St. Mary’s Becomes 1st ABA-Accredited Law School Fully Online
St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, recently received approval from the American Bar Association to offer the nation’s first online-only ABA-accredited law degree program.
Stephen Burnett, a law school adviser at the education consulting firm All Campus LLC, explained the importance of the approval – “with this online program, St. Mary’s can reach segments of the population in Texas (and elsewhere) that have not had geographical access to a law school,” he said. “West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley come to mind.”
Burnett said he believes the online degree program will attract those who may not have been able to pursue a traditional law school education.
“The program will also help diversify the profession by attracting students of color and older working students who have not been able to make a three-year commitment to leaving their jobs and families to attend law school residentially,” he said.
Although there are already some hybrid law schools accredited by the ABA, including programs at Mitchell Hamline and Syracuse University, St. Mary’s is now the first university to receive approval for a degree completely online.
One interesting question is whether St. Mary’s will offer lower tuition for its online law degree than what it charges for its in-person law program.
So far, it appears that the ABA law schools that have offered hybrid online programs have charged roughly the same for their hybrid-online programs as for their traditional in-person programs.
Not everyone agrees that the approval is a positive step for legal education. “Online education is said to be the path to disruptive innovation in legal education,” said Kevin P. Lee, a professor at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law. “I’m not sure if that’s what the profession needs.”
The focus of legal education, Lee said, “should never be solely on producing a discount education that treats students as product in a production line because that does the students, their future clients, and society as a whole a disservice.”
He raised concerns about technology, and said he thinks that online education is still “clunky“ in its quality and execution.
Most educators agree that it is important that online law schools attempt to re-create legal education instead of trying to merely transfer a traditional in-person classroom to an online format.
There will be some challenges, such as establishing a connection with faculty and students in an online setting.
“One way to avoid this would be to have an occasional intensive weekend or other period on campus to go along with the online instruction,” offers Burnett.
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