Welcome back to Ahead of the Curve. I’m Karen Sloan, legal education editor at Law.com, and I’ll be your host for this weekly look at innovation and notable developments in legal education. 

The University of Dayton School of Law’s entrance into the J.D. hybrid arena has me thinking about the future of those largely online degrees. I chat with AccessLex Institute’s Chris Chapman to get his take. Next I’ll share some thoughts about a conference I attended last week at New York University School of Law and the benefits of bringing practitioners together on campus to discuss emerging legal topics. Finally, I’m checking in with a remarkable University of Washington law grad, Theo Shaw, who overcame adversity to pursue his legal dreams. 

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Please share your thoughts and feedback with me at ksloan@alm.com or on Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.


Here Come the Hybrids

Are online J.D. programs the wave of the future? The University of Dayton School of Law last month announced that it’s launching Law@Dayton, a hybrid J.D. program where students will complete the bulk of their coursework online, while coming to campus for a week each semester for in-person instruction.

Dayton is now the fourth law school to receive a variance from the American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar to exceed the standard 15 credit-hour limit for online coursework in J.D. programs. (That limit is set to double under a proposal awaiting final approval in August.)

Mitchell Hamline School of Law became the first to offer a so-called hybrid J.D. in 2015. Southwestern Law School got a variance from the ABA in November, and Syracuse University School of Law obtained one in February. Southwestern, Syracuse and Dayton all plan to launch their hybrid J.D. programs in 2019. (Several other schools offer special-format J.D. programs that utilize online classes, but work within the existing ABA limits.)

Clearly, some law schools see opportunity in the hybrid model, which allows students to obtain a law degree without uprooting their lives and families to attend a brick-and-mortar program. I called up Chris Chapman, president of legal education advocacy outfit AccessLex Institute, to see if he thinks largely online J.D.s are an untapped goldmine for law schools. Chapman was not prepared to declare distance education as the savior of the struggling legal education sector. But he said he’s heartened by the fact that schools are experimenting with them.

“Seeing law schools being permitted to test and implement innovation on a big scale is really critical. I think this will open the door to a plethora of opportunities to make legal education better and more accessible. The worse case is we find out this doesn’t work, which I suspect we won’t. But if we did find out it didn’t work or needed some tweaks, that’s a good thing too. This kind of experimentation is how law schools can lead the way.”

But will online programs bring costs down? Not at the moment. Mitchell Hamline’s hybrid tuition is the same as its part-time residential tuition and Syracuse plans to charge the same amount as well, though students can save money by continuing to work while in the hybrid programs. And the costs to a law school of initially developing a hybrid program can be high as well, Chapman noted. But he sees savings down the road for both schools and students, as long as the online programs are scalable. Law schools could share technology or even courses when location is no longer a factor. That goes for traditional J.D. programs as well, he said. Let’s say a law school has a professor who is one of a small number of experts in a specialized area. They could develop an online course, make it available to other law schools, and suddenly students across the country would have access to a top scholar teaching a course their own school could never offer on campus. Chapman sees that as a win-win. “That would be a great thing for students and for law schools too,” he said.

My take—The proof will be in the proverbial pudding for these new programs. Will graduates pass the bar exam in equal numbers? Will they be able to find legal jobs? But the reality is that while an online J.D. may sound radical, legal education is way behind other professional programs when it comes to utilizing online classes. It’s only radical in the context of a tradition-bound, risk averse profession.


Law Prof’s Victory Lap

A tweet from Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber after overseeing thesuccessful campaign to recall Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Perskyover what opponents called a pattern of leniency toward white male defendants.


When Practitioners Convene on Campus

Yes, that’s a photo of yours truly moderating a panel at a conference on social entrepreneurship and impact investing held last week at New York University School of Law. (Do the glasses make me look smart?) The conference was organized by NYU’s Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship and explored the innovative ways lawyers and investors are using funding to support companies and projects with social benefits.

My panel focused on the six finalist projects for the first ever Grunin Prize, which ranged from legislation intended to spur investment in distressed communities and an innovative deal structure to spur investment in medical care for mothers and babies in India, to an online toolkit for U.K. companies to enshrine their social missions in their articles of incorporation. The prize went to partner Pamela Rothenberg and her team at Womble Bond Dickinson, which devised a new deal structure that ensures predictable returns for investors while protecting the missions and leadership of social enterprises.

