Law school was a distant dream when Heather Brown finished her undergraduate degree in business administration at Old Dominion University in 1986.

Money was tight, so she joined the work force and started a government contracting and management consulting business in Virginia in the early 1990s. But the classroom beckoned, and Brown got two advanced degrees through night and weekend classes.

That long-desired law degree remained elusive, however. Brown, 45, hadn’t found a program flexible enough to fit into her busy life. In 1999, she was accepted into George Mason University School of Law‘s night program and started classes one year after having a baby.

But she felt she was missing out on things at home and dropped out. That easily could have been the end of her legal education.

It wasn’t.

After stumbling across Concord Law School‘s online program several years later, Brown joined the growing number of people working toward their law degrees over the Internet, through what are known as “distance education” programs.

Short of a desire to learn the law, most online law students have little in common with their 20-something counterparts who flood into lecture halls at prestigious brick-and-mortar schools each year in hopes of landing a job at a top firm.

Typical online students are older, midway through their career, work part time or full time and have family or financial commitments that prevent them from devoting three years of their life and upwards of $100,000 to attend traditional law school. Most aren’t gunning for jobs at prestigious firms or other highly competitive law positions, either.

In Brown’s case, she’s on track to finish her juris doctor degree in December and plans to sit for the California bar exam, which is the only bar exam open to students with online law degrees.

GROWING NUMBERS

No organization tracks the number of schools offering online law degrees nationwide, but the number has grown from just one a decade ago to upwards of 12. At least four such schools have sprung up in the past five years, and many existing correspondence law schools are converting to online-only programs. A growing number of traditional brick-and-mortar law schools are also offering courses online, which is helping online law instruction to gain acceptance.

Sandusky Shelton had no idea what she wanted to do with a law degree when she enrolled in Concord’s online program at age 51 in 1998, but she knew she was fascinated by the law. Shelton had already been in the restaurant business and had retired as a technician at AT&T when she began her law studies. Ten years later, she has a solo practice and handles juvenile dependency cases for Plumas County, Calif., among other things.

“I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” said Shelton, now 60. “I feel like it’s useful work.”

The vast majority of online law students see a law degree as a way to enhance their existing careers and move up the corporate ladder or to move into a second career, said Robert K. Strouse, dean of Taft Law School in Santa Ana, Calif. Taft, which has offered correspondence law degrees for two decades, switched over to a fully online program 18 months ago.

A significant portion of Taft’s 255 students work in law enforcement or other fields that have contact with the world of law. Some are nearing retirement and want to embark on a new career, while others are looking to bolster their résumés so they can become police or fire chiefs, Strouse said.

Donna Skibbe, the vice president of external relations for Concord Law School, said professionals such as airline pilots and midlevel corporate workers make up the bulk of the school’s 1,500 students. Concord, part of the for-profit Kaplan University, was founded in 1998 and is the largest online law school in the country.

The average age of a Concord student is 43, and many of those who don’t aspire to practice law but still want a legal education opt for the school’s abbreviated, three-year executive juris doctor program. Graduates of that program aren’t eligible to sit for the California bar.

While the number of online law schools is on the rise, graduates of those programs who want to practice law face certain limitations and challenges.

The most glaring is that many states don’t recognize online law degrees and don’t allow graduates to sit for their bar exams. Some states allow graduates to take their bar if they have passed the California bar, while others do not.

Online law students must also take another test that their peers at most brick-and-mortar schools don’t: the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, also known as the “baby bar.” The test, required for students attending schools not accredited by the State Bar of California or the American Bar Association, is a one-day exam designed to measure knowledge base and analytical and writing skills.

Another hurdle is how online degrees are perceived in the legal community.

“We tell students up front that if they can get into Harvard Law, do it,” Strouse said. “The doors that are opened by graduating from the best law schools in the country are beyond anything we could promise our students. You’re not going to clerk for a Supreme Court judge if you go through our program.”

But most students from second-, third- and fourth-tier law schools won’t have those high-level opportunities either, Strouse said.

Skibbe said that Concord graduates aren’t recruited and hired by the top 100 law firms, many of which look for young associates from name-brand law schools. But she noted that they will graduate with far less debt than most students at brick-and-mortar law schools. That means they don’t have to shy away from public sector law jobs because they are worried they can’t pay back student loans. Tuition for most online law programs ranges from $7,500 to $10,000 a year, and students don’t have added living costs.

Concord Law School advises students that they will spend about 25 hours a week on their studies during the course of the four-year program.

