The first ABA-approved online JD program to debut next fall

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Signage is visible outside the American Bar Association (ABA) in Washington, DC, United States on May 10, 2021. REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

  • St. Mary’s University Law School Launches Five-Year Pilot Program
  • School hopes to enroll students from underserved areas of Texas and beyond

(Reuters) – St. Mary’s University Law School will launch the first fully online Juris Doctor program approved by the American Bar Association next fall.

San Antonio Law School unveiled the pioneering program on Tuesday, saying it planned to enroll 25 students in the first cohort of the five-year pilot program. Nearly a dozen law schools now offer hybrid JD programs, in which much of the class is taught online but still requires students to spend time on campus. The new St. Mary’s program is the first ABA approved program to offer all online credit courses by design. (A small number of online JD programs have been around for over a decade but lack the ABA seal of approval.)

“We have to get it right – not just for these 25 students, but for the schools that will follow us with their own programs and for the American Bar Association, for trusting us to give us permission to try,” The dean of St. Mary’s Law, Patricia Roberts, said in an interview.

The online JD will take approximately four years and the tuition will be comparable to the school’s existing part-time in-person program, which is currently $ 26,594. The first year courses will be 50% asynchronous, meaning that students will be able to take them on their own schedule, while the other half will be delivered in real time online.

Roberts first asked her faculty to assess the possibility of offering a hybrid JD program in August 2020, spurred, she said, not by the pandemic-induced shift to online courses, but because St. Mary’s has offered a Master of Jurisprudence online for five years. This meant the school already had teachers with experience in online teaching, Roberts said, noting that all of the faculty had now completed online teacher training.

She said the school initially saw improved online offerings as a way to expand access to legal education for people in underserved areas of South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, where there are no law schools. (Texas lawmakers have long debated the possibility of a new law school in El Paso.) But the faculty committee quickly came up with the idea of ​​a fully online program instead of a hybrid program, arguing that forcing students to come to campus regularly undermines its goals of access and affordability.

The ABA approved St. Mary’s request for a waiver of its distance education limits in May, but the school did not release any information on its plans until this week. ABA has increased in recent years the number of credits a JD student can earn online. Currently, JD students can take up to one-third of their credits online, which translates to around 30 credit hours at most schools. Any JD program that exceeds these online hours must obtain special permission from the ABA. (The ABA has allowed law schools to exceed these distance education limits during the pandemic.)

Roberts said she believes the pandemic has made the ABA more receptive to the idea of ​​a fully online JD program, and she expects other schools to roll out similar programs in the years to to come. St. Mary’s is committed to providing the ABA with detailed academic performance data and JD Cohort Bar exams online.

“We talked about it and we were like, ‘Well someone’s gonna be first,’ Roberts said. ‘We might as well try it.’

Read more:

For most law students, distance education has failed – report

Is Law School Worth It During The Pandemic? Some distance law students are not so sure

Reporting by Karen Sloan


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