Unique Approach to Online Learning Reaches Nontraditional Law Students

William Mitchell College of Law (WMCL) in St. Paul, Minn., has created a part-time law degree program that is making it easier for nontraditional students to advance their careers without uprooting their lives. This hybrid program, which launched in January, combines remote, online learning with intensive, experiential on-campus sessions.

Gregory Duhl, a professor of law at WMCL and the academic director of the new program, says the inaugural semester exceeded expectations.

“There were no major glitches, and students felt like they were pioneers along with us,” says Duhl.

He says there was something else unique about this cohort: The average age of students was much higher than at most law schools.

“Law school undergraduates generally look like they could be my children,” he says. “But with this group, they look like they could be my parents.”

The first cohort of students in the hybrid program at WMCL range in age from 24 to 68, and 38 percent have advanced degrees. Nearly 20 percent identify as being of color. Duhl says students entered the program to either become practicing lawyers or to advance their current careers, such as doctors going into hospital administration or healthcare policy.

WMCL’s program is the first nontraditional law degree program to gain approval and accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA), which the school earned through a variance. Law schools accredited by the ABA can apply for variances when developing curricula that are inconsistent with ABA standards. Often, these are programs that are experimental, and the ABA can impose conditions and time limits on them. While the ABA typically dictates that only one-third of law coursework may be completed through online distance learning, with the variance, WMCL is able to present 50 percent of its curriculum online.

The online distance-learning portion involves pre-recorded lectures, moderated discussion forums, live chats, and video analyses of students practicing skills. At the end of each semester and at the beginning of the first and third semesters, students meet on WMCL’s campus for a 40-hour capstone week of experiential learning, which simulates real-life situations students will face as law practitioners.

Duhl says the impetus for creating a law degree program that is half online and half in the classroom was the result of “a tremendous call for legal innovation and thinking outside the box.”

In fact, the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education released a report in January 2014 calling on law schools, bar associations, and regulators to innovate programs and pricing in light of the rising cost of and declining enrollment in law schools.

WMCL, however, did not make progress in regard to cost; tuition for students in the hybrid program is the same as for students in the traditional part-time program, which was $27,770 for the 2014-2015 academic year. Also, the blended learning program takes an extra year to complete — four years instead of the usual three. But the convenience it offers those who are unable to move to Minnesota or leave their current jobs may outweigh the costs.

To meet ABA guidelines, enrollment is capped at 96 students per cohort. Of the 85 students who began in January, 80 will be continuing in the fall.