William Mitchell gets ABA approval to offer first hybrid online/on-campus JD

William Mitchell College of Law will be the first American Bar Association-approved law school to offer a largely online JD degree, after the ABA approved a variance to its standards in mid-December.

The first-of-its-kind program will feature in-person, experiential learning and online coursework that integrate doctrine and skills.

The ABA has strict limits on online classes, allowing students to take no more than one-third of credits online. But the variance will allow students at William Mitchell to complete up to half their coursework online.

The variance is the first of its kind and comes on the heels of a draft recommendation by the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education that law schools be permitted to experiment and innovate.

"This program is based on our mission and built on historic competencies," said Eric Janus, the law school dean, at the recent AALS conference. "We have entrepreneurial faculty. But given this impacted our core JD program, everyone [at the law school] had to be brought along."

Starting in 2015, William Mitchell students who opt for the hybrid program will spend 12 weeks a semester taking online classes from home, sometimes through live web casts. The students will take 56-hours of realistic simulations and other coursework on-campus in weeklong marathons at the beginning or end of each semester.

Students will prepare for their on-campus work through an e-learning curriculum designed by William Mitchell faculty to integrate legal doctrine with practical legal skills. In addition, students will have the opportunity to complete externships in their communities under the supervision of practicing attorneys.

The school is hopeful that the innovative hybrid of on-campus and online learning will provide new access to those seeking a rigorous, experiential J.D. degree from an ABA-accredited law school. Janus said the hybrid program should be very attractive to students who want to practice in rural areas. 

"There are a fair number of doubters about online education," Janus said. "Some were worried that our standards would go to pot and we would become a dimploma mill."

Janus said there are eligibility issues with some state bar exams that the school is working to address. 

William Mitchell’s program is designed to extend the law school’s experience with digital technology. For the past few years, faculty members have been researching, implementing, and evaluating online teaching techniques.

"Technology multiplies the pallet from which our faculty can choose from," Janus aaid. "It brings greater effectiveness and efficiency in teaching. We have a year now to begin the implrementation and a lot ahead of us."

William Mitchell is now in the process of finalizing the program’s details, including schedule and curricular offerings. The new program will add a third option for students, in addition to its current full- and part-time programs.