preLaw - Spring 2017 - 11
How distance learning is
changing legal education
Online programs have more than doubled in the past 3 years, and growth is
expected to accelerate as current programs prove themselves.
BY JACK CRITTENDEN
Mitchell Hamline School of Law is halfway
through a bold test that if successful, should
legitimize online learning in legal education
and bring about unprecedented growth.
The American Bar Association (ABA)
granted the private, independent school
in St. Paul, Minn., a variance, allowing it
to run the first hybrid online/in-class J.D.
The four-year program,
which started in January 2015,
brings students to campus
for one week at the start of
each semester and compresses
simulation training and other
hands-on skills into a 56-hour
marathon. The students then
take classes online for the rest
of the semester.
The program has been an
unqualified success for the law
school, as applications and
enrollment have far exceeded
"This [program] is really
not that unique," said Greg
Duhl, associate dean for strategic initiatives at Mitchell
Hamline. "It has been happening in higher education
for decades. It is just that legal
education is conservative and
But that is changing, and at a rapid pace.
Law schools offer 60 online LL.M. programs, a number that has more than doubled in the past three years. Participating
institutions include such respected schools
as New York University School of Law,
Northwestern University Pritzker School
of Law and The University of Alabama
School of Law. Several other schools offer
certificate programs online for lawyers and
non-lawyers, as well as specialty summer
programs with online classes, which are
open to their students and law students
from other schools.
But perhaps the biggest change in the
past few years is the number of online
courses offered to traditional J.D. students.
A few years ago, the ABA changed its rules,
allowing J.D. candidates to take 15 credit
hours through online learning, up from 12
credits. At some schools, including Mitchell
Hamline, more than half of the student
body is taking at least one online course.
And most experts predict those numbers will grow exponentially if and when
the ABA further eases its rules on online
education. That is expected to happen after
Mitchell Hamline's first hybrid class takes
the bar exam in 2019.
"The bellwether will be bar pass rates
for [Mitchell Hamline's] online students,"
said Ken Randall, CEO and president of
iLawVentures and a former chair of the
ABA's technology committee. "I think we
will see them perform equally as well. That
is what we see in other disciplines and licensing exams."
But until then, there is plenty
of growth opportunity for online
Randall's company, which
provides online course content
for law schools, announced
a partnership this past summer with Wolters Kluwer Legal
Education. Most of the company's 30 law school clients use the
service to include courses in their
curricula that they would otherwise not be able to offer.
" We help schools with
course coverage," said Randall,
who helped start one of the first
online LL.M. programs when
he was dean at University of
Alabama. "If you are in a smaller
metropolitan region and want
to teach international law courses, such as international human
rights, we help deliver that curriculum."
iLawVentures aims to hire the best
teachers and create online courses that are
then offered to its law school clients. Each
school decides which course or courses it
wants to offer to students. If selected, the
faculty member becomes an adjunct professor at that school, and he or she abides by
the school's policies, in order to be in compliance with ABA rules.