Legal Education And The Web

In an unusual move among highly ranked traditional law schools, the Washington University Law School today unveiled a fully online master’s degree program in U.S. law. The program will be designed and taught by Washington Law faculty using a platform developed by 2tor, a Maryland-based online education provider. It will begin enrolling students in January 2013.

The St. Louis-based law school says the new online program is meant primarily for practicing lawyers in foreign countries as a way for them to get credentialed as experts in American law without having to quit their jobs and move to the United States to take classes. The program does not offer a path to a J.D., and is not designed to prepare students to take the bar exam — although the American Bar Association (ABA), the sector’s most powerful regulatory body, has “acquiesced” to Washington Law's new online program, and about a dozen states will permit its graduates to sit for the bar exam, according to school officials.

Nevertheless, Washington Law’s foray into fully online degrees of any kind is the latest of a series of online pushes in legal education, which has lagged well behind most of higher education when it comes to Web-based graduate programs. Washington Law is not the first to offer an online master’s degree (LL.M.) in U.S. law; the Florida Coastal College of Law has offered one since 2010; the New York University Law School, the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the University of Alabama School of Law offer fully online degrees in specific areas of U.S. law. Along with these pioneers, Washington Law's decision to create a fully online program, made all the more notable for its vaunted reputation among traditional law schools, might be seen as a bellwether for evolving views on online teaching and learning within a notoriously staid segment of higher education. (This and the previous two paragraphs have been updated since publication.)

The Washington law professors leading the new online program, both of whom considered themselves skeptics only a year ago, say they are convinced now that online education technology has progressed to a point where the quality is independent of whether the seminar discussions happen in a physical classroom or in a virtual one.

“I believe that we’re trying to create extremely high-quality coursework online that is consistent with the quality we give for in-person programs, including the J.D.,” says Kent Syverud, the dean of Washington's  law school, who will be teaching a course within the new online program.

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