100% Online Legal Education: Insights By a Forerunner
One of the key characteristics of this generation is that we are digital natives. This expression is derived from the 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow. It's a surreal piece of writing that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of the Internet community, and it describes those who became familiar with digital technology—especially the Internet, instant messaging, and what is now social media—during their childhood. This is in opposition to digital immigrants, as Barlow somewhat pejoratively named older generations.
Now that I'm enjoying my new label, I begin to make sense of it: how could I have ignored it before? Never mind. Millennial I am, natively digital is my brain.
I was recently solicited by a prospective student asking for feedback on the school and my experience as an online law student. This article is aimed at those who, just like that student, want to know more about how it works, why they should (or should not) make the same choice, and my perception of the pros and cons.
One disclaimer, though: this is only a feedback based on my own experience and what worked for me may not work for you. You should make your own opinion and make the decision by yourself.
The first aspect to focus on is the adequacy between yourself (your personality) and studying online.
It's essential to understand that law school is a massive undertaking: it's not a project one can take lightly and deal with from 5pm to 6pm a couple of days each week. Neither is it something that can be dealt with by studying 60 or 70 hours per week the first year and waiting for the piece of paper in the mail three years later: it doesn't work like this.
In an online law school, just as in any other law school, the pace of work is brutal. I remember estimations of about 20 to 25 hours per week mentioned in the first presentation I read about the school. That seemed high but still manageable. Looking backwards, it's quite accurate but you should expect to give a bit more of yourself in, if you're aiming at honors on graduation day.
One main benefit of online studies is flexibility: while the pace of work is brutal, it's up to you how you spread it over time (within reasonable constraints imposed by the school, of course). In my class, I believe almost all of us had full time job on top of our studies and some had kids to care for. Studying online allowed many of us to pursue a career we would have probably never had a chance to pursue otherwise.
Long-Term Self-Motivation & Discipline
The commitment is a long-term one: a full J.D. at Concord Law School is a 4-year program (and I believe it's the same in other online law schools). That means running a marathon, not a sprint. Giving the best of yourself over the years, again and again, can be quite exhausting! But it's worth it, if you believe you have the strength to keep motivating yourself.
Even with the support of live classes or video lectures, chats and forums, study groups with other students, and so forth, distance learning requires discipline. Students must set apart enough time each day and week to ensure that they can progress in their studies, that they read the required material, and submit mandatory assignments in time. The school may bring you some structure but it's up to you to make use of it.
But let's face it: just like not everyone thrive in starting their own business (because many people need the structure regular employment brings), online learning is not for everyone. Some students may need the regular brick and mortar school, with fixed-hours and in-person interaction with fellow students and faculty. There's no good choice or bad choice: it depends on who you are and how you learn and motivate yourself.
Knowing Your Career Plan
Another key concern is the adequacy between your professional project (or career plan) and the qualification online studies can lead to.
Law School Accreditation
Law schools in the United States are usually accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Most state bars rely on this ABA accreditation to recognize the standards of legal education, nationwide: no matter where your ABA-accredited law school was in the U.S., your J.D. most probably entitle you sitting the bar in any U.S. state.
Bad news: folks at the ABA tend to be of ante-millennial generations and not exactly in the digital native group. Therefore, no school offering only full-online legal education has ever been accredited to this date! Things are changing at a very fast pace with the COVID-19 pandemic and even the ABA standards for law school accreditation reflect this change (see Standard 306), so one can hope legal education to enter the twenty-first century only a couple of decades late.
Good news: as an exception to the unwritten rule that state bars delegate their power to accredit law schools to the ABA, California maintains its own standards and accredited law schools list. And, even though until August 2020, online law schools could only be "registered unaccredited distance learning" schools, the State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners accredited its first three online law schools this month.
For law schools and their alumni, being accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners is a recognition of the quality of the faculty, the curriculum, and ultimately, the degree awarded.
For students, accreditation by the Committee means that being admitted in 2L by the school is enough to show competency and keep studying. Students from unaccredited schools have to take the First-Year Law Students' Examination (FYLSE, aka Baby Bar) after completing their 1L (which is both stressful and expensive, even though I must confess I keep very good memories of that experience...)
Now that online learning becomes a recognized standard (eligible to accreditation), I think it's an essential feature whether the school you're considering is accredited or not. Whatever your ultimate goal is (practicing law or not), I believe a J.D. from an accredited law school will have far more value to employers than a J.D. from an unaccredited school.
One major side-effect of the quasi-monopoly of the ABA for law school accreditation is that transferring your qualification from one state to another may prove quite challenging.
As a graduate from an ABA-accredited school, it's usually enough to register for the next bar exam session in the state where you intend to practice law. The degree itself often proves eligibility (and then it's up to your bar prep course provider to get you ready for the big show).
