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Barry Currier: Improve Legal Education Via Technology & Online Learning

Posted Oct 15, 2009 5:00 PM CDT
By Barry A. Currier

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Barry A. Currier

I am a career-long legal educator who knows that the law school experience that I loved and that has served the profession well for decades, while not broken, is cracked in places. It works for many, particularly those going to law school straight from college.

It does not, however, well serve the needs of everyone who would like a legal education and who would make excellent lawyers, those wanting to enhance existing careers with legal knowledge, or those who hire and engage lawyers (such as law firms, businesses, and the public sector).

How does it fall short?

First, it’s too expensive. The work that many lawyers do and that we need done does not justify the $100,000-plus investment and three years of time and foregone income that is almost unavoidable in law schools today.

Second, it’s not accessible. Many who would like to be lawyers (and who would be excellent members of the profession) have work and/or family responsibilities that make it more difficult than it should be – or impossible – to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar law school, even on a part-time basis.

Third, law school does not engage the minds and generate the commitment of many students so that they acquire in law school the foundational knowledge, skills, and values new lawyers should have. Nor are they inspired with a love of the law and our legal system to help safeguard and advance the rule of law and our justice system – here and around the world.

Hear a Q&A with Barry Currier about how his online law school fits into the legal ed landscape:

Traditional legal education has responses for these concerns, but they fall short. For example, the idea of a two-year J.D. program has resurfaced recently. It does rearrange the law school calendar and might make law school more accessible for some, but it does not reduce the actual time in school that must be spent to earn a J.D., the cost of the degree, or the need to be physically present for the duration of the program. A good idea, but not a solution to problems that are much more pervasive.

Clinics, foreign study programs, and externships all offer possibilities for increasing the engagement of students in their studies, but still the “butts-in-seat, listen to the professor, take an exam at the end of the semester” model predominates. Many students have experienced different and better models in their undergraduate and other graduate work.

A partial answer to these concerns is to make more and better use of technology in legal education. The options range from the simple – make recordings of every class available to students to use for study and review – all the way through to programs that rely on distance learning, either blended programs or fully online programs like we offer at Concord Law School of Kaplan University.

In addition to many other ways in which today’s technology can improve the educational experience for students, our system provides (indeed, requires) students to participate in real-time classes with fellow students, where they can be instructed by a faculty member, be called on, and the like. There is no doubt now that the kinds of student-student and student-faculty interaction that we usually hear from lawyers is a sine qua non of a sound program of legal education can be done in the online environment.

Lawyers and legal educators need to develop an understanding of online learning so that the discussion of how it can contribute to making legal education better, more affordable, and more accessible can proceed. It may not be the way that most of us went to school, but it works; there is plenty of proof on that point. It’s not THE answer. It will not replace traditional legal education. But, it is part of the answer about how to make legal education serve the profession better.

The ABA should move, as expeditiously as it can, to revise its approach to distance learning. Lawyers should welcome those who pursue their legal educations this way and appreciate the experience and richness that they will add to the bar.

Barry A. Currier is president of Kaplan Legal Education and dean of Concord Law School. Before joining Concord in 2004, Currier was Deputy Consultant on Legal Education at the ABA. He is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

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