The Audacity to Innovate: Pioneering an Online J.D. Program

Responding to the challenges they've faced, law schools are moving cautiously -- and boldly -- into digital education, writes Christopher P. Chapman.

June 13, 2018
 

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

-- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Despite a latent concern that my brain is filled with too many quotes from literature and film that often push their way into my consciousness to frame an issue, every now and again one seems particularly apt. The negative consequences of apathy, inertia and aimlessness have affected individuals, organizations and industries alike throughout history.

Our nation’s law schools are not exempt. Over the last decade, legal education has endured a torrent of challenges, criticism and self-doubt over its value and purpose. An AccessLex Institute-commissioned report by Gallup illuminated increasingly negative perceptions around law school cost and value, particularly among more recent law graduates.

The good news for aspiring lawyers and our society is that many law schools have taken the initiative to evolve their curriculum to meet tomorrow’s needs, improve teaching and student services, and increase access. Syracuse University College of Law’s implementation of the nation’s first live, online J.D. program stands out for its audacity and its far-reaching potential to dramatically improve access and affordability. And recently, the University of Dayton School of Law announced that it too plans to offer a program that blends online and on-campus instruction beginning in August 2019.

One of the immediate advantages of hybrid and online programs is the flexibility they allow, as flexibility begets access. Syracuse or Dayton may now become an option for a talented student for whom the opportunity and other costs of a residential program would have been too high even to consider. And better access to legal education provides a societal benefit as well. It has the potential to increase the distribution of lawyers across the country and into areas that are outside traditional job centers and without proximity to law schools. And this, in turn, could lead to increased access to justice.

Access to legal education is also improved by the fact that technology always tends to lower the cost of delivery of a service over time. Regardless of what Syracuse, Dayton or any other law school may ultimately decide with respect to pricing, hybrid and online programs will unlock the potential for others to replicate its success and offer a lower-cost legal education.

It must also be noted that while Syracuse, and now Dayton, should get due credit for the risk they are taking, the ABA Council should be applauded as well for its critical role in approving a variance to its accreditation standards for these fully interactive online programs. Though often criticized for restricting innovation in legal education through its incremental approach, the ABA in these variances has shown a willingness to embrace alternative delivery models that are proven to work.

In 2014, Mitchell Hamline School of Law received a variance that allowed it to create a hybrid part-time J.D. program in which most of the instruction was online. AccessLex Institute funded an interim evaluation of that program, and results demonstrated that students in the hybrid program were achieving learning outcomes comparable to residential students. I suspect that this positive experience supported the ABA’s consideration of the programs at Syracuse and Dayton.

Performance-related standards are undoubtedly paramount to the credibility and sustainability of legal education, but not all law schools should look the same. A natural and reasonable concern is whether students in an online program will get the personal and individual attention it takes to succeed at the same or better rates as students in that school’s campus-based program. But rather than fear the virtual aspect of teacher-student engagement, these law schools have grasped an incredible opportunity to chart a course for how 21st-century lawyers (and all of us) interact with technology -- and subsequently with each other via that technology.

Time will tell how successful Syracuse and Dayton will be in achieving their goals and objectives with their new programs. But this type of innovation and experimentation is exactly how law schools can work to positively impact their real and perceived value while maintaining the rigor and experience upon which they have staked their reputation.

So, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase Hemingway, “How did you achieve success, Syracuse and Dayton?” “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

I’m rooting for them.

Bio

Christopher Chapman is CEO and president of AccessLex Institute, a research organization focused on legal education.

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