The spread of online legal education

By Audrey Herrington

In 2018, law school enrollment increased for the first time in almost a decade. Total J.D. enrollment in the U.S. currently sits at over 111,000 students.

While J.D. enrollment is only just starting to bounce back, enrollment in non-J.D. online legal programs has grown dramatically in the same time frame; about 5,600 students are currently enrolled in these programs. Non-J.D. legal programs include Master of Studies in Law (MSL), Master of Legal Studies (MLS), and Master of Laws (LL.M.) degrees.

There is a growing population of non-lawyers in various fields — human resources, business, real estate, health care — who don’t want to practice law but want to enhance their legal knowledge as it relates to the sector they already work in.

These non-lawyers typically enroll in MSL and MLS programs; LL.M. degrees are targeted toward lawyers who want to specialize in a certain area of law and foreign-educated lawyers interested in receiving a U.S. law degree.

Online legal education is particularly well-suited to MSL, MLS, and LL.M. students. Generally, students in these programs are already employed and are unable to pick up their lives and move to pursue another graduate degree. However, J.D. programs are taking notice of the success of these non-J.D. online legal programs and are moving to implement them.

Historically, the field of law has been slow to embrace change. However, the ABA has been moving to increase the distance-learning option — even when it comes to J.D.s. Initially, only 15 credit hours could be taught this way, and first year students were ineligible. Recently, the ABA doubled that to 30 hours and removed the 1L limitation. It normally takes 90 credit hours to get a J.D., so about one-third of a law degree can be taught online now.

Schools can also receive variances for these standards. For example, Mitchell Hamline School of Law was the first to receive ABA permission to create a hybrid J.D. program, with most of the instruction coming via distance learning. Students are required to come to campus for a short period of time, allowing students from all over the nation to pursue the degree.

Since then, four other schools have received these variances: Southwestern Law School, Syracuse University College of Law, University of Dayton School of Law and the University of New Hampshire School of Law. New Hampshire Law is unique is that it’s hybrid J.D. program is not a general one. Its focus is on intellectual property, one of the school’s strengths.

Still other schools are using online learning to make their part-time programs more convenient for students. They’ve created weekend/online hybrids, so students won’t be cramped for time during the week. Loyola University Chicago of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law, Touro Law Center and the University of Denver Strum College of Law offer them.

So legal education is indeed moving toward a fully online J.D. program. And it’s good timing. These technological and educational advances are coming at a time when more lawyers than ever are turning to technology to meet with clients and build their businesses.

Implementing hybrid programs will prepare a new generation of lawyers for careers in which they are able to communicate with clients virtually all over the world. Schools will be able to use online education as a selling point — a way to reach students they may not otherwise reach and offer flexibility to students turning to law as a second career.

Audrey Herrington is a 2018 graduate of Saint Louis University School of Law who is now working as an associate at Kodner Watkins in Clayton, Missouri. She provides insight for newly minted lawyers in the fast-changing legal field.