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The nation’s first online law school has graduated its first class: 10 men and women whose home study bears little resemblance to traditional law school Socratic teaching. The November graduates face uncertain prospects and high hurdles should they decide to pursue traditional careers in law. Los Angeles-based Concord Law School is unaccredited and likely to stay that way, since the American Bar Association won’t accredit any “correspondence schools.” The 1,100-student Concord expects to add 650 students next year, making it the largest part-time law school in the nation and the second-largest overall, behind the Georgetown University Law Center of Washington, D.C. If they pass California’s tough bar exam in large numbers, Concord graduates will challenge the existing model of how to prepare for the legal profession. Concord, part of the Kaplan Inc. school-preparation testing empire — itself a wholly owned subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. — has been more successful at signing up students at $7,000 annual tuition than it has in addressing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of accreditation. The ABA’s Legal Education Council won’t accredit any school that offers substantial “distance learning.” Although the ABA’s Standards Committee has just established rules allowing some online education at ABA-accredited schools, that doesn’t help Concord. No accreditation means that Concord students can take only the California Bar exam. If they pass, they can practice only in California. Although a few states allow reciprocal admission from nonaccredited California schools, most require practice experience or another bar exam or both. Internet law school means a tough road for nontraditional students, many of whom study outside California and must return to Los Angeles for a special first year and the regular bar exams, and who may wish to practice in other states. Some legal professionals charge that restrictive ABA rules are designed to protect established schools and that they hurt nontraditional students. “The ABA’s insistence on classroom learning is part of a more general program of erecting artificial barriers to the profession in order to depress the total number of lawyers and to restrict the profession, as much as possible, to those of wealthy background,” says John Plotz, a California labor lawyer and a former member of the California Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct. Plotz says that by the time students get to law school, they have been in classrooms for 16 or more years and classroom experience as such is inessential. “As a practical matter,” he says, “by the time they have completed yet another three years of school, they will still begin the practice of law as neophytes and have to learn the arts of advocacy the only way they can be learned: on the job.” Barry Currier, the ABA’s deputy consultant on legal education, rejects the idea that the ABA is holding back innovation at law schools. “Law schools are doing a lot of new things, not just distance learning,” he says. “There are innovative clinical courses, opportunities for foreign study, and distance education is just one more piece. It would be irresponsible to abandon our guidelines just because someone says they have a new thing.” Currier denies that the ABA and law schools are trying to restrict competition. “There are 186 accredited schools, and 10 or 15 more in the pipeline,” he says. “The question is not why shouldn’t Concord be approved” for accreditation, “but rather: Why should it be approved?” Concord students watch recorded lectures or participate in live sessions on home computers. Unlike traditional students, they can watch again. During lectures, they can type questions for teachers, who in turn can query individual students. That means the question-and-answer Socratic method isn’t missing at his school, says Concord Dean Jack R. Goetz. “It’s there, but we use it in a way that is supportive and collaborative and team building, rather than humbling and humiliating,” he says. Regular tests track students’ progress. Those tests and final exams are conducted online. Class schedules resemble a part-time schedule at a traditional school, with the time for earning a degree set at four years. A STUDENT’S VIEW “We were very well supported,” says graduate Laura Collins, who enrolled after starting a career in the entertainment industry. “I don’t know if our group was particularly pushy, but we asked the professors lots and lots of questions, and we got back answers very fast — always within 24 hours and often a lot sooner.” Concord is the brainchild of Goetz, who developed the business plan for an online law school several years ago. His career has included teaching at Whittier Law School, work at BAR/BRI bar preparation courses and developing the Sum and Substance “Quick Review” bar-review aids. The school has fans, especially among critics of traditional legal education. Heidi Bogosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, says her group thinks traditional curricula “don’t encourage enough critical thinking on the part of the law student about how to craft their own practice” and that desensitized students often don’t take responsibility for their approach to law practice. Concord offers an advocacy program in partnership with William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., a two-week immersion in trial advocacy skills. Says graduate Sandusky Shelton of her experience: “It was my worst nightmare of boot camp, but was very rewarding.” John Neuman, the director of Ecornell (a distance-learning subsidiary of Cornell University) and a former executive director at Dewey Ballantine in the 1980s, says that despite his professional enthusiasm for distance learning, in-person intangibles such as professional networking, behavioral skills, entrepreneurship, student interaction and the richness of the legal classroom may be as important for law practice as the books. Plotz disagrees. “Before they begin practice, lawyers need to learn a certain body of knowledge and certain intellectual skills,” he says. “A classroom is one place to learn — but a very expensive one. They can also be learned through clerkship or self-study or nowadays online. I have known several outstanding lawyers who never went to law school. And we all know many inept ones who did.”

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