Washington University School of Law, in St. Louis, has long been touted as a top residential law school. The school surprised many—and shocked some—last week by announcing they will begin offering a new online law degree. Washington’s first online class of legal eagles will take their virtual seats in January 2013.
The Washington University online law degree will be tightly targeted. The new degree will be a master of laws in U.S. law for foreign lawyers (LLM)—not a juris doctorate degree (JD).
It’s significant that the new online legal degree will be a master’s in law (LLM), not a JD degree. The JD is the blue chip choice for students who aspire to sit for the bar exam. The JD is the classic degree earned by top trial lawyers.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has thus far refused to approve any online JD degree. Instead, the ABA is allowing approved residential law schools, such as Washington, to offer a new generation of online law degrees at the master’s level.
Among the Best — But Not the First — Online Law Degrees
Washington University, a top tier residential law school, is not the first ABA approved law school to offer an online law degree. The Vermont Law School, known for its narrow niche environmental emphasis, began offering online environmental law master’s in 2009-10.
Loyola University offers online law master’s in health, and the The University of Alabama offers a distance master’s in taxation law. A spate of other ABA law schools also offer online law master’s degrees designed for healthcare and technology professionals.
Like Vermont, Loyola and Alabama, the Washington Law degree is targeted to business professionals eager to better understand and navigate the legal and regulatory structures imposed by the government on their industries.
Washington is targeting foreign applicants who do not wish to attend a campus residence in the USA as their primary audience. Many say this is a smart move: extending an elite American education brand to foreign markets where business professionals are cash-rich, eager to buy top American credentials.
Washington will limit online class size to 15 students per sessions, with webcam lectures and virtual classroom discussions. The online law degree will utilize residential faculty. A summer “immersion” on the campus will be 100 percent optional.
Quality Fears Hold Back Online Law Degrees
Kent Syverud, dean of the Washington law school, told Inside Higher Education, that the biggest fear held by the school when it came to launching an online law degree was that of quality. Many in the selective law school did not feel they could replicate the law school experience using laptop portals and webcams.
In launching the new distance law degree, Syverud, who will be teaching one of the inaugural classes online, believes Washington can establish a new tradition of excellence.
“I think if we can deliver legal instruction online to people at a level of quality that mimics what we’re able to do in the classroom … [then] it’s going to be a change agent over the coming years, even if people don’t want it to be,” he says. “And the best schools are going to face that, and are going to make what they do better in all their degree programs and instruction, and everybody else is going to be left behind.”
ABA Still Says No to Online JD
Many see the launch of a new generation of online law master’s hand-tailored for business professionals as a baby step toward ABA approval of other legal education programs in the coming decade.
Law school graduates, even at top schools, face record unemployment and record underemployment in the United States. A glut of well-educated lawyers has resulted in even top law schools nervously eyeing the marketplace for ways to extend their historically strong brands.
The solution appears to be two-fold. The first step, the creation of more practical law degrees—such as the LLM—is happening quickly. Next step: find and tap new foreign and under-served markets.
Washington’s plan to lure foreign students into virtual classrooms seems sound. Any law degree earned from Washington will carry international brand clout. The LLM degree does not require ABA approval. The faculty at Washington is freer to experiment with a master’s degree than with the classic JD degree.
If the online master’s goes well, Washington’s online learning strategy may be replicated by other elite residential law schools across the United States.
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Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as “for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students.” In 1989 she designed America’s first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees, Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student’s Guide to College.