California’s new frontier: accreditation of distance learning law schools

By Martin Pritikin

California is one of the few states to accredit law schools independently of the American Bar Association (ABA). Recently, the State Bar of California took the next big step by opening up a path to accreditation for fully online law schools. This move has the potential to dramatically impact the landscape of legal education.

The Accreditation Categories Explained

The ABA, the national accreditor for law schools, has been cautious about allowing law school classes to be delivered by distance learning technology. For a number of years, the ABA limited law schools to offering 15 credits online, about one sixth of the total. In 2018, the ABA relaxed the limit to one third, but schools must still be primarily campus-based. A handful of ABA law schools have obtained variances to offer hybrid online programs, but all of them still contain a ground-based component. There has never been a fully online ABA-accredited J.D. program.

The State Bar of California, by contrast, has long been more open to nontraditional legal education. They have been accrediting non-ABA law schools since 1937.  The idea is that non-ABA schools can reach more remote geographic regions and offer more affordable tuition, thereby increasing access to the legal profession and to legal services within the state.

In addition to state accredited law schools, California also allows for “unaccredited registered” law schools. Graduates of both categories of law schools may only sit for the California bar exam immediately upon graduation (what they can do in other jurisdictions depends on each state’s rules). And both categories of schools are subject to most of the same regulations.

The two major differences between California accredited and unaccredited law schools is that (a) the former must maintain a 5-year cumulative bar pass rate of 40%, whereas the latter do not; and (b) students at the latter must take and pass California’s First Year Law Student Exam (the “baby bar”), whereas the former do not.

California Expands Recognition of Distance Learning Law Schools

Until recently, California’s rules for state-accredited law schools only applied to fixed facility schools. If a law school operated online (such as my institution, Concord Law School) or via correspondence (which is now largely done electronically anyway), its only option was the unaccredited registered category. 

However, in June, the State Bar approved changes that would allow schools in the “distance learning” and “correspondence” categories to apply for state accreditation for the first time.  This makes California the first state to accredit fully online law schools. Unaccredited registered schools that already meet or exceed the minimum pass rate requirement for accredited schools can apply immediately.  Concord’s application, submitted in July, is currently pending.

Rationales for the Change:  How Distance Learning Stacks Up

One of the rationales for allowing accreditation of online law schools is their comparative performance on regulatory exams. If one looks at first-time pass rates over the past dozen years on the California bar exam (one of the nation’s most difficult by far), unaccredited distance learning/correspondence law schools outperformed fixed facility California-accredited schools a majority of the time, and their first-time pass rates were almost identical: 29% versus 30%. 

They outperformed unaccredited fixed facility schools 90% of the time, and more than doubled their first-time pass rates: 29% versus 14%. Similarly, distance learning law schools’ first-time pass rate on the baby bar was more than twice that of the fixed-facility schools: 35% versus 17%. If distance learning law schools can produce comparable or better results than traditional schools, it doesn’t make sense to deny the option of accreditation to them.

Another rationale is the increasing recognition that legal pedagogy can be effectively delivered online. Many traditional law schools are already “flipping their classrooms,” recording videos of lectures for students to watch on their own time so that valuable classroom time can be spent on more interactive role playing or problem solving. This philosophy underlies online learning.

Online learning itself is improving. A variety of live seminar tools have the capacity for two-way video interaction between professor and students that can facilitate Socratic dialogue.  Online classroom portals allow students to access readings, videos, quizzes, discussion boards, and interactive activities. Students can also upload essays, briefs, or other writing assignments, which professors then grade and provide feedback on through the same system.

There is also less concern that some of the more practice-oriented aspects of legal education cannot be done remotely. My school, for instance, offers electives in trial advocacy and alternative dispute resolution, among others; fields a competitive moot court team than has repeatedly won awards at competitions against brick-and-mortar schools; offers academic credit for externships; and even participates remotely in legal incubators to help graduates launch their own practices.

Then there is the fact that the practice of law itself is increasingly moving online.  Depositions can be taken remotely.  In many jurisdictions, court appearances may be made by video conference. And many clients increasingly prefer to meet remotely rather than having to travel to their attorney’s offices (or even have their attorney travel to them.)  If the practice of law can largely be done online, it becomes harder to argue the study of it cannot be.

The Future of Online Law School

With California paving the way, it is possible that other states might slowly begin to allow graduates of fully online law schools to sit for their bar exams. Perhaps the ABA itself might even one day change its accreditation standards to allow for 100% online law schools.

The benefits of doing so could be numerous. Online law schools tend to have lower overhead and so lower tuition that traditional schools. They provide flexibility and expand access to those who, due to work or family responsibilities, geography, military service, or physical impairments, could not attend a traditional law school, even in a part-time evening program.

However, one shouldn’t hold their breath. Concord Law School began in 1998 as the nation’s first fully online law school.  If you had asked its founders then if online law schools would be eligible for accreditation nationally in 20 years, they would have undoubtedly said yes. We can only hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for full recognition of the power of technology to transform legal education for the good.


Martin Pritikin is Dean and Vice President of Concord Law School at Purdue University Global.  He can be reached at martin.pritikin@purdueglobal.edu


 

 


 

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