As a graduate from a non-ABA-accredited school (be it accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners or not), the degree is usually not enough. And then, it varies from one jurisdiction to another: some states refuse those candidates outright, while others don't recognize the degree but allow candidates to sit the exam based on their first qualification (which means taking the California bar exam first).
I also remember questions around the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) but I'm not sure where we stand in this respect (the idea was that a UBE state might allow a candidate to take the exam based on first qualification in California, and then the candidate wondered if she could transfer her UBE scores to any other UBE state to qualify, regardless of her degree being online). Not sure what the outcome was.
Strategic Career Planning
My point is that, before embarking into an online law school journey, you should ensure the adequacy of the school (and its degree) with your career plan.
Things are changing really fast at the moment, especially post-COVID. Maybe more states will allow recognition of degrees from non-ABA-accredited schools? Maybe will reciprocity (recognition of first qualification) become the new standard? Some even suggest that bar exams might well be doomed to disappear and that only the degree, maybe together with some practical experience (like the English qualification system), would be required to be licensed to practice law.
It's impossible to tell how things will move over the next decade but there will be changes, for sure. And my bet is that it will go in the right direction for graduates of online law schools.
However, it may prove an expensive bet and a chance you may not want to take: you should consider whether the state where you intend to practice law would recognize your degree or, at least, a first qualification in California.
You should also consider whether you feel ready to take the California Bar Examination, which is famous for its (very) low pass rate! Good news on this side, though: the Supreme Court announced last month that it lowers the pass score for the bar as from next exam session.
So, if you intend to practice in California only, no problem at all. But if you want to practice in another state, it might be worth checking everything first.
About Concord Law School
As the questions I received were about Concord Law School at Purdue University Global specifically, a few words about it. Please note that, apart from the fact that I graduated from this school, I have no interest whatsoever: this is not a commercial, it's my personal opinion.
Teaching & Support
From Day One in the program until the end of my fourth year of study at Concord, I always felt supported by the faculty and the school staff. As I mentioned before, online law studies are not an easy path and self-motivation is essential. But the staff at Concord keeps track of the students' progress and gets in touch with you, should you fall behind. They give guidance, motivational support, and they try to accommodate personal
circumstances if needs be.
The quality of courses is remarkable: professors often have actual "hands-on" professional experience and years of academic teaching. They ensure the subject is clear to all, they answer students' questions (both in group sessions and in one-to-one requests you may send), and they share plenty of anecdotes.
For each subject, there are essentially four components:
- Reading assignments (a lot of them, as in any law school)
- Video lectures, usually giving an overview of each major topic in a subject (I loved those!)
- Quick quizzes to test understanding of the lesson
- Live sessions with the professor and the rest of the class (a bit like a Zoom meeting)
All these components together make a fantastic experience and prepare you for the finals (or mid-terms, sometimes), the structure of which depends from one subject to another but is often made of both essays and MCQs.
If I was asked about the main strength of Concord compared to what I heard about other law schools, it's their bar preparation structure. And it really begins from Day One in the school!
As mentioned before, the structure of assessments is often made of both essays and MCQs, which reflects the structure of the most important part of the bar exam. Already in the first few months of the curriculum, there's a course focused on law school methodology (how to write an essay, how to deal with MCQs, etc.) and, later in the curriculum, comes a practice-oriented course about drafting legal documents.
Interestingly, there's a whole course in 4L about bar preparation. It helps remember the basics of the first years, work on bar exam methodology, and practice, practice, practice.
A specialized bar prep course is still required but Concord starts preparing its students several months in advance, so that the regular bar prep course really looks like a revision, where the candidate has no new material to grasp.
Purdue University Global
Concord is also part of Purdue University Global, the online branch of prestigious Purdue University. It confers an added-value to Concord's J.D. compared to other online law schools. Also worth mentioning, the Purdue Alumni Association is quite enjoyable.
Access To JusticeConcord is also very active on the Access To Justice cause, in part because its model perfectly suits the challenge: with limited infrastructure costs, the school offers competitive tuition fees. An average student should incur less than $60,000 for the whole curriculum, all-inclusive (tuition fees, administrative fees, books, etc.) That results in lower debt and an ability for the junior attorney to charge more affordable fees to low-income clients (or make room in the schedule for pro bono).
To sum it up, I believe in online learning and online law school is no exception.
However, you should ensure that you have what it takes to self-motivate and discipline yourself in the long-term (4 years is not a short weekend trip!) You should also check if the degree awarded matches your career plan, in particular whether you would be eligible to take the bar in all the jurisdictions where you intend to practice law.
If you reach the conclusion that online law school is made for you, I can tell you from my personal experience that Concord Law School offers excellent legal education at a fraction of the cost of traditional ABA-accredited law schools. So... see you at the graduation ceremony in four years!