Attending Law School Online

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by Carole Levitt, J.D., M.L.S.

This article originally appeared in The Internet Lawyer Issue 6.02 - February 2000. Used with permission. Click here to request a free sample edition of The Internet Lawyer.

Concord University School of Law is a school any mother would love. Why? Location. Location. Location.

I attended law school at night in a location considered by my mother to be the “baddest” part of town. The thought of her daughter walking out of school, onto the cold, dark streets of downtown Chicago, at 9:00 p.m.(and then taking the subway home, no less), had her sleepless in Skokie.

Actually, it wasn't the “baddest” part of town; but it was the most desolate. My law school was on the fringe of downtown, surrounded by day rate hotels, “adult” bookstores and an alley so disgusting that when the "Blue Brothers" went searching for the most disgusting alley in Chicago in which to film, you can bet my law school's won out.

But, now, out of sunny California, comes Concord, the answer to my mother's prayers: a law school located in cyberspace, where you can earn a law degree without leaving the safety and comfort of your home. The first "Virtual" law school, where download speeds are more important than LSAT scores and your hardware and software are tested as rigorously as you are, is now in its second year of existence with 300 students.

While distance learning has been around for some time, it is only recently that a few law schools have begun to make limited course offerings via the Internet. (Many of them in my home state, Illinois, strangely enough.) The University of Illinois, Loyola (Chicago) and Chicago-Kent have all made some part of their curriculum available via the Internet. These offerings, however, are just an adjunct to coursework that includes actual classes, in actual buildings on an actual campus. As the first "Virtual" law school, Concord has none of those things, with the exception of actual classes, virtually speaking. The entirety of its curriculum is offered exclusively via the Internet.

Bunny Slippers Optional

The California-based school describes itself as "the first major institution offering a Juris Doctor (JD) degree earned wholly online via state-of-the-art technology." Because Concord exists only in cyberspace, students can "attend classes" from virtually anywhere at anytime. Didn't you always want to attend class in you bunny slippers? Currently, 78% of the 300 students live outside of California, including such far-flung locations as Korea, Japan, Guam and Spain.

Aside from not having any buildings, studying law at Concord is not that different from studying law anywhere else. Concord has academic advisors, career counselors, a code of student conduct and even new student orientation. Its casebooks and other textbooks are the same as those used on numerous law campuses, but are purchased from the virtual bookstore. Students have free access to the myriad resources available on Westlaw's database (and, of course, the Internet's resources), so they even have a library, albeit one that exists in cyberspace. Written assignments and exams are similar to a traditional law school, though Concord students submit theirs online (and yes, the final exams are timed).

[Student Personal Page From Concord's Website]

 

Corporate Backing

Concord is a division of Kaplan (with whom many of us are intimate thanks to the dreaded bar exam and the Kaplan “to the rescue” bar review course). Kaplan has a 60-year track record in education and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the $2.1 billion dollar in revenues (in 1998) Washington Post Company. I'd say Concord has some serious financial backing. And speaking of serious, they have a serious group of students. 40% of Concord students (average age 40 years old) already hold other graduate degrees, ranging from M.B.A.'s to M.D.'s and hold responsible positions, from Assistant Vice Chancellor at a state university to CEO of a public accounting firm.

For years, Dean Jack Goetz, founder of Concord, mulled over the reasons that people who wanted to attend law school never did. The usual reason was family or career responsibilities prevented them from doing so. After learning about the Internet in 1995 and viewing demonstrations of lectures placed on the Internet, he got the idea for an online law school to accommodate those people. Dean Goetz realized that its curriculum could always be available to its students if offered over the Internet, making law school accessible to anyone. Students would be able to customize their "class-time" to fit their own hectic schedules. This flexibility could also accommodate those who may not otherwise be able to attend a traditional law school due to geographic constraints or physical limitations.

However, while studying other distance learning models, he discovered that the dropout rate was 40-50%. By increasing the level of interactivity, he surmised that he could beat those odds, and sure enough, Concord has a 75% retention rate. At Concord, the "classroom" presentations are made either via audio-only Web lectures or audio/ video Web lectures, by nationally recognized faculty such as Harvard Law School Professor Arthur R. Miller (Civil Procedure), among others. While the “video professors” do not interact directly with Concord students, interactivity, the keystone to Concord's high retention rate, is insured by the following methods: (1) other faculty members lead discussion groups for an hour each week, similar to a "chat" session; (2) students can arrange to meet with professors during their "office hours" and (3) students form study groups with other students, all via the Internet.