Joy Nonnweiler figures she devoted closer to 40 hours a week studying, on top of her full-time job managing a medical clinic in Milwaukee. She graduated from Concord in 2007, passed the California bar, then passed the bar in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is among the states that allow online law school graduates to sit for the bar once they’ve passed the California bar. She is now ramping up her solo law practice, where she focuses on criminal defense.

Most online law programs utilize a combination of weekly reading and writing assignments, video lectures and online discussion forums, among other elements. Without in-person classes and face time between students and professors, officials at online law schools say the program isn’t a good fit for people who lack maturity and discipline.

Nonnweiler agrees. She estimates that more than three-fourths of her class dropped out before completing the program.

“You can’t be a slacker and do this,” she said. “There is a group of people who started the program because they thought it would be easier than a brick-and-mortar law school, and those people got culled from the herd. There were people who just didn’t realize how hard it would be.”

One thing online law schools can’t fully re-create is the Socratic method that is a cornerstone of legal education in the United States. Critics of online law programs argue that typing responses during an online class discussion does not develop the same skills as being quizzed in person by a professor.

“Historically, the concerns have been about interaction between students and professors,” said Hulett Askew, consultant on legal education to the ABA. “Some of those issues have been dealt with through technology, but a lot of people would say that a completely online degree loses something in the translation, as far as preparing for a legal career.”

Strouse, the dean of Taft Law School, said that the Socratic method isn’t the best way for every student to learn.

“This is probably not the program for the person who is always raising their hand in class and spends a lot of time with professors during office hours,” he said. “But the Socratic method makes many students uncomfortable. They may be too intimidated to ask questions or participate in class.”

BAR PASSAGE RATES

Online schools still have something to prove when it comes to the performance of their graduates on standardized law exams.

Of the approximately 525 students who have graduated from Concord with juris doctor degrees since the school opened, slightly more than 200 have been admitted to the California Bar, said Skibbe. Some graduates opt not to sit for the bar, while others don’t pass.

Concord, generally, has the highest bar passage rates among online and correspondence law schools, but it still has a significantly lower passage rate than ABA-accredited schools overall. For example, the passage rate for first-time test takers at ABA-accredited schools in California was 62 percent for the February bar. Concord had a first-time pass rate of 38 percent. Skibbe said Concord’s overall pass rate is 50 percent.

The statistics for the baby bar also show room for improvement. Correspondence and online law school students had a 22 percent overall pass rate last October.

Like it or not, online law schools are here to stay. That’s the opinion of Concord Dean Barry Currier, who said it’s just a matter of time before distance-education law schools are eligible for ABA accreditation.

Online and correspondence law schools don’t meet current ABA-accreditation standards. That’s because ABA standards measure factors such as libraries, facilities, clinical experience and interaction between students and professors, Askew said. It’s virtually impossible to measure those elements when it comes to online schools, thus the standards would have to be dramatically modified to cover those programs.

Online coursework is slowly becoming more accepted in the law school community. The ABA modified its accreditation standards in 2003 to allow students to take 12 of the 90 credit courses required for a juris doctor degree online.

That limit could increase in the future, but that discussion hasn’t taken place, Askew said.

“Distance education is growing dramatically at the graduate level. Who knows what will happen five years from now?” he said.

Strouse said that several things must happen before the ABA would likely consider accrediting online schools. First, these law schools need to demonstrate that students can learn through online classes. Second, bar passage rates for online law schools must improve. “Ultimately, I think there will be [ABA accreditation of online law schools], but there’s a body of evidence that needs to be assembled,” he said.

Eric Niemeyer doesn’t give much thought to what people in the law world may think of his degree from Concord. He’s too busy with his job as an assistant public defender in Siskiyou County, Calif.

Niemeyer, 44, was working as a traffic and civil engineer for Jackson County, Ore., when he decided to give law school a try. He kept his engineering job while studying nights and weekends.

Like many other graduates of online law programs, Niemeyer said he probably would not have pursued a law degree without the flexibility of doing his studies from home while working a full-time job. The nearest brick-and-mortar law school is a 2 1/2-hour drive away from his home.

“I had always wanted to be a lawyer, but I could never figure out a way to make it work,” he said. “I love being a lawyer. I love the adversarial nature of the business.”

Niemeyer’s boss, Lael Kayfetz, said she didn’t have any reservations about hiring him just because he doesn’t have a degree from traditional law school.

Kayfetz believes that online law students must be even more dedicated and motivated than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar schools since they don’t have other students around to push them. Plus, graduates of online law programs still must pass the bar in order to practice, she said. But not everyone shares that view.

“Big firms won’t hire someone like Eric,” Kayfetz said. “They’re too snobby. I think there is a bias against [online law degrees] in the industry. The profession has to recognize that we’re in the 21st century.”

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