In an effort to keep pace with the changing demands and opportunities available in the legal profession, Vermont Law School this week announced a new program that allows students to complete nearly half of their education off-campus through online courses.
Set to launch in the fall, the Reduced-Residency Juris Doctor program will let students earn up to 15 credits online — of the 87 credits needed to graduate from Vermont Law School.
Vice Dean Jackie Gardina, who developed the RRJD program, said it will differ from the traditional three-year legal programs in that students will spend four back-to-back semesters taking courses at the South Royalton, Vermont campus — a period of 18 months that includes the summer. Afterwards, they’ll earn the rest of their credits off campus through online coursework and a semester in practice externship — expected to take about three semesters, though it will vary based on work schedules and classes students choose to take.
“It improves their flexibility rather than a lockstep three-year program,” Gardina said.
The school is in the midst of recruiting students for the program, but hasn’t decided how many they’ll accept. Tuition will be the same, but students will be able to earn an income while completing their degree, or save on expenses by living at home, she said.
The idea is to strike a balance between traditional campus life and work responsibilities off-campus, said Gardina.
John Mayer, executive director of the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction in Chicago, said in general law schools have lagged other academic disciplines in offering online education. Such programs are expensive, and difficult to effectively implement, said Mayer.
Still, law schools have been offering programs that blend online and on campus teaching for more than a decade, following the American Bar Association’s decision to include online distance learning in its accreditation standards.
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute pioneered one of the first online programs. In the 2000-01 school year, Professor Peter Martin taught online copyright and social security law classes to 155 students enrolled at seven other schools, according to the institute’s website.
Around that time, New York School of Law Professor Michael Perlin started teaching online mental disability law courses.
Since then, other law schools have experimented with so-called blended learning programs, that will fulfill the schools’ missions, churn out students who are ready to practice law, while simultaneously meeting ABA standards, Mayer said.
He said Vermont Law School’s program will help differentiate the institution and may also attract faculty from other law schools as instructors.
Gardina said JD and masters residential students were already creating hybrid schedules with on-campus classes and online environmental courses. That prompted officials to offer online classes covering other topics.
Once the program is up, students will have their pick of between five and six online courses. Most would be required courses, but one will be an elective.
“We hope to grow the options as the program develops,” Gardina said.