Last month, Ross Mitchell made headlines when he became the first online law school graduate to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
Mitchell, 57, is a computer systems and management consultant. We’re not sure exactly what that is, but it requires him to travel frequently between California and his home in Massachusetts. He decided he wanted to get a law degree to enhance what he could offer to his clients. The online-only Concord Law School which is owned by Kaplan (which is owned in turn by the Washington Post) offered a flexible educational option. He got his law degree from Concord University in 2004.
He passed the bar in California – it’s the one bar exam that Concord grads can take directly out of the program – in 2004. Other states allow Concord grads who have passed the California bar to sit for their bar exams, but Massachusetts is not one of them. The Mass. Board of Bar Examiners requires that bar takers have a degree from an accredited law school.
Mitchell sued the Mass. Board of Bar Examiners, challenging the constitutionality of that rule. He didn’t succeed in getting the state to change the rule, but he did get a waiver so that he could take the bar. He still hopes the Board of Bar Examiners will change its rules.
Or maybe they won’t have to. As we have mentioned before, the American Bar Association is in the midst of reviewing law school accreditation. Not only are they putting a focus on measuring student outcomes, they’re reviewing Standard 306, which governs “distance education” a.k.a. online programs. From the ABA website:
Currently, there are not any law schools approved by the ABA that provide a J.D. degree completely via correspondence study.
The ABA Standards Review Committee plans to issue a new review of Standard 306 in Fall 2010. If there’s to be a focus on “student outcomes,” the Committee might want to take this year’s ACS moot court competition under consideration. Apparently, Concord law students gave Stanford law students a run for their money.
More on Concord v. Stanford, Ross Mitchell, and the merits of an online law degree, after the jump.
First off, the ACS Moot Court Competition. The final round of the competition pitted Concord against Stanford, and the online-only program did quite well against the T5 school, according to a (non-Concord) ATL reader:
There was no upset, but it was extremely close. I would have ranked them as follows:
1. Concord’s First Speaker
2. Stanford’s First Speaker
3. Stanford’s Second Speaker
4. Concord’s Second Speaker
The Concord guy was definitely the best out of the group. He was well into his 40s, perhaps 50s.
I just found it ironic that an unaccredited online law school owned by Kaplan was able to get that far in any sort of competition.
Others found it more intriguing than ironic. Concord Law School Dean Barry Currier wrote at Rethinking Higher Education:
How, then, could it happen that two Concord Law students could succeed in this competition against students from law schools such as the University of Michigan, Duke, Berkeley, Wayne State, and others (there were close to 30 teams entered)?
Certainly a lot of it has to do with the students. Graduates of Air Force Academy and Vanderbilt (with an MBA on top of her undergraduate degree), Tom and Marjorie are accomplished professionals who are now pursuing a law degree. Some of it has to do with good coaching. Most law schools support their moot court teams with a coach from the faculty or the local legal community. We are lucky to have the help of Los Angeles attorney David Glassman, who has more than 20 years of experience as an appellate lawyer and enjoys working with our students.
Could it also be that there’s a solid and rigorous program of legal education at Concord that pushes Marjorie, Tom, and their classmates to learn the law and to learn to “think like a lawyer”? Could it be that the cyber hallways of Concord have the interactivity, collegiality, and professionalism that is in the air in the brick/mortar hallways of traditional law schools? Could it be that the faculty of our online school are providing a level of instruction and insight that helped prepare Marjorie and Tom for the competition that they faced in this competition? Were they just lucky?
Ross Mitchell has high praise for the program that got him admitted to the California and Massachusetts bars, though he’s frustrated that “you could be the best law school in the nation but if you’re online, you can’t be accredited.”
In fact, there are distance learning programs that are accredited, as they are run by and affiliated with accredited schools; Stanford University, for example, actually has such a program, according to an ABA spokesperson.
Mitchell said there were certain traditional aspects to his Concord law school experience. Students gather, if online, for classes during the course of the four-year program. They listen to pre-recorded lectures – Mitchell had Arthur Miller for Civ Pro this way; then Concord professors lead live discussions about the material. “Like any law school, it’s mostly about the reading,” Mitchell said.
He’s still in touch with fellow graduates. There is an alumni association online, though he did not meet his classmates until a year into the program, when they all gathered in California for their first year law exam.
The students tend to be middle-aged, and to come from across the country and from a wide variety of fields. His class included airline pilots and doctors, who always wanted to study law. “It’s an exciting place to go to school, because everyone’s there because they want to be there,” Mitchell said.
There are definite savings to be had. Concord costs $9,500 per year.
Mitchell’s daughter, 24, followed in her father’s law steps by going to law school, though at an earlier age and to an accredited school. She is now a 2L at Suffolk University Law School. His goal was to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar before her.
“I’m very high on [distance learning programs]. Not to say my daughter is not getting a great education,” said Mitchell, who talked with her about reducing the costs of law school by going to Concord. “But she said to me, ‘I want to go to a school where I can decide to go to any state in the country and be an attorney.’”
We’ll see what the ABA has to say about that in 2010. You can have your say as well. An ABA spokesperson wrote us:
The Standards Review Committee will produce a report on recommended changes to the standards when it finishes its work, and it will then hold public hearings. But even before then, it is seeking comment… [I]t would be lovely if you included in your story the following line: Comments and suggestions should be sent to Charlotte Stretch, Assistant Consultant, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web degree no bar for this lawyer [Boston Herald]
ROSS E. MITCHELL vs. BOARD OF BAR EXAMINERS [Social Law Library]
Court win for online law school grad [California Bar Journal]
Non-Traditional Law Students and Moot Court [Rethinking Higher Education]
Earlier: ABA is Taking a Look at Law School Accreditation