AccessLex & Gallup, Law School in a Pandemic: Student Perspectives on Distance Learning and Lessons for the Future:
In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced law schools across the U.S. to shift their programs completely online. Prior to the pandemic, no American Bar Association-accredited law school offered a fully online degree program, and fewer than ten offered hybrid programs. As a result, even if their universities had the infrastructure to support the migration of their courses to an online platform, faculty may not have had the experience needed to make such a rapid transition. Moreover, few students had any exposure to — let alone a preference for — an online legal education.
To quantify the impact of these challenges on law students' education, AccessLex partnered with Gallup to produce Law School in a Pandemic: Student Perspectives on Distance Learning and Lessons for the Future, a nationally representative study of currently-enrolled U.S. law students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research finds that while law students report a strong preference for in-person education, there are several indications that this unprecedented period of emergency remote teaching may provide a useful foundation for future distance learning J.D. programs.
Less Than Half of Online J.D. Students Say Program Was Good or Excellent
The format of the courses had a noticeable impact on how students viewed the quality of their program. Just under half (48%) of students who learned mostly or completely online in spring 2021 rated their J.D. program as "good" or "excellent." In contrast, 73% of students who were learning mostly or completely in person said the same.
While students attending primarily in person were more positive than online students about the quality of their program, the data suggest the pre-pandemic experiences of 2L and 3L students may have influenced their perceptions of the overall quality of their program.
First-year students (1L) without any prior in-person J.D. experience to compare it with were noticeably more positive about their programs during the pandemic. This is irrespective of their course format as 64% of 1L students said their J.D. program during the pandemic was good or excellent, compared with 43% of 2L and 3L students who said the same.
When asked to rate the quality of their J.D. program, students who were enrolled in online courses were significantly less positive about their experience. They were also less confident that their program is preparing them for postgraduation success: 34% of mostly online students strongly agreed that they believed they would graduate with the skills they needed to succeed in their chosen career path, compared with 47% of mostly in-person students.
However, the underlying experience indicates that many of the components of an in-person law school experience are replicable in an online environment — even one forced by a global pandemic. Distance learning students reported the teaching methods used in their courses were similar to those of traditional law courses and were about equally as engaging as an in-person experience, and these students were at least as likely to be involved in extracurricular or co-curricular activities as those who were in person. And without a pre-pandemic experience to compare it against, nearly two-thirds of 1L students believed the education they received was excellent or good.
Though a large satisfaction gap remained in Spring 2021 between online and in-person students, the first year of significant online law school instruction has given universities the opportunity to assess the positive outcomes of this forced experiment and to identify the law school experiences that did not seem to translate to the online classroom. As vaccinations allow more students to return to campuses in the fall, it remains to be seen whether law schools will retain any aspects of the distance learning curriculum or even explore permanent online programs that have not been previously offered.