Online Legal Education & Access to Legal Education & The Legal System
24 Pages Posted: 11 Sep 2020 Last revised: 19 Nov 2020
Date Written: May 22, 2020
Online delivery of legal education is a potential solution to this problem as it is uniquely well-suited to provide education to dispersed populations. To the extent developing online forms of legal education leads to creative efforts to rethink traditional models of legal education, rather than just putting cameras into existing classrooms and letting students in remote locations participate via technology in a class conducted elsewhere, it may also allow legal education to be provided at a lower unit cost, expanding the access benefits.
Our argument has three parts. First, the existing distribution of law schools and the delivery of legal education via in-person, synchronous classes combine to restrict access to legal education. To show this, we assembled data on the populations within reasonable commuting distance of existing law schools and compared the populations in those areas with the populations in areas outside commuting distance. If legal education could be made accessible to the population for whom distance from a law school makes in-person attendance more difficult, between 41 million and 155 million more Americans would have access to it.
Second, expanding access to legal education is beneficial to more than just individuals now able to secure a J.D. or other law-related degree. Lawyers, like law schools, are unevenly distributed across the United States.7 By using the number of lawyers per capita as a rough proxy for access to the legal system, we can identify regions where the need for more lawyers to improve non-lawyers’ access to the legal system is greater. Unsurprisingly, these tend to also be areas lacking access to legal education.
Third, online delivery (in a variety of formats) is a potential contributor to solving both these problems. Moving legal education at least partly online solves several problems. It means that a prospective student need not relocate for three years to have access to legal education. While not every community has the communications infrastructure and not every prospective student has access to the hardware to permit high-bandwidth forms of online education, the number of both lacking such capacity is dwindling.8 Even where the infrastructure is lacking, it can often be accessed near a prospective student’s location, reducing the physical barriers to access. It also means that students from some of the communities with the greatest lack of access can acquire a legal education without leaving their community, increasing the likelihood that they will remain in that community to deliver services. We also briefly address some of the reasons we believe that online legal education need not suffer from quality problems relative to in-person, synchronous classes. Indeed, we think it is possible that well-designed, online legal education might well provide a better educational experience than some traditional law students’ experience.
Keywords: distance education, GIS, online education, legal education
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