The 2016 presidential election wasn’t a big moment just for the United States—it was also a big moment for law schools.
In a report published last year, the Law School Admissions Council said that, as of January 2018, the number of law school applicants and law school applications had increased 8.8 percent and 10 percent, respectively, from same period a year before. If there was any doubt what drove that increase, a survey released a month later helped dispel it. When pre-law students were asked if politics played a role in their decision to apply to law school, nearly one third of them said “yes.”
The increased interest in legal education should be a call-to-action for law schools, argues Andrew Strauss, dean of the University of Dayton School of Law. His view: If new groups of people are energized to be lawyers, then the legal profession should make legal education accessible to them.
That’s exactly what the University of Dayton is trying to do. Earlier this year, the school announced the Online Hybrid JD program, one of the country’s first American Bar Association-approved hybrid Juris Doctor programs. The program innovates on legal education’s traditional approach via weekly live online classes, interactive online coursework, and one-week-a-semester on-campus learning sessions.
But the true power of the course is that, thanks to the web, it’s accessible to all kinds of students. “I believe that having legal education be online and be broadly disseminated is a pretty noteworthy historical development for both legal education and education in general,” Strauss said. “It’s really going to open up access to people who otherwise just wouldn’t have it.”
Making it easier for more people to get a legal education was a driving force behind the creation of the Online Hybrid JD program. That’s because, for many people, life circumstances make going to law school full-time impossible. Working parents, for example, often struggle to juggle school with childcare and other family responsibilities. Likewise, even for people without children, it’s difficult to take multiple years off work mid-career to go to law school.
“The way the system works right now is really unforgiving,” said Strauss. “If you don’t come from certain backgrounds where you are on a track to go to college and law school when you are young, you can be totally foreclosed from these kinds of opportunities. Online education really opens things up for them.”
Online education also helps solve another big access issue facing the legal profession: For a lot of people the nearest law school is just too far away. There are no American Bar Association—approved law schools in Alaska, for example, and just one in states such as Hawaii, Idaho and South Dakota. Likewise, people living in states with large rural expanses such as Colorado face lengthy commutes to class if they don’t live in cities such as Boulder and Denver, which are home to the state’s only two ABA-accredited law schools.
Solving the access-to-education challenge in turn helps to ameliorate the access-to-justice issue. Of low-income rural Americans who faced civil legal problems in 2017, 86 percent got inadequate or no professional help, according to a 2017 report from the Legal Service Corporation.
Improving the distribution of lawyers around the country is key to ensuring that more people have access to the legal services they need, said Strauss. “Somebody who lives in a rural area and moves to a big city to go to law school is probably a lot less likely to go back to that rural area than somebody who never left in the first place. That’s something we can change.”
Toward a healthier democracy
Ultimately, growing the market for legal education isn’t just good for the profession, but also for the democratic system itself.
“For me, making legal education more broadly available is a way of reinforcing our system of government,” said Strauss. “If the great majority of our lawyers are people who are coming from wealthy families, or very specific backgrounds, that is very unhealthy to the overall fabric of our democracy. Our profession should reflect our country.”