Legal education today is mired in the past. We are training twenty-first century lawyers using nineteenth century methods. Law students and today's legal environment have changed in ways that have profound implications for legal education. Today's lawyers operate in a digital environment and on-line distance education offers a promising response to this environment.
A New Breed of Lawyers
In a 2006 to 2012 study, a number of game-changing differences between today's students and their predecessors were found1. Most notably today's students' are increasingly familiar with and reliant upon technology.
The Law School class of 2014 was born into a world in which Apple and Microsoft already existed. Laptops, mobile phones, email, instant messaging and the internet are, for this generation, as ordinary as pen and paper were for previous generations. By the time the children born in the 1990's were in kindergarten, this technology was their reality. Before the Class of 2014 finished elementary school, Google, Wikipedia, blogging, and the iPod had arrived. By their early teens, Skype, iTunes and Facebook were all the rage. They had to wait until high school for YouTube, Twitter and the iPhone, but by then one-quarter of the Earth's population was on-line. This ubiquitous technology has irrevocably altered these students' understanding of and interaction with the world.
Today's students expect remote access to people, goods and services via their digital devices 24/7 from wherever they may be. Passive learning from books and lectures is not the way they choose to learn. Today's students prefer interactive learning, involving multi-tasking, technology and Twitter-size bits of information. They grew up with a vast breadth of information at their fingertips where a quick Google search on a mobile device can immediately verify or debunk any position. They are comfortable with and adept at using technology.
Today's Law Schools Don't Work for Twenty-First Century Students
Current technologies have influenced law students' preferences and changed how they learn, work, socialize and live. The result is a growing and fundamental mismatch between traditional casebook and lecture-based law schools and the digitally adept students that are enrolling in them today.
This divergence is producing problems in the classroom. Faculty members complain about students who text, surf the net, email, take phone calls and listen to music in class. Academic integrity has grown ambiguous in the digital age as opportunities for copying and plagiarism expanded on the internet. Students routinely engage in file and idea sharing of all kinds. Do we fight this or embrace it? Can we not take advantage of technology rather than demand our students ignore it out of a rigid adherence to a traditional, albeit outmoded, approach to learning?
Our law schools have failed to embrace today's digital world. Conventional legal education has been confined to the classroom. Law schools remain analog institutions seeking to educate digital students. Too many law programs believe they are keeping pace by switching from chalk & blackboards to laptops & PowerPoint. They couldn't be more wrong. Instead of fighting a losing battle against technology, law schools need to embrace technology and actively engage the twenty-first century law student.
Currently there is a shortage of lawyers in small communities. One cause of this problem is rural students relocating to a major urban centre to obtain a professional education and not returning to their home community to practice or failing to move to a large urban center to obtain a law degree in the first place.
To give credit where it is due, today's law schools are graduating excellent researchers and writers with the skill set necessary to specialize at the big city law firms. However they are not graduating lawyers with the general skills to run a small town practice. BUT there is a potential cohort of students in rural communities that could remedy this problem if they were given the opportunity offered by distance education.
Distance education, through the use of technology, would allow aspiring lawyers to complete a substantial portion of their legal education while remaining in their home communities. This can help solve the severe shortage of lawyers in smaller communities. Such a program also affords wider access to legal education, increased participation by under-represented groups and promotes greater diversity amongst the profession.
A blended form of distance education could include part online delivery, part on the job training and part classroom delivery. This could go a long way toward solving the above problems. The blended delivery model incorporates both face-to-face and online components. It would be well suited to collaboration with an established "bricks and mortar" law school, which could provide the physical infrastructure and faculty for in-person instruction during the spring and summer when law schools typically sit unused.
The ultimate goal of an online distance law program is to widen access to legal education, improve access to justice and benefit citizens with the services of increased numbers of lawyers in smaller communities. Such a program could make legal education, and legal services, more accessible for historically disadvantaged groups including lower income individuals, rural residents, aboriginal people and others who encounter practical barriers to pursuing a traditional legal education and obtaining legal services.
1 Levine, A & Dean, DR, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student (Jossey-Bass, 2012).
Originally published in Law Matters
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