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Mock trials and evidence outlines have long been used to teach law students how to act in the courtroom. But this fall, students at Concord University School of Law will get a whole new look at them. Literally. Concord students will take their trial advocacy course entirely over the Internet. This is nothing out of the ordinary at Concord, a law school where ivy does not grow on walls because there aren’t any. Or buildings. Or classrooms. Concord, which opened its virtual doors in 1998, is run entirely online. (Go to www.concordlawschool.com.) Students attend lectures by watching them on video through RealPlayer, a program for viewing streaming video and audio. They talk with professors via e-mail and in chat rooms. They can even sneak a look at other students’ notes posted on Web sites. Concord is owned by Kaplan Inc., an education company that’s part of the Washington Post Co. It has about 700 students, who pay about $6,000 a year. The average class size is 25 to 30 students. Concord’s program lasts four years, and the first class is expected to graduate in October 2002. The optional advocacy course, which hasn’t launched yet, is an attempt to address one of the major criticisms aimed at Concord: that it is not fit to give practical courses over the Internet. “We’re fairly humble in that we know we need to prove ourselves,” says Concord Dean Jack Goetz. So Goetz hired John Sonsteng, a law professor at St. Paul, Minn.’s William Mitchell College of Law, to design the trial class. “I think this way may be better than the old way,” says Sonsteng, a former district attorney who has taught law for almost 25 years. As he’s done with his live classes, Sonsteng created a fictional civil negligence suit called Riley vs. Garfield House Apartments. He hired actors and filmed them reading the trial, which lasts an hour and a half. Students will watch it in stages throughout the year-long course. They can watch it at their leisure, as they can with the videotaped course lectures. Sonsteng will interrupt with lawyering tips. Students also have to perform at a trial. They can choose either a personal injury or a contract case. They have to videotape themselves in action. Sonsteng says this gives students a chance to perfect their styles, which they can’t do in traditional settings where speechmaking is all extemporaneous. “They can take their best ten minutes and send it. This gives them the chance to review their performance,” says Sonsteng. These amateur trial lawyers will have to play both sides of the case. They’ll have to make opening and closing statements, do direct and cross-examinations and introduce evidence. The judging part comes later: students will ship the tapes out to be graded and critiqued. If students pass the course, they can attend an optional eight-day live follow-up workshop at William Mitchell, where they can receive some personal attention. Many law school old hands say distance learning just isn’t the same as the in-the-flesh style. “I don’t think online learning can replace what goes on in the classroom,” says Peter Winograd, associate dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law. Winograd says that online learning is best left to small, upper-level courses, like the one his university offers on Indian tax law, to students at other schools. Not so, says Sonsteng. “We’ve been doing distance learning since Socrates. We take books home. This is just another way of self-study.” But there are limits to Concord’s degree. Graduates can sit only for the California bar, where Concord has a license as an educational institution. (No other state is currently considering letting Concord students sit for its bar, but many states do honor the California bar.) Concord is an opportunity for students who generally haven’t been able to get a law degree from a more traditional institution. This can mean single mothers, people in the boonies or executives who are tied up all day and often into the evening at work. Dean Goetz boasts that Concord’s untraditional teaching style makes it work. (About 70 percent of students stay on, he says.) Instead of giving one final exam at the end of the course, as most law schools do, it piles homework, essays, and quizzes throughout. Concord says this amounts to about 20 hours of work a week. Some students estimate more. Farzad Naeim, a structural engineer who is vice president for research and development at John A. Martin and Associates Inc., in Los Angeles, says he spent about 25 hours a week studying his first year. Naeim took up law school when he realized how many lawsuits his company was being hit with. “It came to my attention that attorneys and engineers don’t really understand each other,” says Naeim. This year Naeim will be a 4L, and says he hopes he’ll sit for the bar in 2002, so he can become general counsel of his company.

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