Online Law Degrees Flourish Under Tight Supervision

One year of tuition at Harvard Law School for his law degree – a law degree – is $59,550. Accommodation, insurance, books, supplies and other expenses are likely to push you closer to $90,000. Even tuition at less prestigious – but good – schools can be about $40,000 a year.

It’s no wonder, then, that online, distance, or hybrid law programs are now offered as the most accessible option for potential attorneys who can’t afford courses in person on campus.

The last law school to say it will venture a JD hybrid program is Syracuse University College of Law. From 2018, pending approval by the American Bar Association, students will take lessons online and then come to campus for one-week residential sessions. The school, which hopes that the program will help reverse the decline in enrollment, is holding the course with the company edtech 2U. The school’s recruitment for 2016 is up 14 percent from last year, but – in line with the national trend – still almost a fifth less than ten years ago.

The cost of the lessons will be the same as the standard JD program in Syracuse, but the “opportunity cost” of participation will be “significantly lower,” says Nina Kohn, associate dean for research. “Students can continue to work while completing their degree and will not have to relocate the family or leave existing support systems,” says Nina Kohn.

Syracuse will only be the second law school accredited by the ABA to offer a JD hybrid program; Mitchell Hamline School of Law launched the first year last. In 1998, the Concord Law School not accredited by ABA launched the first JD online program, and other schools not accredited by ABA soon followed.

Ken Randall
Other law schools offer fully online master programs for non-lawyers, but ABA accreditation standards mean that no more than one-third of a JD course can be delivered online, and only 15% of course work.

“U.S. legal education lies at the crossroads of the historic crisis of traditional candidates and the increase in high-quality distance education options,” says Ken Randall, who has worked as a dean at the University of Alabama School of Law 24 years.

“U.S. law schools can and must reach new and non-traditional students, whether it’s preparing them for full-time legal practice or enriching their lives and adding value to their careers in different professions. Accreditation is right to protect consumers, but regulations must advance creativity and new ways of providing quality education to different groups of students.

In the United States, the number of applicants for and enrolled in law schools entered a downward spiral in 2011. Early indicators suggest that 2016 could stop the decline, but it will not change the situation. Last month, Indiana Tech University announced that it would close its law school, with losses of $20 million, less than a year after being provisionally credited by the ABA. “The significant decline in the number of candidates for schools of law at the national level represents a long-term change in the field of legal education, not in the short term,” explained university 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 anyone else does. “Law schools that still use a pedagogy developed at Harvard almost a century and a half ago are slow to embrace changes of any kind,” says Michele Pistone, professor of law at Villanova University and co-creator of Disrupting Law School, a report distributed for the current year by the Clayton Christensen Institute.

“Many law professors look at technological change with the same enthusiasm they have for getting their teeth pulled.

But according to David Amos, associate dean of City Law School, University of London – which offers LLM (master of law) distance learning in international business law – online programs enable law schools to reach completely new markets. “It allows us to address a wider audience both geographically and in terms of student profile,” says Amos.

“Students who cannot come to this country for a visa or other reasons can now follow our courses. Likewise, students from this country who would find it difficult to attend a course in this country can now attend our courses.

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