William Mitchell Goes Online — Is This the Future of Legal Education?

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Starting in 2015, William Mitchell College of Law will begin offering a hybrid curriculum that involves online classes punctuated by intense classroom time. This pretty much puts William Mitchell on the cutting edge of legal education.

The History of (the Lack of) Innovation in Legal Education

In October, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education released its draft report and recommendation. In the report (pdf), the task force urged the ABA to encourage law schools to innovate and make better use of technology in education. William Mitchell’s Dean Eric Janus observed that most legal education happens more or less the same as it always has: 50-minute blocks of time, three times a week, with students trapped in a classroom.

“The ABA has been a little conservative over the years in terms of its standards and allowing for innovation.” —Dean Eric Janus

Maybe that’s because innovation is discouraged in the legal academe, says Sara Glassmeyer, CALI’s Director of Community Development (though she was not speaking on behalf of CALI). Glassmeyer said that one of her former law students went to an American Association of Law Schools (AALS) Workshop for New Law Teachers, where he was explicitly discouraged from trying anything new. She said many professors even use the same books they were taught from. So, either law schools are not very open to trying to new things, or they aren’t very open about the new things they are trying. Glassmeyer said her attempts to assemble a list of innovative law school programs has been an exercise in frustration.

There are some law schools out there innovating. I have written about Case Western’s “Client-Ready” Practical Skills Program and the similar program offered by Washingon & Lee. And Glassmeyer pointed out that some unaccredited law schools are handing out online law degrees. But William Mitchell is definitely out front not only for seeking a variance from the ABA that will allow it to deliver about half of its curriculum online, but along with Case Western and Washington & Lee, for talking about it.

William Mitchell’s Variance and its New Curriculum

“What’s really exciting is that the ABA has now undertaken a program of fostering innovation in legal education.” —Dean Eric Janus

Ordinarily, the ABA standards (pdf) require two-thirds of the law-school curriculum to take place in a classroom. Only twelve credits may include “distance education” classes, which are defined as courses in which more than one-third the instruction happens outside the classroom. William Mitchell’s variance — apparently the first “innovation-related” variance granted by the ABA — raises that threshold to half, so that every class can include more distance education (which includes online learning), and allows the school to include distance education in the first year.

The new, four-year curriculum, which will be offered as an alternative to its existing part-time and full-time programs, will embrace e-learning and make the most of classroom time. The program will not be fully-online, but it will involve a lot of e-learning. Most of each semester will be spent learning through a combination of digital learning tools, such as web-based lectures, chat rooms, discussion boards, flipped classrooms, and more. (For example, in a trial practice class, students might record their performance and upload their video for critique.)

Classroom time will be concentrated in short, intense bursts devoted to skills training rather than lectures. The first and third semesters will launch with preparatory work alongside faculty, while each semester will end with a one-week, 56-hour “capstone” on campus. This will involve simulation related to the subject taught during the preceding semester. The program will also include externships during the fourth and last semesters, to give students real-world lawyering experience.

The goal, says Dean Eric Janus, is to “think much more creatively about how to get students to become expert practitioners.” He says the program’s focus is on enabling people to attend law school who cannot afford to move close to campus for three years, or who have work or family commitments that make it inconvenient or impossible to be on campus for a traditional full-time (or even part-time) schedule. Janus says William Mitchell is not lowering its standards for students interested in the program, and it is not interested in drastically increasing the size of its student body.

The Future of Legal Education

William Mitchell’s new law degree program does not launch until 2015, so it will be some time before we know whether it has been a success, by any measure. But just by moving foward with what looks like a pretty radical transformation of the law-school curriculum, it seems sure to make waves.

Will other schools follow suit? Keep in mind that William Mitchell is certainly no diploma mill innovating out of desperation. It is a 113-year-old law school with a strong local reputation that can boast a former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice (Warren Burger) among its graduates. US News ranks William Mitchell in its first tier.

I think we will see more law schools seeking variances along the same lines between now and 2015. I doubt William Mitchell’s program will stand alone by the time it welcomes its first new students. And if the program is a success, you can bet more first-tier law schools will follow suit.

Glassmeyer may be right that the legal academe has stifled education, but with applications dropping, many law schools in the red, and law jobs in short supply, it looks like more and more law school deans and professors are going to be willing to try something new, anyway. For the next few years, at least, it seems like a good bet that online learning tools will play a big part in the drive to innovate.

Update: Elie Mystal points out at Above the Law that tuition for the new program won’t initially be discounted. Dean Janus did tell me that he hopes the program will eventually carry a lower price tag, but he said there is nothing particularly low-cost about setting it up.

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  • Rgranat

    Stepphanie Kimbro and myself recently started a new Center for Law Practice Technology at Florida Coastal School of Law to offer a a distant-learning based Certificate in Law Practice Technology and Management for law students nationwide and internationally. See: http://www.digital-lawyer.com. The first courses launch in January 2014. It is a challenge to create distant learning courses that work well as educational experiences as we are learning, but the distant learning model works if you want to recruit a faculty with national reputations in this field.

  • http://www.danmillerlawoffice.com/ Daniel C. Miller Attorney

    I think it is important to evolve with technology. What good are we if we can’t keep up with innovative education practices of today? “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” New innovative ways of learning, teaching and practicing law can open the door to new possibilities that we never dreamed of.

  • Aetyvero

    Online degree is really common nowadays and it gives the same output as what a students can get when they go to school. They really say that it would be the next education today.