It looks like the law profession has taken one more step into the digital age. The Franklin Pierce School of Law at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) just became the fourth online/hybrid law program to be granted full accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA).
The UNH program is the first accredited online law program to specialize in a specific area of law: intellectual property and technology law. Sound like something you might be interested in? Here's what you need to know.
Why a hybrid law degree?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the UNH program, it's important to put some context around distance learning and law school.
While online degrees are ubiquitous in most other fields of graduate study, law school has lagged behind. Reason: The ABA was reluctant to grant accreditation to programs that didn't include classroom instruction on the Socratic method, which is a key component of law school programs.
ABA accreditation is crucial for law programs, because you generally are not allowed to sit for the bar exam unless your law degree was granted by an ABA-accredited school. Of course, that hasn't stopped some online schools from offering law degrees anyway. The problem was that their graduates were unable to sit for the bar after graduation. (With the exception of determined online learner, who sued for the opportunity to take the exam. He eventually won, but it certainly added substantial time and money to his total cost for becoming a practicing attorney.)
These days, the ABA is evolving its thinking on online learning. It recognizes that technology has allowed a high level of interaction between professors, students, and their classmates in a distance-learning environment. Online learning platforms now allow for real-time interaction, which can help facilitate the debate and discussion that are the hallmarks of traditional law school.
Beyond that, the ABA has also had considerable pressure from law schools that have been hungry to offer online degrees as an effective way to serve student populations who can't travel to campus regularly.
A few select schools have met the ABA's rigorous standards and have been granted waivers to offer hybrid law programs. These programs can be completed largely online, but students are still required to participate in on-campus instruction in order to graduate. Often, this requirement is satisfied through on-campus residencies several times per year.
Currently, there are no fully online law programs that are accredited by the ABA. However, hybrid programs have made it easier for working professionals to complete their law degrees without having to relocate or quit their jobs.
Focus on intellectual property, tech, and information law
The UNH program, which launched this fall, will focus on intellectual property (IP), technology, and information law. This is the first hybrid program to specialize in a niche area of law, and it's right in line with what UNH's Franklin Pierce School of Law is known for. The institution has long been a world leader in patent and trademark law. Evolving technology has created new and interesting legal questions, with Franklin Pierce emerging as a leader in information-age law. According to a recent article in IP WatchDog, the school attracts an unusually high percentage of STEM students and professionals compared to other law programs.
The program was structured on the hybrid model so that working professionals could more easily pursue their legal studies with disrupting their careers.
What you will study
This program focuses on emerging intellectual property issues that are facing today's businesses. The school's website includes some of the more provocative questions that will be covered in the curriculum, including:
How will medical inventions be impacted by health regulations?
How can we protect data in a landscape where "big data" is sought after, valued, shared, and sold?
If information and content are powering large sectors of the economy, what does that to do business creation and innovation?
What are the risk exposures with crypto-currencies and how can they be mitigated?
How can companies be resilient in the face of digital disruption and the birth of entire new industries?
How the program works
UNH is using the online learning platform of iLaw, which specializes in legal education. (The president of iLaw is the former dean of the University of Alabama Law School. )
If you enroll, you'll need to complete complete four on-campus residencies on UNH's campus each year, with each session lasting three to five days. Your remaining coursework will be completed online. Some classes are synchronous, meaning that they're scheduled a certain time, and others are asychronous, which means you can complete the work on your schedule. The asynchronous lessons generally consist of videos and PowerPoint presentations, interspersed with quizzes at regular intervals to ensure comprehension and retention.
The program runs all year for a total of 10 semesters, or three and a half years. As an online student, you also have the opportunity to complete a legal residency, or externship, during your last semester. This can be an excellent way to gain on-the-job experience and to build your network of professional contacts that may be useful throughout your career.
While you will be responsible for your travel expenses and accommodations during the residency portions of the program, the school can offer recommendations and arranges for discount hotel blocks.
Important: check your state requirements before enrolling
Graduates of this program will be eligible to sit for the bar in New Hampshire and many other states. However, some states have caps on distance learning credits, even if those credits are earned from ABA-approved schools (New York is one example). Before enrolling in any online law program, be sure to investigate your state's rules first.
If you think an online law program might be the right move for you, read about the other schools that have earned ABA approval.
Trish Sammer is Nitro's managing editor. Her work has appeared in Woman’s Day, Redbook, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Forbes. She has also written for various corporate clients, including the tech giant SAP, The Franklin Institute, and PSE&G. When Trish isn’t busy acting as a writing ninja for other people, you can find her … well, writing about other stuff, like divorce and blended family life. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, their combined brood, and the world’s laziest dog. Read more by Trish Sammer