Posted Jul 13, 2004 07:07 pm CDT
At first, Chris S. Zouboulakis was wary about being accepted by a law school that does all its teaching over the Internet. “I confess that I spent most of my time going through the refund policy,” he says.
But for Zouboulakis, a work-at-home father of two in Menlo Park, Calif., this was the only way he could become a lawyer. So he decided to give Concord Law School a try.
Now, more than four years after Concord began offering online courses in 1998, Zouboulakis and five other members of the school’s first graduating class say their gamble on this fledgling approach to legal education has paid off.
These members of Concord’s 10-student class of 2002, who “attended” all their classes and took all their exams online, acknowledge that this approach to law school is not for everyone. But it was just right for them.
Attending law school online allowed them to work full time or care for their children. They could fit their studying to their schedules and communicate directly with instructors by e-mail.
Although Zouboulakis and his classmates didn’t fit the traditional law student mold, Concord isn’t a typical law school. The school, which is owned by Kaplan Inc., the standardized-test-preparation company, has an office in Los Angeles. But it has no classrooms, campus or coffee shops where students can congregate. Everything, even the socializing, takes place online.
Concord estimates that 42 percent of its 1,500 students already have some kind of advanced degree. The school’s second graduating class numbered 26. Concord is not accredited by the ABA, but it is authorized to award juris doctor degrees by the California Bureau for Private Post-Secondary and Vocational Education. And the State Bar of California permits graduates to seek admission by taking the bar exam. Six out of Concord’s 10 graduates in 2002 already have passed the bar, a rate that is comparable to the overall 60 percent pass rate for California.
“I would love to have gone to an ABA-accredited, online school,” says Farzad Naiem, another member of Concord’s first graduating class. “But that was not available. So I had to basically balance the situation.”
Naeim’s goal was to become a lawyer and continue working as a senior partner at the same Los Angeles engineering company he has been with for some 20 years. He used his laptop to take classes while traveling on business in China, Italy, Mexico, Canada and elsewhere.
“Concord provided that, and that was all that I wanted,” says Naiem, who now is the company’s general counsel.
While Concord says it continues to be the only all-online law school in the United States, interest in the concept of distance learning is drawing attention from legal educators.
The ABA amended its law school accreditation standards in 2002 to allow students to take up to 12 hours of distance learning courses over the Internet or other means of electronic delivery, such as closed-circuit television. But the standards, which emphasize brick-and-mortar classrooms, libraries and related facilities, preclude a school that offers all its courses online from being accredited.
But for students like Zouboulakis, Concord may be the only practical route to a law degree. And many of them are more interested in a legal education than actually practicing law.
Dr. Roberto Lee, a Virginia surgeon for 30 years, does not need to work as a lawyer. But Lee, who took the California bar exam for the second time in February, says he might develop a health law or legal consulting practice if he passes.
Either way, he says he achieved his primary goal of learning about the law and conversing more fully with the two of his five children who are attorneys. “I enjoyed it. I’m having fun,” Lee says of his Concord experience.
Administrators of traditional law schools say Concord’s innovative approach to legal education has given them food for thought.
“The principal contribution that Concord, its very existence, has made—which I think is a good one—is really pushing and prodding the rather conservative ABA, and also all of us in legal education, to think more outside of the box about the utility of distance education,” says Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean of the University of San Diego School of Law.
Moreover, older students—Concord administrators say the average age of their students is 43—are a largely untapped market for legal education, says Richard A. Matasar, dean of New York Law School. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ABA-accredited law school doing a completely online program for one of its master’s degrees,” he says.
Matasar serves on the board of a consortium of U.S. and foreign law schools being organized by Russell L. Weaver, a law professor at the University of Louisville, to explore the possibility of creating an exchange network of distance learning opportunities.
If the network goes into operation, Weaver explains, a professor at one law school who has written a casebook on international criminal law, for instance, might offer a distance learning class to students at other schools that belong to the network.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how all this plays out in the long term,” Weaver says.
Concord might also be trying to gain some additional measure of acceptance with its new dean. In June, Barry A. Currier, who has worked in recent years as deputy consultant on legal education at the ABA, succeeded Jack R. Goetz, who founded the program and served as its first dean. The office of the legal consultant provides staff support for the ABA’s law school accreditation process.
Goetz has become dean of graduate studies at Kaplan Higher Education Online, where he will coordinate planning and development of new online graduate programs.
Members of Concord’s inaugural graduating class say that attending law school online gives rise to the same kind of bonding among students that comes from sharing the same classrooms at a traditional school. They made friends among their classmates, signing in early and chatting with one another online before the professor signed on. They even traveled to occasional receptions at the school, where they met other students and professors face to face. They participated in graduation ceremonies in Los Angeles in November 2002. Today, many of the graduates in the school’s first class still keep in touch.
“To be successful at Concord, or any distance education, I would say one has to be a self-starter and has to be someone who has a lot of discipline and who doesn’t need others to study,” says Naiem.
“As one of our classmates said, ‘If you’re the type of person who goes to the gym and a friend goes with you and gets on the next treadmill, this type of education is not for you.’ ”
Five of the six initial graduates who passed the bar are working as lawyers, according to Concord administrators.
Naiem is general counsel of his company. Zouboulakis began doing contract work for the San Mateo office of the California Department of Child Support Services in February. And Laura Collins, another Concord lawyer, runs a divorce mediation center in Santa Barbara with her husband, a psychoanalyst. One classmate continues to work as a patent agent, and another is developing a child advocacy practice in northern California.
The sixth of Concord’s initial graduates was permitted to take the bar exam in Vermont in February.
Clearly, there are impressive abilities among the school’s inaugural group of graduates, as well as the promise of more to follow.
Judith B. Sklar, a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County who supervised Zouboulakis in a clerkship there, ranks him “among the top” of the student clerks with whom she has worked—a group that includes students and graduates from such institutions as Stanford Law School.
But Sklar also expresses a hesitance about fully online legal education that echoes the cautious approach being taken by bar leaders and legal educators.
Given a choice, Sklar says, she would want her own daughter to go to a Stanford rather than a Concord. In a competitive economic environment, the reality is that attending a highly regarded, ABA-accredited law school almost certainly gives graduates an advantage when looking for work, she notes.
“I just don’t think the hiring world out there is that receptive to somebody who got a nontraditional education,” Sklar says. “In a perfect world, if you have the stuff, it doesn’t matter where you learn it. But we don’t live in a perfect world.”