Legal education has been a tempestuous terrain for decades now, and especially so following the 2007 financial crisis. Undeterred, Syracuse Law School has decided to push the pedagogical boundaries — and the American Bar Association guidelines — a step further with its new online law program.
Now, it’s no doubt important to recognize that not every law student embodies the prototypical early-twenties kid, freshly out of Teach for America and ready to ship out across the country, paying all the way with nothing but parental pride and non-dischargeable student loans. For some, relocating isn’t a viable option; others can’t find the time to get to class around work or family life.
Syracuse’s new program surely has some such individuals in mind, but they’re likely motivated as much by their dwindling enrollment numbers as by their compassion for the atypical student. And while we should be mindful of the ways in which some might benefit from more flexible programs, we should also be candid about the elements of a traditional legal education that online law school intrinsically forgoes.
Most importantly, the online experience will almost certainly provide far inferior networking and relationship-building opportunities compared to an on-campus program. This is crucial not simply because it’s good to build a community or review material with your peers, but also because law school is, at its core, a professional school, and provides an unmatched opportunity to meet other professionals in the field. Many peers in traditional programs will either get a job or be given a job by one of their law school classmates. Will the same be true for Syracuse Law’s online program?
It will take time to see how students who take law school online fair — in class, on the bar exam, and in legal practice. Like any new educational model, there will be kinks to work out.