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Dr. James J. Barney

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Now is an exciting time to be a part of the legal education landscape. Recent and long overdue developments in law schools currently provide more access to legal education to large groups of previously underserved students. 

Over the past few years, the American Bar Association (ABA), which nationally accredits law school programs, has loosened up its guidelines. Consequently, law schools now have greater flexibility regarding the delivery of legal education. In fact, law schools have developed different Juris Doctor (J.D.) options for students who want to become practicing attorneys. 

Law Schools Providing Some Experimental Programs to Students

Traditionally, law school applicants had the choice between going to law school full-time or part-time over three or four years. Now, law school students can attend a collection of experimental J.D. programs.

Their educational options include:

  • Accelerated J.D. programs that cut down the time to graduate
  • Weekend programs that allow students to work full-time during the week
  • Hybrid programs that combine in-person and remote learning
  • Fully online programs offered by ABA-accredited schools 

According to American Bar, the ABA has approved more than a dozen distance education J.D. programs in recent years. For an instructor like myself who has monitored the law school landscape and been an advocate for experimentation for decades, these recent changes in law schools’ educational options are welcome.

Even more interestingly, the ABA has hinted that it may be open to the accreditation of fully online universities, which was a non-starter a decade ago according to Reuters. Opening up accreditation to fully online schools as well as to overseas law schools in the future are possible game changers that have the potential to transform legal education.

Law Students Face Difficult Educational Choices with New Program Options

The new law school education options and formats present aspiring law students with new options but difficult educational choices. Ideally, law school applicants should carefully do their due diligence when choosing among different law schools and weigh the pros and cons of attending each program. 

For example, while many of the new programs offer students greater flexibility, law school applicants must make sure that their selected law school provides them with the complete law school experience. That complete experience including experiential learning options, networking opportunities, and the development of strong relationships with their peers and law school professors. Also, aspiring law students should remember that professional and personal goals must be aligned with their selected law school.

Law Schools Are Playing Catch-Up and Embracing Once-Rejected Ideas

Before teaching at the University, I keenly monitored educational developments in distance and online learning in Europe – especially in the United Kingdom. Nearly 20 years ago, European universities were ahead of American universities in implementing technology in education. I sought ideas for merging my legal education and my long-term goal of becoming an educator, and I looked to European educational experimentation for inspiration.

In the early 2000s, European universities experimented with distance and online learning, offering programs that required working professionals to attend only a few weeks a year, while other programs were completely done via distance educations and had no residency requirements. At the time, European business schools launched what would become known as executive MBAs.  

Influenced by these European trends, I thought there was a market for American legal education as thousands of overseas attorneys travel to the United States every year to attend brick-and-mortar law programs. In my mind, distance and online programs offered by United States law schools might fit a niche market for overseas lawyers who want to continue their legal education while not leaving their day jobs. 

However, my idea of developing a law degree, either a J.D. or LL.M., that could be marketed to overseas law students or lawyers faced a significant barrier. At the time, the ABA was opposed to accrediting any program that was either online or not based in the United States.  

Without ABA accreditation, graduates of any degree program at the time could not sit for the bar exams in most states, rendering the degree useless to most international students and lawyers who aspired to practice law in the United States. Admittedly, my idea may have been a generation ahead of the regulators, and I turned my attention to other pursuits.

Now, ideas to incorporate technology and legal education that were once rejected as unworkable nearly a generation ago have found new life in the post-COVID era. The traditional reluctance of the ABA to non-traditional formats, which was loosening in the years before COVID-19, finally collapsed in the COVID-19 era.

Almost all ABA-accredited law schools had to embrace technology to continue classes via remote learning. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent accommodations that were necessary proved to many skeptics that remote and online education was possible, resulting in the further loosening of ABA rules regarding online education.  

Related:  The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Mixed Impact on US Law Schools

Aspiring Law Students Must Still Consider Traditional Practicalities When Deciding on a Law School

Over the past decade, I have served as our University’s pre-law school advisor and helped many students work their way through the complex law school application process. I have also assisted many students in achieving their goal of attending law school.

Over the years, students from our University have attended law schools nationwide. In the past, students weighed whether to participate full-time or part-time. The new educational programs at today’s law schools raise other questions, including whether a student should attend law school via a traditional format or opt for one of the experimental formats.

While law school applicants have much more choices regarding types of law school program, they must also weigh traditional practicalities when deciding what school to attend. For example, most law students previously chose to practice law relatively close to where they attended law school. For instance, law students who studied law in the New York area would traditionally decide to practice law in that market.

