This fall, as students would normally head to campus, many LL.M. programs are instead planning a hybrid mix of “bricks and clicks” as coronavirus restrictions in many countries make a full-scale campus reopening challenging.
The question is whether law schools can capitalize on this experiment in online education, and make the case for digital delivery to be permanently embedded in their LL.M.s.
This is the moment for digital degrees to prove themselves after years of slow adoption. “Online legal education’s moment has come, whether by necessity or choice,” says Tammi Rice, vice president of bar prep programs at Kaplan, a test prep company.
Lorna Richardson, a lecturer in commercial law at University of Edinburgh in the UK, expects more institutions to launch Online LL.M.s — especially following the rescinding of a controversial visa policy that may have deported overseas online students in the US, and the roll out of digital bar exams in some American states.
And indeed, since the beginning of the pandemic, a number of law schools, including Tulane Law School, Cardozo School of Law, Fordham Law School, and Cornell Law School, have all launched online master’s programs in law.
“The current pandemic has highlighted how important online study is,” Richardson adds, “but Online LL.Ms. must come from a strong intellectual and pedagogic basis; rather than as a knee jerk reaction to Covid-19.”
Online LL.M. programs can offer inherent flexibility
One of the main benefits of online learning is that it empowers people to further their education on their own terms. “Online learning combines excellence in teaching with ultimate flexibility,” says Richardson.
So Online LL.M.s are attracting new students with personal or professional commitments to graduate study; rather than cannibalizing demand for campus courses.
But the pandemic has highlighted a gap between the digital leaders and the laggards, with students at several law schools signing petitions demanding tuition fee refunds for hastily convened online courses that they see as subpar.
“Online education has made tremendous strides in both quality and accessibility over the years, but not every experience is created equal because not every institution of learning does it well yet,” says Kaplan’s Rice.
Philippa Webb, director of postgraduate taught programs at the UK’s Dickson Poon School of Law, believes online learning can be just as good as the real thing — and for some lawyers it’s ever better. “Most of our students are digital natives — they are at ease with using online resources and tools,” says Webb.
“Rather than reading two chapters of a textbook, they enjoy learning the same content by listening to a podcast, watching a recorded lecture, or participating in an online seminar.”
USC Gould School of Law in California uses Zoom to create breakout rooms where students team up to solve problems through practical exercises. “This mimics legal practice, creating opportunities for students to work on a contract together, negotiating terms or drafting relevant clauses,” says Anitha Cadambi, associate director of graduate curriculum and instruction.
She says online learning is a great place for innovation. Law schools have a reputation for being slow and fusty, but the coronavirus has forced them to innovate, through simulations that replicate the changing face of legal practice with online mediations now more common, for instance.
“The pandemic has changed the way lawyers and courts work, and law schools are adapting,” says Cadambi. “Students may find that the pandemic has made some permanent changes in the way legal services are delivered. They will need to respond.”
However, there are trade-offs when it comes to online education, with question marks over whether online courses can replicate the networking aspect that is so crucial to LL.M.s. William Fernholz, who teaches at Berkeley Law, says: “The greatest hurdle in online education is developing a sense of community among students.”
But the law school in California has been holding virtual networking events for students and alumni from as far afield as China, with technology enabling more global connections than can be found on campus. The school is also encouraging students to use LinkedIn and the school’s own virtual networking platform as a digital networking trend is turbocharged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Can online learning ever replace the campus experience? Edinburgh’s Richardson says both options will continue to coexist. And as for whether one is better than the other; it depends on the perspective of each individual student.
“If your focus is on living somewhere new for a year, exploring a new city and country then, of course, online study can’t provide that,” she says. “However, if your focus is on learning about new areas of law from some of the foremost academics and practitioners, then an online LL.M. can be a very good option.”