The Development of Distance Law Education in Oregon and the American Bar Association
Just as all other means of consuming media and information have evolved dramatically over the last fifteen years, educational institutions have made broad changes to the manner in which they make their courses and degrees available to the student population. While the traditional model of higher education remains the overwhelming norm for most collegiate students, almost all undergraduate and Master’s programs are experiencing tremendous growth in online offerings with one glaring exception: the legal education system. Due to the American Bar Association's failure to recognize the growing popularity and value of online and distance education, students are being forced to seek other means to further their professional goals when their lifestyles or ambitions do not align well with the conventional path of legal education.
Examples of Online and Distance Education Growth
While the growth of online legal education has been constrained to a few smaller but successful institutions in California, other forms of online communication have enjoyed continued growth and increasing acceptance throughout academia. The following statistics indicate a strong trend toward increased participation in and increased demand for online educational systems:
Enrollment in online offerings at universities grew at a rate of 18.2% between 2003 and 2004, exceeding expectations set out by the National Center of Education Statistics by a factor of 10.
Of all of the country's schools offering Master's programs, a full 44% of them also offer a Master's program online.
19% of institutions in the country offering Baccalaureate degrees also offer an online version of at least one of their programs.
In 2005, a full 56% of higher education schools identified online education as a high-priority long-term strategy.
Unfortunately, this overwhelming wealth of data has failed to sway the position of the American Bar Association regarding online legal education, preventing any significant expansion of the industry.
The Anti-Competitive Nature of the American Bar Association
The close relationship between the ABA and the bar examination boards of the various states in the country combines with the intractable standards set forth by the ABA to make the legal education industry inherently anti-competitive, as it prevents alternative means of education from gaining more than minimal traction in real world scenarios. It is commonly known that in order to practice law in any state one must pass the state's bar examination, but it is less well known that to even take the bar examination one must have completed a course of study at an ABA accredited university. According to personal injury lawyer Dwight Ritter the ABA refuses to approve any fully online legal education programs. Because of this fact, it is impossible to begin a career in law through such means in any state outside of California, in which a loophole in state law has allowed 14 fully online law schools to flourish and produce graduates academically on par with many other ABA-accredited universities in the state.
While attitudes around the country continue to shift towards embracing the advantages of online legal education, a true change in the legal education system will only happen when the ABA's less malleable positions finally come to terms with the proliferation of digitally optimized education.
Online Legal Education Benefits for the Oregon Student
The conventional education system has become less and less applicable to the realities of modern American society, and the broad distribution of commerce made possible by the flattening effect of internet communications has similarly eroded the relevance of physical institutions of learning as the end-all and be-all of higher education. The Oregon University system has recognized this ongoing trend and has worked to develop an online environment in which students can pursue their academic goals in legal study and other areas free from the constraints of traditional educational institutions. The following are a few of the numerous benefits you can enjoy with online legal education:
1. Reduced costs
The skyrocketing costs of education are prominent in the news as an ever-increasing number of students emerge from college with excessively burdensome student loan debt. For the most part, online education is significantly less expensive than attending a traditional school, with average lower tuition costs combining with the elimination of secondary costs to education such as transportation, textbooks, and basic classroom supplies which are not always necessary for online education.
2. The ability to balance work and education
Many prospective students are unwilling or unable to abandon their employment situation in favor of returning to the classroom to further their studies. When pursuing your legal education through an online option in the Oregon University system, you may be able to complete coursework on your own schedule, allowing you to study around your employment schedule without being required to attend night classes that can leave a student perpetually exhausted and unable to perform to their full capabilities either at work or in their educational pursuits.
3. Flexibility in working through curriculum
While traditional classes are usually rigidly structured and have a set schedule which assignments and examinations must be completed within, online courses are much more flexible in how you progress through the material. Assignments are typically completed at your own pace, allowing you to quickly progress through subject matter which comes easily to you while spending more time focusing on the issues which bear the most study for you as an individual.
