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COVID-19 Crisis Alters Legal Education, Admissions Process

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By James J. Barney, Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article do not represent the views of American Public University, American Public University System, its management, or employees. This blog article, written by a licensed lawyer, is intended solely for educational purposes, not to provide any legal advice or to solicit clients in any U.S. or foreign jurisdiction.

As discussed in previous articles, I have sought to blur the line between in-person and online education so as to create a hybrid future using non-credit, brief activities like participation in Model United Nations, debates, and mock trial competitions to supplement the online  academic experience. The COVID-19 crisis has transformed the educational landscape over the past year in ways that I thought would take place slowly over a generation. This transformation has had a profound impact on law schools.

In recent months, many in the media have improperly interchanged three terms, remote, online, and hybrid education causing widespread confusion.

  • Remote learning involves the recreation of an in-person lecture experience using technology like conference calls and video conferencing.
  • Online learning involves an asynchronistic or synchronistic course entirely taught and contained within an online learning platform.
  • A hybrid approach combines various features of in-person and online education to create a learning experience that merges these elements.

In recent months, the line between these three formats has been blurred. Law schools’ increased use of all three methods will become an increasingly larger part of the legal education landscape and the coronavirus crisis will have a lasting impact on both legal education and the law school admissions process.

Necessity is the Mother of Innovation 

Law schools have embraced various forms of experiential learning over the past two decades. Facing criticism that century-old case book method used by law schools did not train future attorneys, law schools have experimented with the extensive use of study abroad, internships, and clinics. For the most part, however, they have rejected efforts to experiment with online or hybrid education.

[Listen to the Podcast: The Transformative Process of Law School]

Resistance to online and hybrid education has been due in large part to the state bar examiners and the American Bar Association. For nearly a generation, these bodies have opposed efforts to expand the use of remote, online, and hybrid in legal education beyond a few credits as part of a J.D. program. To date, the ABA has not accredited any fully online J.D. program. And with the exception of California, no state allows graduates of fully online law programs to sit for its bar exam.

Despite the long opposition to expanding alternative learning platforms, several trends in the immediate pre-COVID-19 years indicated a potential softening of that long-held opposition. For example, before the COVID-19 crisis, the ABA changed its guidelines to allow ABA-accredited schools to offer an increased number of credits earned in a J.D. program through the alternative learning platforms. Additionally, several law schools, including the University of Dayton and Syracuse University, rolled out excellent hybrid J.D. programs with limited in-person education requirements. These developments in the pre-COVID-19 era hinted at a gradual hybrid future for legal education.

[Related: The Design of Online Education and Training Continues to Evolve]

The COVID-19 crisis resulted in the closure of numerous law schools nationally in the spring 2020 semester. Some law schools transitioned to a combination of remote learning and online education to finish the semester with the accrediting authorities’ reluctant blessing. The stopgap emergency measures have continued at many law schools across the country for the fall semester.

So one result of the COVID-19 crisis has been to accelerate law schools’ adoption of online, remote, and hybrid learning. In early 2020, the ABA reacted to the COVID-19 crisis by approving an emergency proposal to expand the number of credits that a student could earn via remote, online, or hybrid learning at ABA-accredited schools. Thus, the mass adoption of a combination of these learning methods by almost all law schools represents a sea-change in legal education. It will be tough to revert to the status quo ante even when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

Most importantly, in the face of student complaints and filed lawsuits, many law schools have argued that the education provided via these alternative delivery methods are similar or the equivalent to the education provided by in-person instruction. This position, advanced by many top-flight law schools, strongly undermines any claim of alleged pedagogical deficiencies or a lack of a quality education delivered via alternative learning platforms.

Educational Experimentation Benefits Working Adults and International Students  

In the post-COVID-19 era, the mass adoption of such learning platforms by many law schools will benefit underserved communities, working adults, minorities, and international students in several ways. The more robust inclusion of these underrepresented cohorts via educational experimentation that includes online, remote, and hybrid programs will enrich students’ educational experience and provide these groups with increased access to legal education.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to advise many students who are working adults and minorities. Many of them viewed legal education as unattainable because they could not quit their day jobs to attend a full-time J.D. program. While a sizeable number went on to attend evening and full-time programs at ABA-accredited law schools all across the country, many others opted not to go to law school at all, due in part to the logistics problems of attending a brick-and-mortar school.

For example, some students lived in states where they would have to quit their job, drive several hours to attend law school, or physically relocate to that law school. Commuting to and from a campus on a near-daily basis places significant burdens which together act as barriers to a legal education.

Working adults, many of whom are also minorities, first-generation students and life-long learners bring tremendous experience to the law school classroom. I have taught students from all sorts of backgrounds, including some with decades of law enforcement experience and servicemembers who fought in overseas conflicts. These students will enrich law school discussions and provide intellectual diversity if law schools develop flexible options to allow them to pursue their legal studies.

The likely emergence of hybrid J.D. programs with limited residency requirements and more affordable options will open new opportunities for these students to attend law school. And this is a win-win for both the working adults and the law schools.

Law schools that embrace educational experimentation will open new opportunities also for international students. Like working adults, international students add differing perspectives to the classroom and law school environment that enrich legal education. Due to travel restrictions that may remain in place for a prolonged period, it may become necessary for U.S. law schools to develop online or hybrid programs marketed especially to international students.

