Quick Post: A response to ‘Barely Legal’ – The future of law degrees

On the Justinian blog, the pseudonymous Barely Legal laments the oncoming of ‘online law degrees’:

The new online law degree would see budding lawyers isolated from the sunlight of student peers, isolated from the wisdom of their lecturers and tutors, and isolated from their future profession.

Beware the brave new world of new things, for the novel shall kill off the tried and tested.  And whatnot.  To use the ‘well-worn jape’: seems radical, actually conservative.

For all the condescending sneer about online degrees, RMIT in Melbourne has been running one through Open University for the better part of a decade.  Knowing some people who studied that way who now have jobs in the legal profession, I’d be worried about Barely Legal’s assertion that they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.

There is a real puzzle here which Barely Legal barely understands, and online degrees might be the only way of dealing with it.

Law students aren’t really worth it.  Rather than coming for an education or an experience, the vast majority that I meet want credentialing: what’s the fastest way to get from where I am now to a job as a lawyer?  Worse, what’s the fastest way to get from here to a job as a very well paid lawyer?

It therefore follows, as night the day, that the most equitable way to respond to the needs of these students is to reframe law degrees as mere content delivery.  Why put resources into teaching people who don’t want to be taught?  Opening up online law degrees gives these students the option of accessing the best lecturers in the country without having to meet the day-to-day requirements of attendance at a campus.  We already hear the complaints of students who think it’s unfair that classes can’t be taught around their work commitments.  We already hear the complaints of students who think they’re paying universities to respond to their demands.  Flexible, online education is an option available to them.

It is both cynical to think that this is a cash grab and naive to think that it isn’t.  With the failure of fee deregulation, we still have the Government telling universities how much it should cost to educate a student.  Therefore, universities simply have no choice but to find the cheaper ways of educating their students while the costs of salaries and overheads continues to rise.

But law education has a weird problem to solve: the market for young lawyers is rapidly shrinking, yet law schools want to grow.  If the size of a law school is a direct result of the number of students they can place into jobs at the end, then they’ll end up shrinking as well.

So if it takes x students to fund the running of a course, non-compulsory courses that attract fewer than x enrollments need to be weeded out.  Online learning reduces the number of students needed to make a course viable, increasing the options of universities to provide a wider range of courses.  That becomes the selling point: come to the University of Narnia if you want a whole lot of electives on the Law of Magical Lions; come to the University of Ryloth if you want a whole lot of electives on the Law of Jedi Combat.

Students are the wrong people to ask about legal education.  They’ll tell you that they only want those things which make them employable at the end of the degree.  They fantasise a future employer and imagine what they’d want: somebody practical, who knows what the law is, and is job ready today.  Students are rarely correct, but they punish universities through student experience surveys if universities fail to tailor courses for mythical employer needs.  Barely Legal’s article drips of this problem: online degrees are bad because prospective employers might not like them.

Pooh-poohing online degrees is easy.  Coming up with solutions to the problems facing legal education is difficult.

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