Business of Law

Hybrid law school program allows far-away students to earn degrees

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The hope of going to law school had dimmed long ago for Colby Jones, a student adviser and teacher of online music appreciation courses at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. The nearest programs were hours away.

"About 15 years ago I researched online law schools and found a few in California," says the 36-year-old married father of a 16-year-old. "But they weren't ABA-approved. And if I was going to law school, I wanted to go to a proper school."

Then one day on a lark, Jones did an Internet search and learned the ABA had in late 2013 approved the first hybrid JD program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. In January, Jones became one of 85 students in the inaugural class.

Joining him was Jim Black, a 37-year-old father of two from Wichita, Kansas, who works as a corporate regional human resources director. In May 2014, Black graduated from a hybrid doctoral program through the University of Mississippi and told his family he was done with higher education—unless he ever got a chance at law school.

Mitchell's part-time four-year program allows students to earn their degree through a combination of in-person and online study. They start their first and third semesters with a week of in-person instruction. They also end each semester with an in-person session called a capstone period. In the meantime, they learn online. The cost is roughly equal to the school's in-person part-time program.

This has been an eventful year for the law school. Besides starting the new program, WMLU announced in February it was merging with Hamline University School of Law, also in St. Paul. That combination "will occur following acquiescence by the American Bar Association," the schools said in a press release.

Mitchell entered the hybrid arena in part to broaden access. "This program allows students to go to law school who otherwise can't because they live where there's no school in commuting distance or because of family commitments," says Gregory Duhl, a professor of law and the leader of the team that designed the program. "Also, enrollment is declining. This is a way to boost enrollment and revenue."


The school began kicking around ways to offer a hybrid degree about four years ago, Duhl recalls. In May 2013, planning ramped up, with Duhl organizing a team to draft a proposal the school could present to the ABA. Within six weeks, they'd nailed down the details.

"The ABA was already allowing schools to provide one-third of their program through online learning," explains Eric Janus, Mitchell's president and dean. "We asked for a variance to 50 percent. That little bit of extra leeway gave us the flexibility to arrange the instructional time in a radical way."

The program is experimental, notes Barry Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education, and the association will track it closely. The school must report back on students' performance, their integration into the school and attrition. The ABA hopes to learn whether the program can maintain quality while complying with ABA standards, Currier says. It also seeks insight on changes to standards that would give schools more discretion in distance learning.

Only time will tell the value employers will place on a degree from a hybrid program. Black says he doesn't plan to seek a law firm job.

"I'm investing a ton of money and time in my law degree, and I want it to pay off," he says. "But I'm in a unique position. I come with a number of years in business. My hope is that will help me overcome any challenges."

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Bricks and Bytes: Hybrid law school program allows far-away students to earn degree."
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