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Bar Associations Threaten Online Law Schools

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.

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  • Anthony

    Professional guilds and interest groups function similarly in a market economy as Francis Fukuyama intimates: to further clientelism. Question becomes can market sustain guild/interests in changing environment?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The monopolistic behavior of medieval Guilds, who limited membership to lessen the competition, was a major inefficiency of medieval times. That such monopolistic behavior is still tolerated today is a terrible shame. As we well know, it is the feedback of competition that forces the continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price which are the hallmarks of the free enterprise system.

  • Walter Sobchak

    A 2 year program at a community college should be enough to allow people to take the bar exam. The real problem is that the number of new law grads is irrelevant. There are so many existing ones who are unemployed, that there is no shortage of lawyers.

  • Chase

    Spot on professor!

    Something has to give. The law schools have only themselves to give. In the 70s and 80s, law school tuition was affordable, even at private schools. Since private law schools cannot seem to contain costs, online programs are the way of the future. In california, online law grads are succeeding in fields like criminal defense where the skills are more practical- how to cross examine a witness, write a motion etc – than theoretical. Not everyone can afford 200k for a law degree (in Massachussetts and Rhode Island, for example, don’t even have one public law school, and public law schools aren’t exactly cheaper anymore.)

    The problem has to do with how can we make change happen with the bar association holding the trump cards. Your blog posts on this issue have been great, but it would be even better if we could get some members of congress, or state governors to come out in favor of these ideas, thereby putting real pressure on the state bar associations, which at present seem impervious to persuasion of that kind available at places like via meadia.

  • Kansas Scott


    All of the guilds are going to need to adapt or perish. From this morning’s Kansas City Star an article on how the Kansas Dental Association worked to stop proposed legislation that would have allowed the use of dental therapists to do basic dental work:

    I’m starting to think that people don’t like change.

  • Kris

    Chase@4: “it would be even better if we could get some members of congress, or state governors to come out in favor of these ideas”

    These ideas would generally make law seem less prestigious. Remind me what percentage of Congress are lawyers?

  • stan

    One should be able to “read for the bar”. Perhaps sit for the exam after serving an apprenticeship with an attorney.

  • Richard F. Miller

    @ Chase.

    I agree with all your points save one: Massachusetts does have a public, i.e., state owned law school, and it is the University of Massachusetts Law School at Dartmouth.

  • Chase

    @ 8.

    Wow, this is new! Sorry, I was misinformed. When I lived in Mass – 2007 – this school was not there.

    Thanks for the info!

  • Kris

    KS@5: “I’m starting to think that people don’t like change.”

    It’s not that I am opposed to change as such. Rather, I have a problem with the chaos resulting from people introducing change willy nilly. What we need is a government agency which would grant change licenses, ensuring that only properly trained and qualified people introduce changes into our society. This is the only way to achieve change we can believe in.

  • Corlyss

    Several years ago Virginia revived the ancient practice of training lawyers in law firms as opposed to law schools.

    Both the ABA and the AMA should be targeted and destroyed for what they really are: unions. The ABA has disgraced itself for decades as being some kind of gatekeeper for Federal bench and SCOTUS nominees in terms of “liberal ideological purity.” They routinely disparage as “unqualified” well-qualified conservative nominees because they are conservatives. Unions do only one thing, but they do it very well: they drive up costs by setting artificial limits on supplies of the product. It wasn’t until the 70s that SCOTUS broke down the ABA barriers against advertising. As I recall, even today, no lawyers except patent attorneys are allowed to advertise that they are specialists in a given area of the law.

  • Corlyss

    “Via Meadia thinks entry into the legal profession needs to become cheaper and more democratic.”

    In one respect I disagree with the good professor. The US needs to stop incentivizing litigation. Class action suits should be eliminated – they make lawyers agents of shake-down rackets. The incentives should drive future litigants to alternative dispute resolutions. We need to stop thinking of the courts as the ultimate arbiters of behavior.

  • IllinoisCynic

    Abraham Lincoln was self taught from law books and Blackstone’s Commentaries, yet was admitted to the Illinois bar, and became a successful attorney who argued a case before the Supreme Court. Enough said!

  • Luke Lea

    The Bar Association? Every profession is a conspiracy against the public George Bernard Shaw once said. This is a case of that.

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