The Factors To Consider When Deciding Which Online Law School To Attend, by Al Thomas
Online Law Schools are a “new animal,” having come into being only in recent decades. And it was not until 2008, that the California State Bar, the only state bar that recognizes online schools, made a distinction between “distance-learning” schools and “correspondence” schools in its registration of law schools. It, thus, is not surprising that there is little, if any, literature advising potential students on what factors they should consider in deciding which online or distance-learning law school to choose to attend.
This article, apparently the first of its kind, attempts to fill this void. The author, an experienced lawyer and legal educator, with experience in the field of online or distance-learning legal education, addresses the following topics under the separate headings indicated below: (I) Whether the law school utilizes the universally preferred Socratic Method in its teaching program; (II) Whether the law school actually is an online law school; (III) Whether the law school is “producing” a significant number of law students eligible to take the requisite First Year Law Student Bar Exam; and (IV) Whether students at the law school are able to pass the First Year Law Students Exam (“Baby bar”).
I. Whether the Law School Utilizes the Socratic Method in Its Teaching Program
Without exception, all of the prestigious law schools in the United States teach by the Socratic question and answer method. It, indeed, is the understanding of the author of this article that the professors at each and every law school in the United States that is accredited by either The American Bar Association or the California State Bar teach by the Socratic Method.
Under the Socratic Method system of legal instruction, before each class students are assigned cases and statutes to read and brief. This pre-class preparation is followed by in-class presentations by the students. As a crucial part of this process, students are questioned by the professors, sometimes rigorously with follow-up questions, regarding the facts, rule of law or the court’s reasoning as to the assignment made before class. Law schools use the Socratic Method in order to teach students how to analyze and make legal arguments, how to properly read and brief cases and, lastly, how to prepare for the pressures and rigors of a legal practice.
Americas Legal Bookstore, a publishing house, has published and is distributing a book entitled “The Online Law Schools Book.” The book, written by Dominick Latella, is a descriptive compilation of all law schools in California that either are on-line law schools or at least claim to be. Mr. Latella wrote as follows regarding the use of the Socratic Method at online law schools:
“California School of Law is THE ONLY SCHOOL TO OFFER LIVE SOCRATIC
METHOD TEACHING ONLINE. Students are equipped with VOiP software, and headsets, and meet live twice per week in a real virtual class. Teachers use the Socratic Method asking students questions in the same manner that teachers at Harvard, Yale, and any traditional school ask their students. Classes are on Tuesday and Thursday nights, at 6:00 pm PDT. So, basically anyone can attend.
“This is the closest thing to a real law school. You will learn how to prepare for class, interact live in class, and have a true Law School experience! As the years go on, there are Moot Courts and trial practice, Live, again assuring the most real life Law School Experience of any of the on-line law schools. You better be prepared for class!
“The California School of Law is Real Law School!!! If you have two nights per week for the next four years, it will give you the most Real Law School experience possible. Students also can meet online for study groups. It is amazing. A thumbs up!!!
In short, the virtual classroom online system used by California School of Law provides students with the benefits of the Socratic Method. As the above-quoted part of Latella’s compendium review of online law schools makes clear, the pedagogical program at the California School of Law is not self-study, text messaging or a chat room, nor is it watching a “canned” DVD or video download, nor is it a lecture with an opportunity to text message questions. In California School of Law’s virtual classrooms, rather, students and faculty discuss and argue rules of law, live and in “real time.”
As the above-quote from Latella’s “Online Law School Book” also makes clear, the online law schools other than the California School of Law provide a very different teaching pedagogy. For example, at Concord Law School, the students, like at the California School of Law, utilize the VOIP software program to hear the professors’ lectures. With the technology utilized at Concord, however, there is no ability for the professors to call on students to make case presentations or to ask probing questions designed to sharpen the student’s understanding of the legal issue involved in the matter being discussed. Indeed, all that the students at Concord can do is text message questions to the professor but, again, the professor cannot direct questions or otherwise engage the students.
The teaching format at Abraham Lincoln School of Law is similar to that at Concord. Each Saturday, lectures are given that the students can attend or listen to online. They can text message inquiries to the professors. Like at Concord, however, there is no technological ability for the professors to call on the students, thus nixing the possible use of anything resembling the traditional Socratic Method of teaching law.
It also is to be noted that even if one were to argue that despite its near-universal use, the Socratic Method is not the only feasible and effective way of teaching law, one cannot seriously doubt that providing a “give and take,” live, contemporaneous educational session during during which students can be called on is vastly superior to a teaching program without such a component.
At the California School of Law, because students get to know each other in the virtual classrooms, online student study groups are formed that enable students to share ideas, research results and test strategies, as well as develop valuable networking relationships, as they would at a traditional residential law school.
II Whether the Law School Actually is An Online Law School
Most significantly, for purposes of determining whether a school is actually providing an online or distance-learning educational opportunity, on its website the California State Bar lists those schools that are “distance-learning,” i.e., “online,” in a separate category from those designated as “correspondence” schools. There is no mystery as to the significance of the different categorizations; in short, the State Bar’s website unqualifiedly states that a “correspondence” school is one that “conducts instruction primarily by correspondence” while, in sharp contrast, the State Bar defines a “distance-learning” or “online” school as being one that “conducts instruction and provides interactive classes principally by technological means.”(Emphasis added.)
Astounding as it may seem, many law schools hold themselves out in their advertising and on their websites as being “distance-learning” and/or “online” when, in fact, they are categorized by the California State Bar as a “correspondence” school. The simple truth, in this regard, is that there are only five law schools categorized on the California State Bar website as being “online” or “distance-learning,” namely: Abraham Lincoln University School of Law; American Heritage University School of Law; Aristotle University Institute of Law; California School of Law and Concord Law School. All other law schools that are registered with the California Bar are categorized by the Bar as beng either “correspondence” or “fixed facility, i.e. residential.
