Law schools have been far behind most other academic disciplines in embracing online education. That is why a recent proposal by the American Bar Association (ABA) to increase the number of credits that law schools may offer online has garnered attention. In reality, this proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Current ABA Standard 306 limits law schools to offering no more than 15 credits (out of a typical 86 to 90 total) to be taught online. It also prevents law students from taking any online credits until they have completed their first year.
The proposed revised Standard 306 would allow law schools to offer up to one-third of their credits—about 28 to 30—to be offered online, effectively doubling the current limit. It would also allow up to 10 credits of online courses within the first year. The Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar approved the revision in May, and it may go to the ABA House of Delegates for concurrence as early as August.
The greater recognition by the ABA of the value of online education is a welcome development. But a default rule that caps online learning to one-third law of the total is still an excessive and unnecessary restraint on innovation.
Minimum vs. maximum
Most of the ABA’s programmatic requirements are in the form of minimums: 83 total credits, 15 hours of instruction per credit, six units of experiential learning, and so on. The cap on online learning is one of the few ABA restrictions that sets a ceiling on what a law school can offer.
The implicit premise of this ceiling is that online learning is inferior to classroom-based learning, or is at least problematic in some way, such that there must be limits placed on its use to ensure adequate quality of instruction. But this is, or at least should be, a pedagogical choice that schools or professors make, just as they have significant flexibility in course content and teaching methods.
Ken Randall, who served as the dean of a highly ranked ABA law school for two decades, made a similar point recently in Inside Higher Ed: “[I]f faculties are free mostly to teach the subjects they want and how they teach them, why can’t they decide on their platform of delivery? Just as they can decide whether a theater-style large lecture hall is or isn’t a good way to connect with face-to-face students, they should be able to decide whether to flip their classrooms toward technology-based learning.”
In assessing whether online learning is inferior, my own experience serves as a sort of natural experiment, since I was a professor and administrator at an ABA school for 12 years before becoming the dean of a fully online law school. We recently revised our entire required curriculum, and in doing so, sought to integrate best practices in legal education with the latest in adult learning and distance-learning research.
Why I believe in online learning
Live web-based seminar platform allows a give-and-take that resembles the Socratic method used in traditional law classes. Because students must regularly contribute to discussion boards between seminars, professors may actually have more opportunities to evaluate the quantity and quality of student participation than in a brick-and-mortar classroom.
In every course, students engage with the documents or activities that lawyers use in practice. In my Evidence course, for example, they not only write several evidentiary motions, they argue them orally in videoconference appointments with me serving as the judge.
Our required curriculum includes at least as many legal writing and legal ethics units as the ABA and covers all the subjects tested on the California Bar Exam. Whereas the ABA mandates at least six units of experiential learning, our required curriculum includes 15 units.
Online programs can not only mimic the in-person format; they can take advantage of the technology. In addition to individualized feedback from professors on graded assignments, students can get immediate feedback on quizzes or interactive learning activities and can even get differentiated feedback, depending on their answers. As David Amos, associate dean at the City Law School, University of London, which offers an online LLM (master of law) in international business law, told the Financial Times: “You’re able to monitor whether a student has accessed and engaged with the material. You can also check their progress by quizzes, tests, and so on. This allows us to spot areas of concern and address them.”
Other features that people might assume can exist only in a brick-and-mortar law school include externship opportunities (which some students work on remotely), an incubator to help graduates launch their own solo practices, and a moot court team that has won brief writing and oral advocacy awards in competitions against ABA law schools.
In a national survey, our students responded more favorably on a variety of metrics than students in traditional schools, including training in critical thinking, legal research, and writing; participation in class and quality of relationships with professors; and overall satisfaction.
There is no reason why a law school that is primarily or even entirely online cannot provide the level of quality that the ABA wants. This is particularly important because, whereas the average program tuition at ABA law schools is more than $127,000, our online school costs less than $48,000. Affordable legal education promotes affordable legal services—a win-win for law students and the clients they would serve.
We can only hope that the ABA will further relax its standards. Perhaps one day soon, we will look back at a time when the idea of allowing up to a third of credits to be offered online was considered “radical”… and laugh.