Interactivity Wins

Concord offers two different JD degrees. Graduates of its "Juris Doctor Bar Track Program" must complete 96 semester units in four academic years. Upon completion of their coursework, these students are eligible to sit for the California Bar Exam. The three-year "Executive Juris Doctor Degree" is specifically designed for business professionals who want to earn their law degree, but have no interest in practicing law.

Graduates of this program may not sit for the California Bar Exam.

John Jascob is enrolled in the "Juris Doctor Bar Track Program". When researching where to go to law school, John took into account his need to continue working full time as a compliance analyst for Scudder Kemper Investments Inc. in Boston and his two-hour commute (each way) into work from his home in New Hampshire. A commute-free law school with flexibility, such as Concord, was a big draw. With John's heavy Internet use on the job, a law school on the Web was a comfortable fit.

The only “inflexibility” in the program is a regularly scheduled chat room meeting at 9:00 p.m.EST, every Tuesday, too late for some, but perfect for John who is just arriving home then. Though considered self-paced, in truth, Concord does set an “ideal” or “recommended” pace and if students fall too far behind, the Academic Dean will intervene (via e-mail of course) to keep students on track.

John emphasized that feedback and communication from faculty is both thorough and quick. Within seconds of transmitting his quiz answers, he receives back his graded quiz, along with explanations about the correct answers. A ten-day turnaround for feedback on written assignments is typical and he always receives quick responses from professors whenever he sends an e-mail. John feels that people are paying attention to his needs. Interactivity wins again.

Not Accredited

One of the big differences from a traditional law school is the “baby bar” that the State of California requires all Concord students to take after their first year in order to be allowed to continue into their second year. Concord students converged in Los Angeles this past October to attend a review course, take a practice exam and sit for the California “baby bar”. This is the only time that students, administrators and faculty convene outside of the “Internet Space” and spend time together “live” (at the school's facility in Westwood, just blocks away from UCLA). One of the benefits of this convergence, according to second year law student, John Jascob, was the chance to network with fellow students in person in order to form study groups for the upcoming year. Because of the time differences, the group does not meet in a chat room, but communicates via e-mail.

Because distance education programs do not meet the "residence study" requirement of the ABA, Concord is ineligible to apply for accreditation. Therefore, its graduates may not sit for the Bar Exam in any other state until, depending on reciprocity, they have passed the California Bar Exam, and/or met other requirements of the individual states. Does this concern John? Somewhat. He does ponder how he will be viewed professionally after graduating from a non-accredited school. However, noting that he'll either stay at his current job once he graduates or take the California Bar and use his law degree for something non-traditional, he acknowledges that his concerns of how the traditional profession will view him diminishes.

Over two years ago, the ABA's Accreditation Committee began to grapple with distance education and the accompanying accreditation issue, and developed “Temporary Guidelines on Distance Education” to permit ABA accredited schools to experiment with distance education. Then, just this past November, the ABA sponsored a “Distance Education Conference” and reaffirmed its temporary guidelines on distance learning, allowing schools to continue to experiment with conducting portions of courses on line. These guidelines hardly accommodate a law school like Concord, where the entire curriculum is on the Internet. Thus, none of this offers any immediate answer to Concord's accreditation issue.

In addition to the ABA's distance learning conference, CALI (The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, www.cali.org), is sponsoring its 2nd Annual “Deconstructing the Law Classroom: Workshop on Distance Learning in Law”, June 21-22. The workshop, aptly titled “GOING THE DISTANCE”, will focus on the political, cultural, marketing, accreditation and technology issues surrounding distance legal education. Perhaps CALI will be an advocate for Concord?

While Concord has carved out a new niche for itself, it does not appear that they will be alone for long. The American Lawyer's October '99 Technology Supplement AMLAW TECH reported that Florida's Nova Southeastern University Law School is planning to offer an LLM program that "will be completely online." (The ABA's guidelines are not applicable to LLM programs.)

If I had it to do all over again, attending Concord is certainly enticing. Just think. No commute. No battling the weather. The furthest I'd have to carry my HEAVY books to class would be from the dining room to my desk. And if I was called on in class to outline a brief, I could at least do it from the comfort of my own couch instead of being asked to stand in front of the class for the “Socratic attack”. And, my mother would rest easy knowing I was curled up safely at home in front of my computer.

The Concord University School of Law can be reached on the Internet at http://www.concordlawschool.com, by e-mail: info@concordlawschool.com or by phone at 800-439-4794.

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