By Brian Burnsed

Many argue that fully online programs aren't the path to a traditional legal career

Enrolling in an online J.D. program may seem like a convenient alternative to spending three years and more than $100,000 on a traditional legal education, especially for working adults -- but prospective students should be wary of the potential pitfalls, experts say.

Wholly online J.D. programs are not accredited by the American Bar Association, and graduates of the programs are eligible only to take the California Bar Exam, given that it's the only state in which online law schools can officially register (though some states have been known to make exceptions on an individual basis). In all, there are 14 unaccredited distance or correspondence law schools registered in California, including Concord Law School of Kaplan University, California School of Law, and the Abraham Lincoln University School of Law.

Because the schools are unaccredited, if students wish to complete their legal education and take the California Bar, they must pass the state's First-Year Law Students' Examination after they've completed their first year of school.

Despite these obstacles, the programs are growing.

Concord, for instance, was launched in 1998 and had only eight online students. Now the school boasts 1,200 students and has had more than 1,300 J.D. and executive J.D. graduates. The school's first time California Bar pass rate is 37.9 percent, which is on par with a few of the state's ABA approved law schools, and school officials are confident the sector is gaining momentum.

"We live in a world where technology has become increasingly entrenched in corporate and social environments," says Concord spokesperson Donna Skibbe. "More and more traditional law schools are providing online offerings to meet student demand. So, we believe that our innovative approach to legal education will one day be the norm rather than the exception."

Other law schools aren't as certain of the potential of online legal education.

With an enrollment of more than 60,000 online students, Liberty University is the nation's largest private, nonprofit school. However, the Liberty University School of Law only offers a campus-based J.D. program and has no plans to start an online program in the near future. Though the school has undoubtedly grown comfortable with the online model, officials feel that educating law students online may not be in their best interest.

"You would lose the interactivity that you would have in the classroom that is really helpful in preparing people not only to know the material, but to be able to articulate the material," says Mat Staver, dean and professor of law at Liberty University School of Law. "I think it would undermine a significant aspect of legal education."

Some employers too, are wary of applicants possessing degrees granted by wholly online law schools. Steve Mindel, managing partner at the Los Angeles law firm Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein, claims online students aren't able to make the connections that are integral to a lawyer's ability to succeed professionally. Human interaction in law school, he adds, can be more important than a student's ability to absorb the intricacies of the law.

"If practicing law was only about being able to pass a bar exam for a state, you'd have more lawyers than you have now, but law is a lot more than that," Mindel says. "It's about learning a way of thinking and interacting. A big part of that learning is the interaction you have with your classmates and others."

Officials at these online law schools maintain that their programs aren't targeted at students interested in a career practicing law at a large firm, and are confident that, in time, the degrees will hold more esteem with employers. "For entrepreneurs, working professionals, and those who are considering a career change, an online law program offers tremendous value," says Peter Young, dean of St. Francis School of Law. "In the near future, the stigma associated with online education will dissipate as quality improves and as the volume of qualified online graduates grows."

And while ABA officials claim that it's unlikely that wholly online programs will be accredited in the near future because they lack the requisite full time faculty and facilities for students, the organization has indicated it is open to allowing ABA accredited schools to increase their online offerings. Currently, students at ABA accredited law programs can only take up to 12 hours in a distance or online setting that counts toward their J.D.

Donald Polden, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law and chair of the ABA's Accreditation Standards Review Committee, says he anticipates that the ABA could expand the current 12-hour threshold, though he can't foresee a future where the classroom setting is marginalized at ABA accredited schools.

"There's growing comfort with [online education] as a useful and meaningful method of offering a part of the law school curriculum," he says. "[But], for a high quality program, you have to have students together because so much of learning happens in that interaction in the classroom space."

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