Syracuse University College of Law this week kicked off its hybrid Juris Doctor program in which students complete the bulk of their coursework online—only the second such program in the nation approved by the American Bar Association.
The inaugural cohort of Syracuse’s JDinteractive program comprises 32 students selected from a pool of 241 applicants. The online students were subject to the same admissions standards as applicants to Syracuse’s residential program, and in fact the LSAT scores of the first admitted online class were higher than those of the residential students, said Nina Kohn, associate dean for online education at the school.
The high interest in Syracuse’s new hybrid bodes well for other schools with plans to break into online J.D.s. (Many law schools already offer LL.M.s, Masters in Law, and certificates online, but schools have experienced more barriers to obtain accreditation of online J.D.s, because of the ABA’s 30-credit limit on distance education.) Like Syracuse, Southwestern Law School and the University of Dayton School of Law have received variances from the ABA to offer those hybrid J.D.s that exceed the 30-credit limit, but those two programs aren’t due to launch until August. Still other schools have or plan to add hybrid programs that work within the existing 30-credit limitation by incorporating more on-campus time.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2015 launched the first hybrid program and graduated its first class of online students in early 2018. (A spokesman for the St. Paul school said Wednesday that 292 students are currently enrolled in its hybrid program, but Mitchell Hamline doesn’t yet have bar pass data for the 73 graduates.)
Syracuse’s hybrid differs from existing offerings in part due to its emphasis on online classes delivered in real-time, alongside the more common self-paced online classes of other programs that allow students to complete them at their convenience. JDinteractive took four years of planning, Kohn said, and classes are taught primarily by the school’s regular law faculty.
“I think we have the potential to set the standard for what a quality legal education looks like in this online space,” she said.
Syracuse’s first hybrid class represents a departure from typical incoming law students. They are significantly older with an average age of 35, and 41 percent are first-generation college students. Most are midcareer or in senior roles in their fields and see a law degree as a way to either advance or take their careers in a new direction, Kohn said. They aren’t going to law school on a whim, but have a clear view of how they want to leverage their J.D.s, she added.
Nearly half of the 32 are in the military or are military spouses. Some are planning for post-military careers, while others aim to move into roles as attorneys within the military. And attending law school online opens opportunities for military spouses that may not exist otherwise, Kohn said.
“For students who cannot guarantee they can be in one place for three years, a residential program by and large doesn’t make sense,” she said. “For military students or spouse of members of the military, a residential program is just not a workable option because they can’t commit to be in one place for three years.”
The inaugural JDinteractive class has students from 20 states, as well as Germany, Tanzania and Japan.
The program is designed to be completed in three years and three months. The students convened on campus this week for the first of four intensive, in-person sessions. They will return in August for another week, and complete two long weekend sessions there in their second year of studies. They are required to complete two more in-person classes, but those can be taken at any of Syracuse’s satellite locations, Kohn said. The program is as rigorous and demanding as the residential J.D., she added.
“We really are able to expand access to well-qualified students by offering our J.D. in this way,” Kohn said. “We’re seeing the types of students who will make fabulous attorneys, but for whom there wasn’t a viable, realistic option before.”