In February 2018, the American Bar Association granted a variance to Syracuse University that will allow the College of Law to launch the nation's first fully interactive online J.D. program. This program - called JDinteractive (JDi) - will combine live online class sessions, self-paced online class sessions, in-person residential courses, and applied learning experiences.
This article describes the program and its implications for the legal profession and those the profession serves. Specifically, it discusses the potential of this rigorous, yet flexible, approach to legal education to reach talented students who cannot reasonably attend a residential law school. It then explores how the approach may help increase diversity within the legal profession, produce lawyers with client-relevant experience, and expand access to justice in underserved communities.
Overview of JDinteractive
When JDi launches in January 2019, it will be the nation's first online J.D. program to combine live class sessions in equal part with interactive self-paced class sessions. The program will include three types of courses: (1) online courses, in which at least 50 percent of each course is conducted in real time; (2) residential courses conducted on campus or at satellite locations; and (3) externships, which consist of an externship placement in a legal practice setting and an accompanying online seminar.1 The 10-semester, year-round program will allow students to complete their J.D. in three-and-a-third years.
The central feature of each online course will be live class sessions. In every online class, at least 50 percent of the course will be conducted in real time, allowing faculty and students to dynamically and spontaneously engage with one another as they would in a residential classroom. These live sessions will be paired with self-paced instruction that will provide each student with the opportunity to fully engage with the material. This model represents a potential improvement over current practice in which generally only one student at a time is able to answer a faculty member's question; in an asynchronous session, all students can readily answer the question.
The JDi curriculum parallels that of the College of Law's residential program, and the two programs will use the same academic standards. Under the curricular framework developed and approved by the College of Law faculty, JDi students will be required to take all courses required of students in the residential program.2 Students will likewise be required to meet the college's writing requirement. In addition, as in the residential program, students identified as at-risk based on prior grades will be required to take the doctrinal courses of the "structured curriculum," which is a series of courses designed to provide students with a strong foundation in subjects the faculty have judged to be foundational to the practice of law.
This general structure reflects a pedagogy-first approach to program design. In designing the program, the faculty's focus was not simply on how to bring the J.D. program online, but also how to do it in a way that could be a model for 21st century legal education. For example, it was critical to the faculty to preserve the traditional strengths of the residential J.D. program, including high levels of real-time engagement between faculty and students. Hence, the faculty developed a model in which the majority of students' in-class time will be live, giving students the chance to interact in real time with faculty as they do in the residential program. At the same time, faculty members see the program as creating possibilities to improve upon traditional instruction. Many are intrigued by the potential to use the learning management system to track student performance and to use exercises embedded in asynchronous class sessions to increase the amount of formative assessment students receive.
Implications for Prospective Students and Access to Legal Education
While discussions of online legal education typically focus on issues surrounding the quality of education students receive, it is not just JDi's potential to deliver excellent legal education online that is exciting. At least equally compelling is the program's potential to increase access to high-quality legal education for talented students throughout the country, increase diversity within the legal profession, and expand the pool of well-informed lawyers for prospective clients.
By allowing students to access law school regardless of their physical location, and on a flexible schedule, the program can make a high-quality legal education available to talented students with jobs that preclude them from simultaneously attending a residential law program, and to students with family situations or dependent care challenges that make attending a residential program unrealistic.
For such students, the cost of attending law school is often far higher than the cost of tuition. The real cost of law school for such students includes costs associated with forgoing employment, uprooting a family, or moving away from critical support networks to pursue a residential degree. For some, these opportunity and personal costs make a legal education prohibitively expensive. By contrast, the JDi program brings law school within reach for these students by giving them the flexibility to pursue their J.D. in a location and at a time of day that works around their existing obligations.
Making a legal education accessible to those whose work or whose family responsibilities preclude attending a residential law program may play a part in increasing racial diversity in the legal profession. Experience at Syracuse University shows that online degree programs can impact diversity: by taking their MBA and Masters of Science in Communications degree programs online, the Whitman School of Management and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications were able to significantly increase their African American enrollment.3 This enrollment pattern appears to be attributable to program designs that make it feasible for students to earn their degrees while serving as the family breadwinner or parenting young children, which may be especially important for minority populations.
