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Southwestern Law School to Launch First-Ever Fully Online JD Program

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The pandemic certainly shook things up in educational institutions. K-12, college, and law school students alike found a lot of challenges with online learning. Some students found it difficult to stay motivated and engaged; some missed the social interaction of the classroom and found it difficult to concentrate at home; others had difficulty accessing the technology and resources they needed to succeed in online classes.

But many students found that they were able to learn effectively in an online environment. They appreciated the ability to learn at their own pace and to access resources from anywhere in the world. Some students also found that online learning helped them to develop their time management and self-discipline skills.

Now, as most academic institutions have transitioned back to a fully on-campus presence, one law school is keying in to the value of a virtual learning model. Southwestern Law School is about to launch the first ever fully online law degree. Let's take a look inside the future curriculum that could really change the playing field for legal education.

Stigmas and Stereotypes of Online Schools

With its campus in Los Angeles, Southwestern Law School is a private law school founded in 1911. It offers both a full-time day program for JD and a part-time evening program, as well as a part-time day program for students with child- or elder-care responsibilities. It also offers a two-year accelerated program. Southwestern also offers a Master of Laws (LLM) program in Entertainment and Media Law.

Brick-and-mortar purists and rank snobs out there might assume a law school that opens itself up to a fully online program can't be legitimate. For a long time, at least before COVID shook things up by necessity, there has been stigma surrounding fully online degrees. Some of this stigma could be explained by a lot of the scandalous headlines surrounding the deceptive practices and false advertising of for-profit universities offering large online degree programs. You may remember the University of Phoenix or Corinthian Colleges, both of which have since been unaccredited. In the past several years, the FTC has sued and fined such institutions for misrepresenting its job placement rates and defrauding students, as well as predatory recruiting practices and pressuring students to enroll.

But a lot of the stigma against online degree programs is unfounded. Some people have misconceptions about the quality of online education, assuming that online degrees are easier to earn than traditional degrees or that they are not as rigorous. However, this is not always the case. Many online programs are accredited by the same organizations that accredit traditional programs, and they offer the same high-quality education.

For what it's worth, Southwestern's rankings among other ABA-accredited law schools are mixed. The school was ranked 6th last year on Above the Law's list of Top Law Schools for Entertainment Law. It was also ranked 50th for dispute resolution and 67th for intellectual property law by the 2024 U.S. News & World Report. Out of the 199 ABA-accredited law schools in the country, Southwestern came in at 141st overall in rankings of best law schools. So, while it's not a "Tier 1" or "T14" school, it may be a good choice for students who are interested in pursuing a career in the legal field in Los Angeles, particularly in the entertainment industry. And now, it may also be right for people looking to pursue a law degree without the costs of moving to another state.

Nuts and Bolts of Southwestern's New Model

Southwestern Law School's new online law degree program is scheduled to begin in Fall 2024. It is an ABA-accredited JD program, and the first that is fully virtual (outside of temporary pandemic measures imposed by law schools in the past few years). The curriculum offers most courses "asynchronously" (meaning that lectures are pre-recorded and can be watched at the student's convenience), with optional live Zoom sessions. Both full-time (three-year) and part-time (four-year) options are offered.

Although students are not required to ever come to campus in person for classes, exams, or other events, they are invited to attend campus activities and events such as Orientation, Homecoming, and Commencement, if they desire. The school also plans to make most activities (special lectures, student organization meetings, and social events) accessible to online students via Zoom or via recording. In addition, online students will be able to register for elective courses that are part of the on-campus program. Conversely, on-campus students will be welcome to register for some elective courses that are part of the online program, through online students will get priority enrollment for those.

One of the major benefits of the fully online program is that students can enroll and participate from well outside of the California campus, including other states. In addition to California, the new online JD program has already been approved by 17 other states. This means that students have been approved to study remotely while residing in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. For another 28 states, the approval is pending. Only four states — Alabama, South Dakota, New York, and Wisconsin — have declined to approve its students to study remotely in the online program.

The online program is a great option for students who are interested in pursuing a career in the legal field but who are unable to attend a traditional on-campus law program due to work, family, or other commitments. It is also a good option for students who want to save money on tuition and living expenses. The new offering will also presumably make the student body a lot more diverse, at least geographically: it means that students from all over the country will be able to enroll in the program and earn a law degree without having to move to Los Angeles.

It remains to be seen how well the online program will be received by the legal community. However, if the program is successful, it could set a new precedent for legal education and make it more accessible to students from all backgrounds.

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