So what’s the legal education angle here? One of the finalists was SoloSuit, the project developed last fall out of Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School’s LawX legal design class. BYU JD/MBA student Erika Nash talked about the development of SoloSuit, an online tool that helps debtors respond to lawsuits. Nash also spoke about how inspiring and invigorating it was to actually create a product that helps solve a pressing legal issue. This is a theme I’ve heard before from students involved in legal design classes and hackathons.

But there’s another benefit to law schools hosting these practice-oriented conferences on emerging areas such as social entrepreneurship and impact investing. I counted about 30 legal academics among the nearly 400 conference registrants, and NYU extended the conference a third day to share its findings on existing legal scholarship on the topic and where there are gaps. (Spoiler, there’s a lot of room for law professors to delve into this subject, beyond just looking at what types of incorporation work best for ventures with social missions.)

The takeaway—If law schools want to prepare their students for where the profession is headed and where opportunities are likely to be, it makes sense to bring practitioners to campus for these types of conferences so faculty can learn directly from those doing the work. NYU was smart to take it a step further and break down for law professors where the opportunities exist for more scholarship. The benefit to students isn’t immediately obvious, but having professors in the know about emerging practices can only help position them for those jobs.

From Jail to J.D.

Last week, I told you about a pair of inspiring single mothers who just graduates from law school. This week, I’m highlighting another remarkable story: Theodore “Theo” Shaw—a member of the so-called Jena Six— graduated from the University of Washington School of Law on June 3. Shaw spent months in jail as a 17-year-old in 2006, after he and five other black teenagers were charged with attempted murder after beating a white classmate in Jena, Louisiana.

The severity of the charges sparked outrage, and Shaw later pleaded no contest to a reduced simple battery misdemeanor charge even though he maintained that he wasn’t involved. But he spent eight months in jail before his bail was lowered and supporters gathered enough donations to see him released.

He enrolled in law school in 2015 after securing a Gates Public Service Law Scholarship, which is a full-ride scholarship to Washington. His classmates selected Shaw as the student speaker at graduation, where he spoke about his internship at the Innocence Project of New Orleans. I can only assume that his words about the role lawyers play in society carried extra weight given his experience. Here’s what he said, courtesy of great read from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“I talk about those men’s experience because after tonight, after the celebration, even after we pass the bar, I believe as future lawyers, we have a responsibility,” Shaw said. “We may not be guilty or have had anything to do with the injustices that other people experienced in the criminal justice system. But we have a responsibility: a responsibility to the poor, to the condemned, to those who may not be popular in the eyes of the majority.”

The final word—Honestly, what can I add to that? The fact that Shaw didn’t sour on the law after his awful experience with the justice system is pretty amazing, and what a unique perspective he brought to the law school. Kudos to the school for enrolling and supporting students with non-traditional backgrounds. (Recall that convicted bank robber-turned Georgetown law professor Shon Hopwood also attended Washington Law.)

Extra Credit Reading

➤➤ Arizona Summit Law School is poised to lose its ABA accreditation, in what appears to be a first. School officials said they plan to appeal, but the end may be near.

➤➤ Remember that survey top schools sent to major law firms regarding mandatory arbitration agreements for summer associates? The result are in, and lots of firms didn’t respond.

➤➤ The American Bar Association does not want to litigate three very similar accreditation lawsuits brought by InfiLaw and its for-profit law schools separately. It has asked a court to consolidate the three cases in North Carolina.

➤➤ The movement among some top firms to $190,000 starting salaries is good news for law students soon to graduate, right? Yeah, but consider the narrowing path to equity partnership, shrinking pensions, billable hour increases and other bummer trends before you celebrate too much.

➤➤ Politics is a rough and tumble world, and two professors at the University of California, Irvine School of Law learned that firsthand when they ran against each other as Democrats vying from a Congressional seat representing Orange County. One professor accused the other of playing dirty on the campaign trail. 

➤➤ You can stop holding your breath now. Actress Reese Witherspoon confirmed that a third Legally Blonde film is in the works. Harvard Law School, brace for even more applications….

Thanks for reading Ahead of the Curve.

I’ll be back next week with more news and updates on the future of legal education. Until then, keep in touch at ksloan@alm.com.