One demographic group that is especially likely to benefit from an online law degree program's combination of schedule and geographic flexibility is military service members seeking a legal education, either to further a military-connected career or to transition to civilian life. For many members of the military and their families, a successful transition to civilian life includes planning for post-service professional careers. Their geographic mobility, however, can be a substantial barrier to pursuing the education they need to make this transition. Members of the military on active duty and their families typically move every two to three years, and their assignments often require tours overseas. This aspect of military life makes the commitment to a residential J.D. degree program beyond the reach of most members of the military and their families.
By contrast, the portability of the JDi program can accommodate these students' transient base and living arrangements such that a service-based relocation will not disrupt their law school education.4 The part-time format combined with online course delivery can enable members of the military to earn their J.D. while still fulfilling their service requirements. The residential components of the program, while not insignificant, are designed to be manageable during short periods of leave from work, family, or military service.5
Implications for Prospective Clients and Access to Justice
Making legal education more accessible to students with already established careers is also consistent with graduating students who are better prepared to serve client needs. A common critique of law schools is that they produce lawyers who do not have the skills or experience needed to represent their clients. While some of this problem is pedagogical in nature, some is structural.
Current Gap Between Law Graduates and Client Needs
One structural problem is that attorneys often lack relevant non-legal work experience. Law schools typically attract young students with limited, if any, work experience in the industries to which they will later be called upon to provide counsel. However, many business clients would benefit from lawyers who understand their sector - its terminology, practice, and norms - not merely the legal rules that apply to it. This is perhaps particularly true of corporate clients. A 2016 Report from the Association of Corporate Counsel identifies a growing trend of "mission creep" for in-house legal departments.6 General counsel and chief legal officers are increasingly relied upon not just to provide specialized legal advice but also to offer input on business decisions.7 In such an environment, limited experience in the sector is a disadvantage both for counsel and for clients.
Another structural mismatch is between where lawyers live and where lawyers are needed. Much has been written about the "rural lawyer gap."8 A few headlines and news highlights illustrate the scope of this systemic problem: "Six counties in Georgia have no lawyers. Another 56 counties have 15 or fewer members of the bar" (Law.com);9 "Just 2 percent of small law practices are in rural areas, where nearly a fifth of the country lives" (The New York Times);10 and "Lawyer Shortage in Some Rural Areas Reaches Epic Proportions" (National Public Radio).11 Indeed, the need is so pressing that some states and state bar associations are putting substantial amounts of money toward subsidizing programs designed to encourage law students to move to rural areas.12
Online Education's Potential to Bridge the Gap
By making high-quality law school education available online, JDi can help address both of these structural mismatches.
First, by making law school accessible to those with established careers in a wide range of geographic locations, the JDi program makes it possible for students to earn their law degree while remaining embedded in the sector and community in which they plan to practice. By having one foot in the law and one in another field, such students are in a better position to provide clients in that field with legal representation that is informed by and sensitive to the field's dynamics and concerns.
By contrast, residential law programs are often a poor fit structurally for students with the experience that would lead to such understanding. For younger law students, attending law school typically requires them to forgo substantial other employment that would provide that experience. Conversely, older students returning to a residential program can face a number of obstacles to success, including preexisting family and community commitments, inflexible scheduling, and career services offices geared toward placing graduates without substantial work experience. Thus, it is not surprising that law school students skew young, with approximately 50 percent of law school applicants 24 years of age or younger, and 80 percent under the age of 30.13
Similarly, "night programs," which have long been touted as a way to make legal education available to working and non-traditional students, are generally only accessible to students living in a limited number of major metropolitan areas. By contrast, JDi is accessible to students regardless of whether they live in close geographic proximity to an established law school.
Second, by making law school accessible to students regardless of their location, the JDi program makes high-quality legal education available to students already embedded in communities underserved by lawyers. This geographic flexibility will be especially valuable to students with careers and families who live in rural areas where a law school is not within commuting distance. Indeed, research indicates that those living in rural areas are disproportionately likely to enroll in an online graduate program.14
By contrast, residential law programs are not well-suited to addressing this structural, geographical issue. Residential law programs are typically located in major metropolitan areas and communities in which - if only because of the law school's presence - there are an abundance of lawyers. To be sure, students can always move to, or return to, underserved communities when they graduate law school. However, even if students from marginalized communities are able to uproot themselves - and potentially their families - to earn a J.D. at a residential program, they may never return to that underserved community.15 Returning typically means graduates must uproot themselves again, leave behind connections to new people and places, and forgo cosmopolitan experiences and amenities to which they have grown accustomed.16