Online LL.M.s Gain Ground on Traditional Programs

Students are more satisfied with online courses after pandemic-driven investments in learning technology

Students taking online classes are nearly as satisfied with law school as their in-person peers, according to a new survey that suggests remote learning has improved over the past two years and can rival in-person instruction. The poll is likely to strengthen the case for online LL.M. programs that have been launched by law schools in recent years.

LL.M. programs have traditionally been delivered on campus. But even before Covid, law schools including Columbia and Berkeley in the US were establishing online programs as a way to bring in students who would not otherwise consider graduate education. 

The catalyst was a decline in the numbers applying to full-time courses because some working lawyers did not want to put their careers on pause and forgo their earnings to return to student life for 12 months.

The direction of travel continued during the first two years of the pandemic, which forced law schools to deliver even their full-time classes online. Now, many say the traditional distinction between online and offline programs is being blurred.

Who is an online LL.M. right for?

Nicholas Kajimoto, senior associate director for Online and Graduate Programs at USC Gould School of Law, says law schools have invested more in the online learning infrastructure over the past two years of pandemic disruption, which has enabled them to create a learning environment that is more accessible, flexible, and customizable.

“Students do not have to disrupt their lives to move to a certain location for a specific period of time, so they can obtain a quality education anywhere by learning online,” he says. “It also allows for better balance of work and study, because there is no need to follow a rigid schedule or commute to campus.”

USC Gould delivers an online LL.M. program with classes that are mostly asynchronous, meaning that students complete their coursework at a time that is most convenient to their schedules.

With this in mind, Kajimoto says the online LL.M. is right for students who are self-motivated, self-disciplined, and goal oriented. “They are organized, patient, and proficient communicators. They are comfortable with using technology to engage and interact with others. They are also open to reorganizing their schedules to accommodate and balance their personal lives, careers and academics.”

What are the trade-offs with offline study?

Yet while online study is more convenient in many ways, it is difficult to replicate the type of extracurricular engagement and network-building that happens in-person.

“For students who are just beginning their careers, attending a program in-person is often the best way to build relationships with faculty, fellow students, and alumni who are engaged with the school,” says Christina Rice, Assistant Dean of Graduate, International and Online Programs at Boston University Law School.

“Additionally, foreign-trained attorneys who want to qualify to sit for the New York or other U.S. state bar exam may not be eligible to do so with online programs because New York and several other states require in-person attendance for LL.M. students to qualify.”

BU Law delivers its Executive LL.M. in International Business Law in an online format, and says the format is ideal for students who are already employed and want to pursue further education on a part-time basis while working. That's in addition to those with significant prior work experience who have an established professional network already.

“When it comes to the actual classroom learning experience, there is very little difference between attending a class in-person versus online through Zoom or other live video interface,” says Rice.

“The differences are more significant when it comes to the student experience outside the classroom and students who are looking for a robust extracurricular and/or network-building environment will still have more success in-person.”

Blurring the distinction between online/offline

Kajimoto agrees. “One major trade-off between online and in-person LLM study is the social aspect of the learning experience. While the online classroom will often include interactions between the student and instructor and among the students themselves, they are not immediate as in a traditional classroom,” he says.

But in the coming years, he thinks there will be a point where the distinction between online and offline study is at least blurred. “The pandemic has shown all of us that a high-quality legal education can be delivered online successfully,” he adds. 

“As the world around us has become more accepting of online education, law schools will need to explore how to best design and implement an education that takes advantage of both modalities -- the best of both worlds.”

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