Online education and the professional associations: the case of law

February 16, 2018 Tony Bates

Image: Reality Sandwich, 2015

Lederman, D. (2018) The uncertain landscape for online legal education Inside Higher Education, January 24

The situation in the USA

This is a useful report about the current situation in the USA regarding the accreditation or otherwise of online courses in law. Does the American Bar Association (ABA) recognise qualifications where some or all the courses were taken online?

The answer is: maybe but in most cases so far, no.

In late 2013, the American Bar Association gave a private nonprofit law school in Minnesota permission to create a part-time Juris Doctor program that blended online courses heavily with face-to-face instruction. The Minnesota law school, now called Mitchell Hamline School of Law, just turned out its first two graduates this month.

A handful of law schools, including those at Seton Hall UniversityLoyola University Chicago and Touro University, have recently introduced part-time programs that allow students to take up to 15 credits online (out of a minimum of 83 credits), the maximum now allowed by the American Bar Association.

However, several other law schools have had their petitions for “variances”(as the ABA calls them) to allow some online learning rejected, including some quite prestigious law schools, including those at Syracuse University and Rutgers.

As the article states:

The mixed results about the fates of law schools seeking to expand their online footprints left some legal education observers uncertain about the prospects for online and other innovations in legal education. The ABA is expected to consider as soon as next month some loosening of its rules on online learning, but exactly how remains unclear.

What about Canada?

In Canada, the provinces have delegated accreditation to provincial Legal Societies, such as the Law Society of Ontario/Upper Canada (similar to other professions in Canada, such as engineering.)

To qualify for admission to the Lawyer Licensing Process, an applicant must typically have acquired credentials through one of the following options:

  • Graduates of an Accredited Law School (Common Law);
  • Graduates of International or Non-Accredited Canadian Law Schools who must apply to the National Committee on Accreditation (“NCA”) to have their legal education credentials evaluated before they can enter the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Lawyer Licensing Process;
  • Lawyers qualified in other provinces who meet the inter-provincial mobility standards.

Most of those applying for licensing in Canada will come as a result of graduating through an accredited Canadian law school. The Legal Society of Upper Canada provides a list of 20 accredited law schools. These are almost entirely within the provincial public university system, covering all provinces except Newfoundland and the territories.

I could find no statement on the Legal Society of Ontario site about courses taken at these schools through online learning. If anyone can provide me with such information, I would be grateful. However, in most Canadian public universities, online students take the same exams as classroom-based students, and as a result degree transcripts rarely indicate the mode of study.

So are there online courses in law programs in Canada?

According to the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education (2017), just under 20% of responding institutions (or at least 10) offered some credit courses online in law. This was more than in forestry, dentistry or medicine, but somewhat surprisingly, less than in engineering, a profession that so far has refused to accept any ‘distance’ qualifications. eCampusOntario lists at least 13 online courses in law from accredited law schools in Ontario.

A couple of Canadian universities offered a whole online program in law, but not necessarily a full degree. For instance Ryerson University offers the Law Practice Program.  The program, approved conditionally by the Law Society of Upper Canada, adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files. However, you already need a degree in law before taking this program.

Similarly once you have a degree, as part of the licensing process in Ontario, during an Articling placement, the candidate is expected to study the online Professional Responsibility and Practice Course (PRP). Therefore it appears that the largest law accreditation agency in Canada is not opposed in principle to online courses. If there is a reluctance to move to online courses or programs in law in Canada, it is more likely to come from the law schools themselves.

So my belief – and it is no more than this – is that currently there are some courses available online in law in Canadian universities, and some hybrid programs with a substantial online component, but no fully online degree yet accredited by a Canadian law society. 

However, I would really like to hear from those of you working in law: what if any are the requirements or limitations in studying law online in Canada?

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