4. More specialized degree tracks
Online degree programs recognize that you may not have an interest in engaging in elective studies which are not relevant to your chosen course of study. Those who choose to engage in online legal education can focus directly on skills and knowledge that will be directly relevant to the job market they seek to enter after the completion of their degree. In this manner, you can achieve clear and purposeful educational goals, such as getting into pharmacutical litigation and becoming and heading up a Vaginal Mesh Lawsuit or a NuvaRing Lawsuit in a fraction of the time you would spend in a conventional education system.
5. Avoid the classroom
One of the most obvious but frequently understated benefits of pursuing your legal education online is the absence of being forced to participate in the classroom environment. The enormous time commitments eliminated by this distinction allow for education to fit in seamlessly with professional and personal pursuits that you would have to sacrifice in order to ascribe to classroom scheduling, commuting, and all the other commitments that conventional education entails.
Preparing for Law School With Pre-Law Online Courses
Attempting to get into law school is quite often one of the most difficult and stressful endeavors a collegiate student can undertake, with stringent requirements for admission creating significant barriers for even the brightest students if they fail to adequately prepare for the specific criteria which universities screen for. By focusing specifically on these particular areas, you give yourself the best possible chance of catching the eye of admissions officers in universities across the country while still allowing the time you need to pursue your studies to the fullest of your abilities.
One of the largest problems facing many students is finding the time to work law school preparation into their already busy schedules while simultaneously contending with work commitments or a full-time academic schedule. Fortunately, the Oregon university system offers a variety of extended campuses, distance learning, and online programs which offer aspiring law students a wealth of options to broaden their education and build a strong resume.
The exact qualifications screened for in the application process will of course vary between institutions, but studies such as one recently completed by Kaplan indicate that a few key elements of your application are weighted more heavily than others. Research indicates that law schools are looking for strength in the following five areas, in descending order of emphasis:
1. LSAT scores
2. Undergraduate GPA
3. Your personal statement letter
4. Letters of recommendation
5. Professional experience and internships
By pursuing supplemental courses of study which focus on improving your ability to excel in key areas beyond your undergraduate grades, you can give yourself an edge over other applicants you will be competing against.
Preparing for Law Study
The courses of study you will pursue as a law student may continue to build many of the same skills you have developed as an undergraduate, but the methods of instruction and breadth of knowledge you will be expected to contend with make attending law school a much different experience than a simple extension of undergraduate study. The following are a few key differences between law school curriculum and undergraduate education:
- Grades are derived almost entirely from examinations at the conclusion of the course with few, if any, opportunities to gauge your progress through the material mid-course.
- Many professors and instructors will require students to stay abreast of a large volume of reading and course material and be able to engage in knowledgeable discussions during class whenever they are called upon.
- Your entire course of study will be focused on law topics, with very few opportunities for elective coursework.
Taking online courses which operate in a manner similar to the study you will be engaging in at law school can help to prepare you for the transition in learning styles and avoid becoming overwhelmed during your first year.
How Online Study Can Help
Many online courses available through the Oregon university system offer direct focus on the areas that will improve your chances of acceptance and enhance skills that will be essential during the law school experience. Whatever your schedule is, you can explore the material, prepare for the LSAT, learn to write a convincing personal statement, and gain experience in law study before taking the leap into the next level of education.
Challenging the Stigma of Online Legal Education
Like any changing paradigm, the shift from traditional education towards distance and online offerings has been met with heavy criticism and skepticism from supporters of conventional higher education. Despite these misgivings, fully online legal programs continue to thrive and grow, accommodating the burgeoning population of students who recognize the advantages offered by completing their eduction outside of the rigidly constrained parameters of traditional law schools.
Undertaking your legal education online has a vast array of advantages over the traditional path to becoming a lawyer, from the often enormous gap between the costs of the two educational choices to the organizational advantages offered by an education system which can be engaged with on your own schedule without making total sacrifices in your professional and personal life. While some of the concerns aimed at online legal education have merit, the majority of programs are still in their infancy and require time to capitalize on the enormous growth already seen.
The following are a few of the negative stigmas associated with online legal education, and an explanation of why each lacks the staying power to rule out the online option as a viable alternative.
• Fully online law schools are not accredited by the American Bar Association.