Some airline industry experts predict that international air travel will not return to 2019 levels until 2024. Restrictions on travel or the reluctance of students to travel to the United States, given the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, will deprive law schools of a valuable source of revenue.

[Related: US Airlines Hit by Economic Turbulence from COVID-19]

As a result, U.S. law schools, which risk losing massive amounts of revenue from international students, may want to launch affordable online, remote, or hybrid programs to fill the gap caused by travel restrictions. These programs, if endorsed by the appropriate accrediting authorities, would enable our law schools to compete with their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

British institutions have long offered quality, affordable, and prestigious legal education via alternative learning platforms to thousands of students a year across the globe. In the pre-COVID-19 era, several U.S. law schools attempted to develop online and hybrid programs marketed to international students with only limited success.

The failure of U.S. law schools to seriously compete in this space for nearly two decades has been due in large part to accrediting bodies not allowing graduates of such programs to sit for the bar exams.

The development of hybrid or online programs, however, would provide U.S. law schools with a potentially viable means to maintain their global reach. Most importantly, such programs would open doors to a large overseas market of practicing attorneys who want to obtain an advanced law degree from an English-speaking country.

The mass adoption of video conferencing in the COVID-19 era and the embrace of that technology by prestigious institutions as well as by accrediting institutions may bolster the credibility and viability of alternative educational platforms. That would spur more innovation and the development of a wide array of hybrid, online, and remote programs marketed to international students.

Virtual Programming Has Transformed the Law School Admissions Process

The COVID-19 crisis has also altered the legal admission process. Over the past year, U.S. law schools have embraced video conferencing in their admissions process. For example, law school admissions departments have produced a rich collection of video programming, including admissions Q&A sessions, virtual tours of the schools and law lectures.

The embrace of video conferencing creates new opportunities for both law school recruiters and potential students. Moreover, video conferencing allows both law schools and applicants to make informed decisions about the admissions process. Because of its benefits to both, video conferencing will likely remain a part of the law school admissions process even when the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

Additionally, video conferencing provides law schools with a valuable new tool. For example, video conferencing allows law schools to stay connected with the alumni and the broader legal community in the future. Even in the post-COVID-19 era, law schools will likely use video conferencing in a collection of different ways, including the production of continuing legal education and host conferences, moot court competitions, and a variety of virtual programming like virtual networking series and cocktail hours.

Law School Enrollment in COVID-19-era

Law school admissions at the beginning of the Trump presidency in 2017 experienced a small increase in enrollments, the so-called “Trump bump.”  However, over the past two years, some commentators have noted a small decrease in the number of law school applicants but increased LSAT scores and grade point averages, reflecting a smaller but more competitive admissions pool.

Also, higher LSAT scores may be partially explained by the fact that many but not all law schools now accept the Graduate Record Examination as a substitute for the LSAT, creating a smaller but more competitive pool of LSAT-takers.

The economic recession caused by the closures in response to COVID-19 will likely result in an increase in admissions applications to law schools if past admissions trends repeat. Typically, during and after past recessions including after 9/11 and the Great Recession, some portion of law school applicants sought to continue their schooling because of the weakness of the job market.  Such a strategy should not be undertaken lightly because future lawyers face a collection of mega-trends, including the increased use of artificial intelligence in the law and an oversupply of lawyers in some major United States legal markets.

Despite these megatrends that could alter the practice of law in major urban markets, the need for legal services remains robust in many underserved communities. For example, while large labor markets like New York City may face an abundance of lawyers in the coming years, there remains a severe shortage of lawyers in smaller markets like minority communities and rural areas.

Unfortunately, the need for legal services often does not translate into a living wage for many new lawyers burdened with student debt. Thus, law schools may need to adjust the pricing of any future ABA-accredited online, hybrid, and remote programs to the realities of the legal marketplace. Affordable programs will make law school accessible to potential students who have a calling to practice in underserved communities and help address their long-standing lack of access to justice.

The Decision to Attend Law School Remains a Complex One 

The COVID-19-crisis necessitates a great deal of educational experimentation. The mass-adoption of video conferencing and the creation of robust virtual programming over the past year are favorable trends in what has otherwise been a year to forget.

In the long term, these trends will likely provide underserved applicant pools to greater access to legal education in the United States. Likewise, virtual programming in the admissions process will give those who previously were unable to attend legal school admission events access to valuable information about attending law school. Moreover, teleconferencing is a useful and low-cost means for law schools to establish deeper relationships between themselves and their students, alumni, the legal community, and the broader world. These favorable trends will likely continue in the post-COVID-19 era.

Many of the developments in legal education and law school admissions sparked by the COVID-19 crisis are likely to transform legal education and law school admissions processes. The decision to go to law school, already a difficult one to make, has been further complicated by the uncertainty caused by COVID-19’s long-term impact on the economy as well as by trends that can potentially alter the legal landscape over the next few decades. Therefore, all interested law school applicants should make their decision with their eyes wide open, and only after doing due diligence and research.

About the Author: James Barney is a professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the pre-law advisor at AMU.

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