ABA Set to Approve More Online Credits for Law Students

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An online class in the first year of law school?

It’s coming.

The American Bar Association is poised to eliminate its ban on distance education during the crucial 1L year, and the change will likely go into effect by the time fledgling law students arrive on campus in the fall.

Allowing students to take some online classes their first year is part of a larger proposal to ease rules that limit the number of distance education credits J.D. students may take at ABA-accredited law schools. The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which oversees law schools, on May 11 voted in favor of a new accreditation standard that will allow J.D. students to take up to one-third of their credits online, including as many as 10 credits during their first year.

The change is slated to go before the ABA’s House of Delegates in August, and would go into effect immediately should that body concur with the council’s recommendation as expected.

“This ABA move helps validate that online is real,” said William Byrnes, associate dean for special projects at Texas A&M University School of Law and an early adopter of online legal education. “Everyone talks about innovation in legal education—100 percent not true. People say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That’s what has been going on all these years. Now, I think we’re finally getting the recognition and respect for truly examining innovation and pedagogy. I’m excited.”

Legal education generally has been slower than other areas of higher education to embrace distance learning, in part due to restrictions imposed by the ABA. Until 2013, law students could not take more than 12 credits online. The ABA increased that limit to 15 credits five years ago—a move that enabled students to complete a full semester of coursework online. That change opened the door for schools to launch semester-long programs in Washington, D.C., where students complete an externship while taking classes online.

The new proposal would approximately double the number of credits law students may take online. (Most law schools require between 86 to 90 credits to graduates; hence, the new rule allows for 28 to 30 distance education credits.) That would enable law students to spend an entire year off campus in externships while still being able to graduate on time, Byrnes said. Longer externships tend to yield stronger recommendations once students are on the job market, he added. He’s already thinking about how to expand Texas A&M’s Washington program from one semester to two. The ability to extern away from campus for a year is especially helpful to law schools located outside major legal markets, as it opens up more opportunities for students, Byrnes added.

The prohibition on online courses in the first year has been a tougher obstacle, given the importance of foundational, so-called “black letter” classes such as constitutional law and torts.

Byrnes said he doesn’t expect tradition-bound law schools to rush to add fully online first-year courses. But he said the rule change will allow for more experimentation in the first year, such as employing what’s known as the “flipped classroom.” That refers to a model in which lectures are viewed online and class time is used for enhanced learning opportunities and discussions.

Online classes have improved significantly in recent years, and the technology allows professors to replicate aspects of the traditional lecture format, such as cold-calling students during synchronous courses. Students attend class at the same time during synchronous online courses, while asynchronous classes can be completed at the students’ convenience. Both formats are allowed under the ABA rules.

Additionally, up to one-third of any class may consist of online learning without counting as a “distance education” class under the ABA rules. That carve-out enables law professors to incorporate things such as online quizzes or the occasional recorded lecture without triggering the distance education label.

Much of the legal academy’s online coursework experimentation has occurred in LL.M. programs and Master of Laws programs, because those degrees are not subject to the ABA’s distance education limits.

However, a growing number of law schools are now or soon will offer hybrid J.D. programs that combine online classes and limited on-campus coursework in a variety of formats. Several hybrid programs have received variances from the ABA to exceed the distance education limits, while others work within the existing rules. The latest proposed changes will likely open the door to more such programs.

“People [in legal education’s distance learning sphere] are absolutely excited,” Byrnes said. “For many years, we just weren’t taken seriously.”