With the development of several hybrid and online programs marketed to aspiring law students across the United States, aspiring law students must consider whether degrees from these law schools would help them achieve their professional goals.

As everyone’s goal in pursuing a law degree is unique, it is hard to generalize about the pros and cons of these alternative law degree programs, especially because many of these programs have yet to have a class of law students graduate from the program. Generally, most graduates of law schools want to practice law and obtain employment after graduation in the job market of their choice.

Unfortunately, aspiring law students do not have presently have access to data regarding the past success of students in the alternative programs so that they can make an informed decision. This lack of data is outside of the control of the law schools, due to the experimental nature of the alternative degree programs. As first adopters, students in these alternative programs must therefore carefully weigh the risks and rewards of attending a law school via an alternative program.

Despite the long history, alternative programs provide many potential law students with access to law school they would not otherwise be able to attend. For example, I have taught many military students over the years. The military lifestyle often prevents military students from achieving their law school aspirations, and these new programs provide opportunities that would not otherwise be available to my students.

Remember to Do Your Homework Before Making a Major Life Decision

Law school is a significant investment in time and effort, and the law school experience is academically challenging. Over the past decade, I have advised my students to reach out to law school admissions advisors and representatives. This way, they can obtain more information and make a better decision regarding which law school to attend. 

Also, aspiring law school students should do independent research into various law schools and whether a school aligns with their individual goals. Each law school has its own strengths and weaknesses, and independent research provides aspiring law school students with the information they will need to make the right choice. 

Moreover, aspiring law students should not be afraid to reach out to mentors – including their professors – to get advice and the perspectives of practicing attorneys, with one caveat. Potential law students must make sure that they are seeking out advice from people who are keenly monitoring law school admissions trends and developments, which is particularly important considering how much the law school application landscape has changed.

Related: Why Law School Applicants Should Forge Faculty Relationships

Bar Passage Rates Still Matter

The new law school options provide law school applicants, including non-traditional, minority and foreign students, with greater access to a good education. However, law school applicants must consider the bar passage rates of their desired law school as well as the quality of the programs.

The decision to attend law school is complex. Law school requires a significant investment in time, resources, and effort, and students must decide if they genuinely want to become an attorney before starting a degree program.

Many law students eventually decide that they do not want to practice law actively, or they want to use their legal training and education to pursue a law-related profession. But law school, at its core, serves to provide students with the training and experience necessary to pass a bar exam and practice law.

So while there are many careers that law school graduates can pursue, most law school graduates will follow a traditional path and go on to practice law. To do so, they need to pass a bar exam in their state.

Given the importance of passing the bar exam, law school applicants must focus on choosing a law school that best positions them to attain the knowledge to pass a bar exam in their desired state.

While law schools have historical bar passage rates for their traditional programs, information on the bar passage rates for the newer options like accelerated, hybrid and online programs still needs to be well established. 

The Law School Experience Is More Than the Classroom

Law school is more than a series of lectures. Instead, becoming an attorney is a process that requires students to obtain practical experience via several experiential learning options.

For example, law schools offer learning experiences such as internships, clinics, moot court, and mock trial teams. Students can also seek part-time employment to supplement their classroom instruction. Ideally, law school applicants who want to use the newer educational options offered by law schools must ensure they have access to the full range of experiential learning options offered to their traditional law school counterparts.

Law Schools Provide Students with the Ability to Create a Professional Network

Law school applicants who want to attend a non-traditional program must weigh whether they will have the time and opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with their peers and professors. For example, law school students in brick-and-mortar schools often develop close, long-term relationships with their peers, forged by studying for law school exams and commiserating over the stresses of law school and the job search.

Moreover, many law school students develop relationships with their professors, who provide students with advice and guidance during law school. For instance, my professors at law school helped me obtain several clerkships, which helped to further increase my experience and legal knowledge.

Navigating the Changed Law School Application Landscape Requires Informed Decision-Making

The ABA has embraced experimentation, which is long overdue by a generation. In the past, the failure of law schools to embrace technology in legal education negatively impacted many underserved communities, including non-traditional students and working adults.

Over the past five years, more than a dozen law schools have received ABA approval to launch alternative programs. These law schools are now experimenting with different programs marketed to domestic law students beyond the traditional full-time and part-time options.

The new law programs address the needs of many communities, providing more options and access. Thankfully, they are leveling the playing field for students. While certain educational formats may offer the flexibility that is desirable to many law students, flexibility should be viewed as merely one factor in the complex decision of choosing the right law school.

As you research law schools, I and other professors at our University are available to help you. At the end of the day, each student must make the law school decision that is right for their individual life goals and situation, and this choice must make after all available options have been carefully considered.