Recent law school grads are painfully aware that their expensive degree is no longer a ticket to guaranteed wealth and lifetime employment. The job market may be difficult for some time, but making it easier and cheaper to get a legal education would ease the squeeze for aspiring legal eagles down the road.Washington University, for example, offers online coursework that allows students around the world to work through materials and view lectures at their own pace. Although the tuition is still relatively high at $48,000, if the program grows it could bring long-term savings in faculty and administrator salaries and campus maintenance.There is just one teeny little catch: students graduating from this program won’t be able to sit for the bar exam. No matter what the rigor of the program or the caliber of the school, every state except California has restrictions against those with online degrees being admitted to the state bar:
Largely because of American Bar Association rules, however — under which approved law schools may not count more than 12 credits of distance education toward a Juris Doctor degree — legal education has been slow to shift to online classes. Students who earn a J.D. from a bar association-approved law school are automatically eligible to take the bar exam nationwide.But beyond that, each state sets its rules on who can take the bar exam. California, for example, is the only state that allows graduates of Concord Law School — which is not approved by the bar association, but offers a fully online Juris Doctor — to take its bar exam.
As with any new technology or service, standards that apply to the status quo pose obstacles to online education. It is disappointing, though, to see the ABA standing in the way. In the early 20th century, individuals could pass the bar through self-directed studying and apprenticeships, and many of America’s finest legal minds took this route. Abraham Lincoln never set foot in a law school, but the mediocre hacks writing bar association rules today would deem him unworthy to join their ranks.Professional guilds have firmly asserted control over the process to the point where accredited and astronomically expensive law schools are the only way to enter the profession. Most often, guild self-regulation is more about protecting the interests of guild members and insulating them from competition than it is about protecting the public from unqualified practitioners.As young people graduate under mountains of debt, and face dubious employment prospects, bar associations should be thinking carefully about how they can embrace innovation to continue to channel new talent into their field. Unfortunately, we’ve seen little sign of this thinking.Via Meadia thinks entry into the legal profession needs to become cheaper and more democratic. Online study, apprenticeships like the one Lincoln served and other forms of training could prepare students to take the bar exam in their states. Law schools and entrenched lawyers won’t like it. It will change the way the profession works. Not all the consequences will be benign, but on balance the public will have better access to legal services and talented people of modest means will have a variety of routes they can pursue toward a legal career.