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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Uncertain Landscape For Online Legal Education

Inside Higher Ed, The Uncertain Landscape for Online Legal Education:

In late 2013, the American Bar Association gave a private nonprofit law school in Minnesota permission to create a part-time Juris Doctor program that blended online courses heavily with face-to-face instruction. The question Inside Higher Ed posed in our article at the time was “whether it marks an experiment or a turning point for how legal education is delivered in the U.S.”

More than four years later, the answer remains unclear, with a mixed record for law schools seeking approval to create programs with significant online presences and the ABA apparently contemplating a loosening of its standards.

The Minnesota law school, now called Mitchell Hamline School of Law, just turned out its first two graduates this month. And a handful of other law schools, including those at Seton Hall University, Loyola University Chicago and Touro University, have recently introduced part-time programs that allow students to take up to 15 credits online, the maximum now allowed by the American Bar Association.

According to the ABA's website, five other law schools have since 2013 sought an exemption from the accreditor's limitations on the use of distance education in J.D. programs. ... Two other law schools also had their petitions for "variances" (as the ABA calls them) rejected, according to ABA materials: Rutgers University School of Law and Vermont School of Law.

But in November the law school accreditor (in an under-the-radar decision that went mostly unreported) approved Southwestern Law School's request for a waiver similar to Mitchell Hamline's. Southwestern, which is working with a technology company called Blueprint Learning Systems, expects to get its program up and running next year. (The University of Dayton School of Law has also requested a variance, according to the ABA site.)

The mixed results about the fates of law schools seeking to expand their online footprints left some legal education observers uncertain about the prospects for online and other innovations in legal education. ...

Catherine L. Carpenter, academic dean of Southwestern Law's fledgling hybrid-online program and the Hon. Arleigh M. Woods and William T. Woods Professor of Law there, said school officials were excited about becoming just the second program to win ABA approval for a true hybrid J.D. program — and believe their approach has the potential to "be good not only for us, but for legal education." ... "There's a feeling in legal education that one needs to be in the classroom to repeat the Socratic dialogue, but we've come to appreciate — and I think the [ABA] council has as well — that this isn't necessarily true," Carpenter said. "If I'm a professor in a class of 50 or 75, and I create a Socratic dialogue with one student, 49 others pay attention, or not. In online education, if done really well, you can be posing [problems] to all 50 students, and nobody is a passive audience member. Everybody's involved." ...

Paul L. Caron, Duane and Kelly Roberts Dean of Pepperdine University School of Law and publisher and editor of the TaxProf blog, said that with many law schools facing enrollment difficulties and lots of interest in diversifying student bodies, he "could see [the ABA] loosening the reins a bit on the traditional model" of delivery. But he said any adjustments would carefully balance such innovation with concerns about quality.

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