Are we Ready for the Digital Law School?

Like the “Global Law School,” observers and enthusiasts have been predicting the arrival of the digital law school for at least the last decade, but how much of the hype is real? Law school may have reached a tipping point where more information flows electronically (through database of cases, emails, websites, etc) than on paper, but is that what a digital law school amounts to? Has the culture or the way of thinking about legal education changed? The growth of Coursera (Stanford based consortium which now includes U of T), Edx (the consortium of MIT, Berkeley, Harvard) and others has raised the specter of entirely on-line legal education, but the future of such endeavors in law remains uncertain, where law remains for the most part a jurisdiction based, dynamic, and analytic subject area to teach. While a good on-line lecture in the 19th century novel or the nature of an algorithm may endure, a good on-line lecture on administrative law would need to be updated and overhauled every few months or so. So, the question remains, are we ready for a digital law school?

Whether or not we are ready for digital legal education, it is clear that digital legal services have arrived, and are poised to grow. At Legal Zoom, for example, incorporating a business is advertised as “fast, easy and on-line.”  Lawyers need to know how to use the information economy, from apps to data management. A new Columbia Law School Clinic, for example, focuses on lawyering in the digital age, which ensures law students have the skills necessary for progressive legal practice in the information age. It is also possible that jurisdictional boundaries, which have for so long defined the practice of law, will become less relevant over time, as reflected in Osgoode’s innovative first year course Ethical Lawyering in a Global Community and International Legal Partnerships program, McGill’s Transsystemic legal curriculum and the University of Miami’s ambitious Law without Walls initiative (pairing up law students across the world to work on investigative research and creative problem-solving).

Digital legal education also has the potential to significantly enhance access – with distance law school options, people who cannot leave home communities whether because of cost or family commitments would no longer be precluded from obtaining a legal education. The cost generally of a high-quality digital education is substantially less than in-person, and perhaps most importantly, digital platforms offer the potential for new kinds of learning and evaluation. Rather than an exam, or in-class presentation, students can submit simulated work via video. Through courseware such as Blackboard and Moodle, classroom discussions no longer need to pause when the class ends – indeed, the very idea of a class bounded by time or space may be about to change. Skype and video conferencing software can allow for synchronous instruction within an on-line class environment, and social media can create new opportunities to exchange ideas and build community.

Interestingly, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s recent Accreditation Report responded to the possibility of digital legal education by requiring that an approved law program’s instruction must take place “primarily” in person.  This requirement is clearly intended to ward off a “beamed-in” law school. While the text of the Report makes clear the intent is not to dampen experimentation with digital legal education, that may well be an unintended consequence of the current regulatory environment in Canada.

The American Bar Association (ABA) similarly limits its accreditation to schools which provide a substantial majority of classroom instruction in person. California, which accepts graduates from distance education law schools as a qualifying standard for admission, requires that upon successful completion of first year at an online law school, students must sit and pass the First Year Law Students Exam (affectionately referred to as the “baby bar”). If the quality of digital legal education is high, are such artificial distinctions justified? Further, as more in-person education includes significant digital components, regulatory distinctions between in-person and on-line legal education may become more difficult to sustain.

Whether or not the Federation of Law Societies or the ABA determines such programs meet their standards, on-line legal education already has an important foothold. The early adopters are not household names, and the students they attract may struggle to achieve career success, but these ventures are doubtlessly paving the way for others – Concord Law School in California, for example, offers what is billed as a fully interactive, online law degree program (and features both an on-line JD and Executive JD,  video lectures which are available 24/7, and where student work is received, reviewed and returned all through a student’s homepage). The California Law School claims to be the only distance program to offer live Socratic-method instruction through virtual classrooms. The University of Phoenix, just 30 years old, now has over 700,000 alumni, about 200,000 more than the University of Toronto.

Even law schools with no interest in becoming distance programs have embraced platforms such as MediaSite, whose webcasting technology automates the recording, distribution, management and analytics of high-quality video and multimedia presentations. At Osgoode, many JD, lectures are already “captured,” professional LL.M. students join classroom discussions from around the country and beyond, while webinars allow for continuing professional development in real time as new cases, legislation and policies redraw the legal landscape.

That said, in-person and digital experiences may not merge seamlessly through the course of a student’s legal education, even as many lawyers’ briefcases and law student knapsacks become tablets. I recall the first time I moved to electronic materials for a class, only to find that the method of evaluation (an open book exam written on laptops whose hard drives were blocked by exam software) required all the students to print up all the materials to prepare for the exam.

The infrastructure for high quality digital legal education also requires significant investment. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that the largest repository of digitized Canadian legal scholarship was at Harvard, which had embarked on a far more ambitious project of digitizing its collection than any Canadian University. While digitizing collections, electronic journals and on-line institutional repositories are now moving forward in Canada, budget pressures and resistance to change continue to make the pace of progress uncertain.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether we are ready for digital legal education, but rather which schools will see and harness its potential to the fullest.