The law schools that engage in this practice of claiming to be either distance-learning and/or online when the State Bar has determined otherwise are too numerous to list. A few examples, however, should be sufficient to give warning to the potential student who wants to attend a law school that truly affords the convenience and financial advantages of an online school, as opposed to a correspondence school. For example, California Southern University School of Law, Taft Law School and Northwestern California University School of Law are designated by the California State Bar as correspondence schools, not distance-learning, but nevertheless are listed on the Google search engine sites as being “online law schools.” Further, on their websites these three schools make unqualified claims to the effect that they provide an “online” education, one going so far as to claim that its teaching is “100% online” and another claiming that is “an entirely online law school.”
Additional law schools that have been or are making similar claims to the effect that they are online schools, when they are not so registered with the California Bar, include the following: Esquire College, MD Kirk School of Law, National Law School, Newport University School of Law, Northwestern California University School of Law, Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, Southern California University for Professional Studies, University of Honolulu School of Law, University of LaVerne College of Law, West Coast School of Law, Inc. and West Haven University.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above-stated facts is so obvious that it probably need not be stated. If a potential law student wants the advantages of attending a school that, to use the State Bar’s terminology, that “provides interactive classes by technological means,” as opposed to one that, again using the State Bar terms, “conducts instruction primarily by correspondence,” that student should eliminate all schools from his or her consideration except the five above-named schools that are categorized by the California State Bar as being “distance-learning.
Although it probably does not need to be stated, there is a tremendous difference in the value of the educational experience of participating in live, “real-time” interactive classes, as opposed to the mere receipt and self-study of written materials, as by definition the basic pedagogy is at the non-online or “correspondence” law school. In this vein, it also is to be remembered that, as to the point made above in Section “I” regarding the importance of the Socratic Method, a “correspondence” law school, by definition, could not possibly utilize the Socratic Method.
III Whether the Law School is Producing Students Eligible to Take the “Baby Bar”
As anyone who investigates the possibility of attending an online law school learns very quickly, under California State Bar rules upon successful completion of their first year at an online law school, all students wishing to ultimately become admitted to the bar must sit for and pass the First Year Law Students Exam, popularly known as the “baby bar.” It follows that an important factor for a prospective online law school student to consider in determining which online school to choose is whether the law school has been successful in getting its students to successfully complete the first academic year, thereby making them eligible to sit for the “baby bar.”
The author of this article has reviewed the relevant California State Bar records to determine the number of students at the five schools designated by the Bar as “distance-learning” that have sat for the baby bar. That review, done of the State Bar’s statistical reports that were circulated on 1/6/09, 10/14/08, 1/4/08, 10/31/07 and 3/1/07, shows that two of the five “online” schools are not successfully getting students to the baby bar exam stage.
The said two schools are American Heritage University School of Law and Aristotle University Institute of Law. In short, according to the State Bar’s above-listed statistical reports, Aristotle literally has not had a single student take the baby bar during the last five administrations, beginning with the one in October, 2006. Since Aristotle was formed in 2006, this means that it never has had a student sit for the baby bar. Yet, despite never having had a student take the baby bar, Aristotle claims on its website that it has a “100% Baby Bar Pass Rate.”
For all intents and purposes, American Heritage fares no better. This school has had only one student sit for the baby bar since October, 2006 and that one student failed.
It goes without saying, that it would make no sense to attend a law school whose record shows that none, or at least virtually none, of its entering students make it to the baby bar stage, which is merely the first step in the bar admission process. Indeed, the only tangible result of attending such a school almost inevitably would be the expenditure by the student of much time and money, with no meaningful beneficial results.
IV Whether the Law School is Producing Students Able to Pass the Baby Bar
Section I above of this article shows that of the five law schools that are categorized by the California State Bar as being “online” schools, two are not getting their students to the baby bar exam stage. The remaining three schools are Abraham Lincoln, Concord and the California School of Law.
Data for the June, 2009 administration of the “baby bar” show that six students from the California School of Law took the exam and four, or 66.7% passed. Three of these students were taking the exam for the first time and all three, or 100%, passed the exam. And the author is informed that all four of the students who took the School’s baby bar prep course and its Legal Methods course were successful.
Comparable data for Concord and Abraham Lincoln for the June 2009 “baby bar” is not yet publicly available. “Baby bar” passage rate data, however, is available for these two law schools for the immediately-preceding “baby bar” administration, namely the exam given in October, 2008: Seventy-nine students from Abraham Lincoln took the “baby bar” in October, 2008 and eight, or 10.1% were successful; thirty-three of the 79 Abraham Lincoln students took the exam for the first time and five, or 15.2% were successful; The results at Concord School of Law were only slightly better: 28 out of 196 Concord students taking the exam passed, for a 14.3% passage rate and 17 out of Concord’s 86 first time takers the exam, a 19.8% rate.
The import of the above-stated facts and analyses need not be belabored here. If a prospective student wants a quality legal education, but for personal or financial reasons cannot attend a residential law school, the student should go to an online school that truly is an online school, that has a record of having students take the First Year Law Students Exam, whose students have a reasonable passage rate on the baby bar and that, most importantly, utilizes the long and well-accepted Socratic Method of teaching law. A potential student who does not heed this admonition probably will “live to regret it” since, as more than one commentator has stated, “The Socratic Method is a fundamental part of a quality legal education and is what prepares future attorneys to think like lawyers.” See “ Applying to School, the “Online Controversy.”