Because the ABA has abstained from recognizing fully online law programs as accredited institutions, meaning that a degree from such a school will only allow you to take the bar exam in the state in which the school is registered, many people mistakenly assume that the quality of education available at these schools does not measure up to that of their peers. Even without ABA accreditation, a degree from such a program will grant you the opportunity to continue your legal education, prepare for the bar exam and hopefully go on to exciting and rewarding opportunities like working as a medical malpractice lawyer.
• Online education is not rigorous enough.
Many people greatly underestimate the breadth of knowledge and difficulty of study that online law education demands and instills, believing that a student who studies the law through this method will come out with a less complete legal education in comparison to those who attend traditional law schools. The facts contest this point however as one of California's largest online law schools, Concord, boasts a 37.9 percent first time pass rate for the California bar, which is evenly on par with many traditional law schools in the state which are approved by the American Bar Association.
• Lack of interactivity.
Proponents of conventional law education will claim that the interactive and collaborative experience of the classroom environment is a vital part of becoming a lawyer, and that the online education model
is unable to match that valuable aspect of law school. While on the surface this may appear to be a valid concern, the nature of internet communication has become increasingly collaborative and socially engaging over the last 10 years, eroding the validity of the argument.
• Value in the job market.
One of the greatest concerns of prospective online law students is the general understanding that potential employers will hold a degree from an online university in much lower regard than one from an accredited law school using traditional educational methods. While this may be true now, the stigma associated with an online law degree is degrading quickly, and many of those who choose to seek their law education online have goals other than a position at a large law firm. Entrepreneurs, working professionals, and individuals considering career changes are all prime candidates to further their professional interests through online law education.
Augmenting Your Law Education With Distance Courses in Oregon
Completing an online law degree is an enormous undertaking which few people are cut out to do, and even fewer also have the opportunities and advantages of circumstance to attempt. With the costs of higher education skyrocketing out of control across the country, the financial investment associated with beginning a course of law study can cause many of the brightest students to balk, turning them to less costly pursuits or professional endeavors. For many who choose to take the plunge and commit to a law education to carry on and take high paying jobs, such as an employment lawyer, it is a constant struggle to balance the heavy demands of law school with the other parts of their lives which also have significant value, or the professional pursuits that are necessary to funding their education.
In the interest of addressing these problems and the changing needs of legal students, many universities have begun implementing online legal education programs which can help their student body to successfully complete their course of legal study through a mixed approach of classroom and online courses, providing flexibility that many individuals need in order to be able to continue their educational pursuits. The following are a few of the ways in which online offerings can augment a traditional law education and help make law school accessible to a greater range of individuals:
• Free up larger parts of your schedule in order to accommodate work commitments
Currently, you may take up to 12 hours of online or distance courses which will all count toward your J.D., and the American Bar Association is open to the idea of increasing that number as it sees evidence of strong and valuable online offerings from ABA accredited institutions. By taking advantage of this option, you will be able to enjoy a much higher degree of flexibility in your scheduling commitments, allowing you to accommodate personal activities and employment opportunities which are precluded by the constraints of a traditional law school schedule.
• Provide an active learning environment with a high level of direct feedback
Studies indicate that contemporary students respond much more positively to active learning environments in which they are constantly engaged directly with the material and receive direct and frequent feedback from their instructors. The Socratic method, which was recently employed by a Mesothelioma lawsuit and is taught by the vast majority of conventional law education programs falls surprisingly short in this regard, as all but one or two students are directly engaged with the material during class, while the rest are learning passively. Additionally, the fact that many law school courses do not provide feedback until the final examination is problematic in light of currently prevalent modes of learning. Online and distance education offer a solution to these problems by creating a highly interactive environment in which students must, by necessity, receive frequent and effective feedback as they progress through material.
• Accommodate non-traditional education goals and student demographics
More and more often, students entering law school are not pursuing the direct and straightforward goal of passing the bar and becoming an attorney. Law education has a broad range of value to entrepreneurs, business owners, accounting specialists, and others, leading many students to pursue a law degree for reasons not in line with the basis of the conventional law school process. These types of students would do well to take advantage of alternative learning offerings in order to customize their law education experience in a manner which suits them, rather than trying to fit the square peg of their professional goals into the round hole of a conventional law education.