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70 Syracuse Law Review 13 (2020)


This essay explores one law school's contrarian and pioneering embrace of online education into the core of its J.D. program, a five-year journey undertaken by William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School ofLaw). This essay makes a simple point. Online pedagogy ought to be part of the palette of tools available for the design of J.D. programs. But placing it at the core of a J.D. program is not universally to be desired. Like any pedagogy, these online tools have their strengths and their weaknesses. The particular combination of tools and methods represents a question of design: of arranging resources to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses-within a set of constraints. And the key constraint ought to be the particular mission of each law school. Design in the absence of clarity of mission, and without the availability of the full gamut of instructional methods, is impoverished and suboptimal.

An openness to bringing online pedagogy into the core has this salutary effect: it invites, almost requires, intentional, mission-based design. It invites educators to think foundationally about what they seek to accomplish by their J.D. programs, and how that might best be accomplished. It exposes business-as-usual thinking, and forces one to question what seem to be quite foundational assumptions about how to educate lawyers. For this reason alone, online methodologies ought to be clearly and readily available to legal educators.

There are strong sentiments opposing substantial incorporation of online components in legal education, many of which I will explore. Not the least has been the historic, robust embrace of face-to-face teaching by the American Bar Association (ABA). As well, online pedagogy, especially if its adoption is part of a major re-design of the J.D. program, is not cheap and not easy. And the uncertainty surrounding many of the design constraints is high. All of this leads me to conclude that only one variety of law school mission is likely to support substantial online incorporation-that with the goal of expanding access to legal education.