Concord University Law School
has no campus, classrooms, faculty offices, library, or cafeteria. To attend Concord, you must enter through your computer. Since its inception, Concord has grown to 75 faculty members and more than 1,700 students enrolled in the four-year, entirely online, J.D. program. The students who make up the virtual law classrooms of Concord are connected to the Internet from every state and 13 countries outside the U.S. Students watch recorded lectures, participate in live sessions, and take tests and final exams, all via the Internet.
"I chose to attend law school online because it works out so much better for me and my family time-wise," said Linda Markowsky
, a registered nurse living in Long Island, New York.
Ms. Markowsky works three 12-hour shifts per week at the ER and is also on call for one or two 12-hour shifts for the local police and district attorney as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). Though she considered a traditional law school, she said her grueling schedule would not allow for it.
"I get home from work around 9 p.m., so it would be difficult for me to attend evening classes. If not for Concord, I'd probably be attending law school one day per week for the next 10 years," said Ms. Markowsky who will graduate this May.
Concord is set on a part-time schedule where students generally devote an average of 20 hours per week to the curriculum. The school's curriculum includes recorded lectures by leading academics such as Harvard Law School
Professor Arthur R. Miller and renowned criminal law professor Rafael Guzman. Faculty also includes law school deans and professors, judges, litigators, and academics.
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Concord is not ABA-accredited but is approved as a degree-granting institution in the State of California by the Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education. It is registered with the California Committee of Bar Examiners, permitting its graduates to apply for admission to the California Bar. Seventy-eight percent of students who attend Concord reside outside of California. Though Ms. Markowsky has no plans to move to California and cannot sit for the bar in New York, she does have other options.
"Many federal agencies take attorneys who are licensed in any state," said Ms. Markowsky. "With my nursing background, I would love to get a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and have applied for several positions with the Food and Drug Administration."
Though the concept of an online law school has yet to receive widespread acceptance, it is spawning discussion on distance education. The American Bar Association, which does not accredit correspondence schools, amended its accreditation standards in 2002 to allow the use of 12 hours of distance education as part of a traditional law school education.
"There is, I believe, a significant difference between using online resources as a small part of, or adjunct to, law school and going to online resources for virtually all of a legal education," said Steve Smith, chair-elect of the ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. "The former can be valuable and expand the quality of legal education. Ultimately, a central question must be whether something improves the preparation of the next generation of the profession."
Mr. Smith said the accreditation standards are designed to "protect the public by ensuring that attorneys have a solid legal education." He added that accreditation is meant to put limits on "methodologies that may be unproven or less effective." He said he believes the current standards are a fair balance in the area of distance education.
Dennis J. Tonsing, Dean of Students and Academic Support Program Director at Roger Williams University School of Law, points out that in the old days, attending law school was not a prerequisite to becoming an attorney
. Before the establishment of law schools nationwide, Mr. Tonsing notes, it was common for individuals interested in practicing law to study the law on their own or learn by apprenticing with a practitioner.
"Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow stand out as two examples of fine lawyers educated through these methods of learning law. Several states, including California, allow prospective attorneys to sit for the bar examination without attending law school. Against this backdrop, the study of law via computer terminals does not seem inappropriate," said Mr. Tonsing. "The California Bar Examination is designed to ensure California citizens that every licensed lawyer possesses at least the minimum competency to practice law. Concord graduates who pass the exam demonstrate that they possess at least that minimum competency. "
Concord's first graduating class achieved a 60% pass rate on the California bar exam, in comparison to an overall first-time, exam-taker pass rate of 50.2%. Laura Collins was one of those students who passed the bar in 2003. She feels she received a quality legal education at Concord.
"At Concord, I participated in a rigorous academic program with a curriculum that included ongoing testing and evaluation, forcing me to keep up. I was challenged to explain myself and encouraged to develop my thinking. I learned everyday lawyering skills and had the wisdom of practicing attorneys passed down to me," said Ms. Collins, who transferred from state-accredited Santa Barbara College of Law to Concord so she could be at home with her young children.
Can an online law school provide a good legal education? The most cited difference between an online and traditional legal education is the absence of the Socratic Method in the online program.
"The part of 'classroom learning' that is important to the practice of law is the training to think on your feet, to respond cogently," said Professor Marsha N. Cohen, Hastings College of the Law. "What lawyers do is sell their words, in written and oral form. Law schools should be preparing students not just to analyze the law but to write and speak about it clearly and accurately."
However, Barry A. Currier, the Dean at Concord Law School, argues that Concord provides a "more varied and dynamic program." He cites the use of video-streamed lectures, live classes, quizzes, exercises, and essays as allowing for more opportunities for feedback to students.
"Most students go through law school sitting in classes that are more likely to be lectures and less likely to be Socratic than used to be the case," Mr. Currier said. "We have an excellent system for faculty/student interaction that generates more questions, dialog, and discussion than typically takes place today in American legal education."
While the idea of an online legal education will remain a subject for debate, Concord can be credited with providing individuals with an alternative for obtaining a law degree, and for a reasonable cost.
Mr. Currier said the total program cost for the J.D. is currently $32,000, in comparison to the average ABA private school tuition for the J.D. degree, which is in the range of $80,000. For alum Ms. Collins, Concord was the right choice for her situation and career objectives.
"As I look back over my legal education, I feel very fortunate. For me, Concord was a dream come true," she said. Ms. Collins has since started a co-mediation practice with her psychotherapist husband, Russell, in Santa Barbara, where they work with families who are in conflict.
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