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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Online JDs and legal education: might law schools disrupt themselves?

I confess I'm not a particular fan of the term "disruption" as used today, which seems to float everywhere by everyone who seeks to impress an audience when discussing technology (or, perhaps, when pitching it to investors or buyers). I use the term here some deliberate irony. Online legal education is growing, primary among master's degrees. But a recent proposal from the American Bar Association would offer greater opportunities for some online educational components in the traditional JD program. The Council moved ahead with plans to permit up to one-third of credits, and up to 10 credits in the first year, offered online.

So, with the advent and expansion of online legal education, might law schools actually disrupt... themselves? I thought I'd muse about what that might look like.

Typically, "disruption" is the idea of a new player dramatically changing how an existing enterprise operates: Netflix to home movies and cable, Uber to taxis, and so on.

Law schools are understandably clamoring for outlets to earn revenue. The dramatic spike in innovative non-JD degree offerings from law schools is a testament to that. (The value proposition of these degrees remains deeply underexamined.) Some of these are online degrees.

But the JD has remained a largely brick-and-mortar, in-person experience. Schools have done some things to innovate in this area, including broadening externship opportunities and field placements. They have even recently permitted students to receive academic credit for paid externships.

The recent innovation has been led by schools like Syracuse proposing a mostly-online JD, and Mitchell|Hamline (or its predecessor) has offered one for some time.

But existing schools would be building on infrastructure that is decidedly not optimized for online legal education. And they risk demonstrating how their costly existing model is--perhaps undermining their own JD programs in the process. That is, if students are attracted to a significant component of the JD online, what happens to the much more expensive in-person JD experience?

The online JD has significant cost advantages for schools (that, presumably, will offer the program at the same price as in-person courses). Once an asynchronous course in contracts or torts is recorded, it rarely has to be updated or altered. And once the course is "built," it becomes fairly easy to teach repeatedly.

To the extent there are such asynchronous course offers or lecture-based presentations, what's the purpose of that "old-fashioned" law school experience--showing up, sitting in classes, costly enterprises?

Of course, I think there's value in the Socratic method (requiring interactive Q&A), and occasionally small group discussions, and other live and interactive components. Online JDs would eschew all these elements--or, at least, convert them into online experiences when offered in synchronous courses.

It might be that some schools will survive by converting their models into online ones, with dramatically lower overhead and greater ability to scale. That is, as they vie for enrollment, online components might be a way of attracting a new cohort of students.

This isn't to say that online JDs are good or bad. It's simply to indicate they're different--in particular, cheaper for law schools to operate in the long run. And if they're cheaper, what might that do to legal education?

One is the price might drop for legal education, but that seems highly unlikely--recall, schools are built on the brick-and-mortar experience, and they're not winding down those high-priced operations anytime soon.

It might "normalize," in a way, the online JD experience, to the extent that matters to prospective law students. And that might pressure many other law schools to follow suit.

It might also incentive new law schools--built on a lower cost, lower tuition model--to pop up and perhaps undercut existing law schools. That is, law schools might disrupt themselves by creating partly online JDs, making them perfectly ordinary for prospective students, and incentivizing new schools to undercut them in price in the future.

Then again, we might see the signaling function of attending a brick-and-mortar institutions, or at least the institutions that have been around for a long time. Perhaps we'll see a strata of separation between those with the luxury of a costly in-person JD degree (with all the benefits of three years in a social setting physically with other students), and perhaps the future legal services market might reflect that.

It's worth emphasizing perhaps I'm overreading this. It's only a partially-online JD component; it requires school buy-in; it may be that for students externing or studying abroad or moving to a city to work and complete classes in their final year, that these online JD elements are simply convenient devices for schools. And online degree-seekers are recruited mostly locally, anyway; spend a few minutes reading SEC filings with online education companies to see why they develop relationships with so many geographically different universities.

I've offered enough (rampant) speculation about the potential future impact of online components of a JD. But all that is to say that the future impact of online JDs, even as components of a mostly in-person experience, turns mostly on what law schools do with them. If they supplement existing programs, it may have a very modest impact; if they seek to replace existing programs and attract new cohorts of students, they might dramatically alter the landscape of legal education in the next 30 years.

 

Posted by Derek Muller on May 22, 2018 at 11:58 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

Agreed. Online ed done correctly with synchronous classes both uses the Socratic method and can be just as time consuming as live classes. There should also be grading throughout the semester, unlike most elite law classes.

Posted by: Profanon | May 24, 2018 3:03:57 AM

Have you ever taught in an online program? One does not simply record a lecture and hit the "play" button for subsequent offerings of the course. I have been teaching graduate education for over 15 years (in both business and law curricula) in both residential and distributed learning environments. There are many ways to offer non-residential education and none of the decent ones look like what you fear.

Further, you seem to fear that law schools that offer alternative programs will somehow erode their lucrative financial base. When the concern for funding streams trumps the concern for the quality and accessibility of education and the needs of students, your priorities have tragically inverted to favor the institution over its mission.

Posted by: Phil | May 23, 2018 6:20:50 PM

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