Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Digital cracks the final frontier: Law school

Obtain your law degree ... online?
Obtain your law degree ... online?

Law schools will never be the same thanks to a Minnesota law school which went up against the American Bar Association and won.

The William Mitchell College of Law applied to the ABA for permission to design a hybrid online program to students. In an unprecedented move, the ABA approved it.

Even though online law schools have existed since the 1990s, their reach was very limited and the ABA refused to recognize them. Many now believe groundbreaking changes are coming in the way lawyers are being educated across the board. In January, 85 students from 31 states and two countries began taking classes in the first-of-its-kind hybrid program, according to the William Mitchell College of Law.

"Every class is half online and half in person," said law professor Greg Duhl, the hybrid J.D. program's director.

"We were thinking of new ways to expand access to legal education. We saw technology becoming increasingly important to the practice of law," he said. "With the decline of lawyers and law students, we were looking for new avenues to attract students."

You could say the ABA, which declined to comment to CNBC, is playing catch-up—as top business schools such as Yale University and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina gain traction with their full-time online MBA programs. Those schools generally attract older candidates with secure, well-paying jobs.

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Like many online MBA programs, tuition for the William Mitchell College of Law's online version costs the same as the traditional program. In this case, the price tag is still a whopping $27,770 a year. Still, there is one striking benefit for many who choose the hybrid option.

"Students don't have to quit their jobs or uproot their families. That is where the savings come from." said Duhl. "We have doctors, police officers, nurses, social workers and professors—people who have very good jobs but they want to go to law school."

Surging demand

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Demand has been surprisingly high, and it has exceeded expectations, according to Duhl. It comes as tuition at law schools is skyrocketing while application rates slide.

Law schools overall are seeing 6.7 percent fewer applications this year versus 2014, according the Law School Admission Council. And, there's speculation that application rates could soon hit the lowest level in 15 years. The average yearly tuition, housing expenses, books and other fees, on average, cost students more than $65,000 a year at private law schools, according to 2012 data from the ABA.

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If online law degrees ultimately translate to lower debt burdens for aspiring attorneys, it could transform the kinds of opportunities in a challenging job market.

"To a hiring partner, that would mean the candidate could spend more years learning one or more legal disciplines at an employer-friendly salary. That applicant would not be looking to jump to a higher paid position exclusively to meet their loan obligations," said Alan Feller, managing partner of Sloan and Feller, a New York estate planning and elder law firm.

"This benefits law firms and municipal legal services serving consumer interests and public service, which do not have the operating capital of a corporate firm," he said, adding that he wouldn't rule out eventually hiring a candidate with an online law degree.

So far, California is the only state allowing graduates from unaccredited online law schools to take the state's bar exam. One of them is Concord Law School.

As of July 2014, 52 percent of the graduates since the school's inception in 1998 have passed the California Bar Exam, according to Concord. Meanwhile, the latest data from the California Bar Association finds less than half of all aspiring attorneys pass the test.

Interim Dean Larry David, who is a graduate of Concord, credits the school with giving him the opportunity to become a lawyer at 61 years old. Not being able to justify spending $150,000 or more, the former Apple Computer managing director looked into Concord. He enrolled at a time when the classes were conducted over a dial-up connection.

"I always wanted to go to law school, and in 1966 when I graduated from college my father talked me into going to business school," said David. "I retired in 1995 and looked into law school."

A few years later, David had his own pro bono practice in Los Angeles.

"I have been in court quite often with a lot of folks coming from some of the top institutions and I haven't lost to them," said David.

Tuition at Concord is now nearly $10,000 a year for a four year program. Similar to the William Mitchell College of Law, most enrolled students have other careers and jobs in fields such as medicine and banking and want a change.

And, just because the Concord degree is completed online, doesn't mean you can't make it in law.

"Anybody who wants to work hard enough of average intelligence could become a lawyer in the state of California," added David.