with a course, iLaw provides an expert who can fill the lecturing gap as well as the ability to pool students from various other law schools in order to make a full class. ...

Given the trends at work in the academy, iLaw might be arriving on the scene at just the right time. Ken Randall, iLaw’s CEO, cut his teeth on online education while serving as Dean of the University of Alabama Law School. In an interview, he said that Alabama’s substantial climb in the rankings during his tenure came, in part, from an aggressive effort to create an online LLM (a masters degree in law) program. Before going online, the Alabama LLM program was $500K in the red, but after switching to internet delivery, the program generated a $1M surplus. Randall understands the revenue potential with online, and with iLaw he has set his sights on the bread-and-butter of law schools: JD courses.

Randall believes that broadband technology is mature enough to provide a high quality internet-based law school experience. Participating students log into an iLaw class in the same way that they would an online course delivered by their home law school. During a synchronous (live) class, the student will see the professor lecturing on her monitor. On the other side, the professor will see up to 6 students selected at random on her monitor, as well as an enlarged picture whenever any student chooses to chime in by speaking into her microphone. In addition, an iLaw staff member watches every minute of every synchronous class to spot any technical issues that might arise. iLaw has posted a lengthy and detailed list of best practices, many of which seek to guarantee a high degree of interactivity. For example, professors “will initiate interaction with students at least once every eight minutes” and “all students will be called on to use the microphone in a live class at least once in each course.” ...

If iLaw is going to disrupt anything it would be adjunct law teaching. When full-time faculty members are not the best teaching option, law schools have typically looked to adjunct lecturers. Because the JD distance learning market is so uncluttered, Randall sees adjuncts as his primary competition. Aside from their ability to teach in the same room as their students, adjuncts have another potential advantage over iLaw: they are often willing to work cheap. Though iLaw has a flexible pricing model, an adjunct-taught course is sometimes less expensive than the same iLaw course. Randall is not overly worried, however, because he believes his professors often bring more expertise and better teaching methods to the table. He further believes that technological advancement and economies of scale will someday give iLaw the freedom to create lower pricing options. For now, at least, seasoned experts who moonlight as law school adjuncts probably have little to fear. ...

It would be unfair to assume that iLaw’s relationship to the InfiLaw schools means that students will experience bad outcomes through its distance learning offerings. It would also be unfair to assume that any for-profit ventures in legal education will perform poorly. Even so, it would be folly to assume that structural profit motives have no bearing on law student interests at all. ...

When it comes to distance education like that offered by iLaw, however, the ABA’s accreditation standards cap the number of credits that any law student may receive at 15 (or about 1/6 of the credits required to graduate). The cap is a useful safeguard, potentially striking a balance between giving students welcome new options and keeping in check any temptation for law schools to strip in-person teaching from full-time faculty as a cost-savings measure. iLaw may be more expensive than an adjunct, but it is likely less expensive than a full-time professor.

Legal Education | Permalink


From the 13th paragraph: "iLaw is a component of the InfiLaw system. InfiLaw has received a fair share of negative press in connection with its ownership of three for-profit law schools."

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 15, 2016 8:33:56 AM

I've seen the tension the post describes in my own institution as we cut back the tenure-track faculty, but I am not convinced that law schools won't be able to address the "who will teach space law" (or whatever the special topic is) through other adjustments. For one, I think the upper level curriculum at many schools could be usefully pared back. Law schools could also cut back on the "right" of faculty to teach specialized seminars; they could require professors teaching required classes to include special mini-units that would obviate the need to offer a full-semester class on a given topic -- so, rather than feel a "need" to regularly offer a stand-alone course in conflict of laws, you could require a conflicts module to be included somewhere else in the curriculum. (This would, obviously, require law school administrators to become more comfortable telling individual faculty what to include in their courses; no more “I’m the king of my classroom” mentality). Finally, adjuncts tend to be really cheap. I believe we pay ours around $2,000 for a semester course. And we have plenty of adjuncts willing to teach for that rate. Moreover, hiring adjuncts has some side-benefits in terms of maintaining ties with alums and the local bar.

So – yes I think the original post illustrates a real problem. But I think there are other adjustment mechanisms that law schools can pursue that might make more sense than paying for a course-in-a-can.

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Feb 15, 2016 7:45:31 AM

For CLE, this is great for the SEASONED, practicing attorney who already has a feel for the form and substance of the law. However, this approach smacks of the correspondence schools like LaSalle Extension University and Blackstone Law College found on the pages of any 50-60s Popular Science or Popular Mechanics magazine. "Get your degree at home" and be a "Law Trained Man" so you to can drive an Oldsmobile with a Rocket V8.

Posted by: Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance King | Feb 15, 2016 7:11:53 AM

So, it's like an interactive online CLE? I see merit in that, but don't think it will play in a law school setting for myriad reasons.

With the practicing bar, however, well done interactive classes would be well received if priced right.

Posted by: Jojo | Feb 15, 2016 4:27:35 AM