March 23, 2020

Legal Education Mobilizes: Online Learning This Week

Sara J. Berman, Director of Academic and Bar Success, AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence
Academic and Bar Success


These are trying times; lives are at stake. This is not the way most educators would choose to enter a new frontier. But law faculty nationwide have done just that; they have sprung into action and are coping with this crisis with fearlessness, creativity, and total dedication to students. We all watch on in admiration.

Long before this crisis necessitated turning to distance learning, AccessLex strongly supported quality distance learning in legal education, sponsoring conferences like Online & Hybrid Learning Pedagogy: Toward Defining Best Practices in Legal Education (recordings of sessions can be accessed through link), funding research on hybrid law schools, and funding online content creation for law students (see new skills lessons at funded by a grant from AccessLex).

Before my work at AccessLex helping the nation’s law schools with student success efforts, and prior to teaching in ABA law schools in California and Florida before that, I served as a faculty member and assistant dean at Concord Law School, the nation’s first fully online law school. I taught law classes and bar review online for two decades and offer a few observations here that I hope are relevant today. More to follow in future posts.

  • There is nothing inherently impersonal about “distance learning.” What makes online teaching effective is in many ways similar to what makes traditional classroom teaching effective: good preparation, great content, and excellent communication skills. And, what makes online learning effective includes engaged students, students who feel they belong and have a strong sense of purpose, and students who are willing (indeed eager) to put in the work necessary to thrive.
  • In some ways, distance learning is simply how most of us now obtain information ourselves—we read content on websites; we watch videos and listen to podcasts; we study photos, charts, and diagrams; we create and post comments, photos, thoughts, and videos; and we share ideas with others. And,
  • Online teaching in academic support and bar exam preparation has been helpful for some law students because: 1) Students can review recorded information as many times as needed to clarify confusing concepts; 2) Students can ask questions (and can see/hear responses) that they may be embarrassed to ask in class, providing assistance to struggling and at-risk students in a way that does not stigmatize; 3) Students can access the information at any time of the day or night— useful to many students in “normal” times and perhaps even more critical now when students may have additional other responsibilities and survival needs. And, 4) Students who might otherwise not “speak up” or ask questions in face-to-face classrooms (shy and introverted students) might be more engaged in online communication.

Are there challenges? Yes, many – on the teaching and the learning sides.

Among the challenges on the learning side, to thrive students must have access to quality internet and helpful tech support; be self-driven and able to master self-regulated learning (already a learning outcome in many ABA law schools); combat distractions and manage time independently; and, engage fully and remain committed to their own legal educations. Note: many of these challenges are true in traditional legal education; being in the same physical room has never guaranteed full engagement. And, legal education in particular, with the heavy emphasis on reading and synthesizing appellate opinions, has always required extensive self-driven learning.

Another challenge? Students often thrive with faculty and classmates as accountability partners. Forming and maintaining close teacher-student bonds, as well as bonds between classmates, in an online setting demands some of the same changes we are all adapting to in this age of social distancing. Students, however, most of whom are digital natives and far more comfortable with technology than some faculty, will adapt. They will hold virtual study groups, Zoom student organization meetings, distance happy hours and more. And, without in-person contact, law school faculty, staff and administrators will need to continue to work together, implement outreach strategies, and be extra attentive to students who may be falling through the cracks.

On the teaching side, there are technical challenges; professors must learn to use tools to effectively conduct synchronous live classes and to create the content for robust asynchronous learning. Faculty also need to meet to accomplish their faculty governance obligations, and so whole meetings and committee meetings will be conducted via Zoom, WebEx or similar tools.

Depending on how long the effects of the virus last, it may be necessary to move even more law school functions (beyond teaching) into an online format–at least temporarily. Such transformations in legal education are not unprecedented; we did this at Concord Law School twenty years ago, and those ABA law schools that sought and were granted ABA variances to establish hybrid JD programs have done this in the past several years. To implement new systems well is not easy, and existing online and hybrid JD programs took time and went to great lengths to adopt best practices. They are also engage in extensive program and learning outcomes assessment to ensure that learning continues in the most effective ways for students. These programs thus provide both precedent for and valuable resources to assist other law faculty to not only deliver traditional courses but also electives, moot court, oral arguments, competitions, law review, student organizations, guest lectures, academic and bar support, counseling and mentoring, and much more.

Last week, we saw not just an overnight revolution in the delivery of legal education nationwide, but also unprecedented unity and collaboration. Law faculty became each other’s moral support and each other’s tech support – supplementing the tireless and superb work of the nation’s university and law school IT departments and law librarians. Colleagues helped each other by posting advice on an unending array of questions about synchronous and asynchronous online learning, crowd sourcing solutions every step of the way. 

On Friday, March 20, AccessLex hosted an online virtual conference, organized by Professors Kris Franklin and Paulina Davis from New York Law School (adapted to WebEx from what was originally to be their annual New York Regional Academic Support conference). The subject was adapting in the ASP world to the new online environment. More than 85 faculty from across the country attended. Presenters included Professor Kris Franklin (Professor of Law, Director of Academic Initiatives, Co-Director for the Initiative for Excellence in Law Teaching, and Co-Advisor for the Dispute Resolution Team at NYLS) and Professor Paulina Davis (Assistant Dean for Academic Success at NYLS), as well as Professor Jamie Kleppetch (Director of Bar Passage at DePaul University College of Law), Dean Larasz A. Moody-Villarose (Larasz A. has a accountAssistant Dean Of Students at Concord Law School at Purdue University Global), Professor Christina Chong (Associate Director of Academic Skills at UC Irvine School of Law), and Professor Alison Nissen (Director of the Academic Success Program, Rutgers Law School).

Even with all this assistance, some faculty are understandably already on overload. It is important to remember that at this point in the semester especially, opting for simple lessons—with more reading and less tech—is a perfectly fine option. As a general premise, just because every bell and whistle is out there does not mean they must all be used to deliver quality online learning.

In the weeks to come, we will be assembling resources on distance learning in our AccessLex Academic Resource Center at, and we will continue to serve as a hub for collecting and disseminating reliable information for law faculty and students alike.

Please stay tuned for additional posts. In the meantime, wishing you all safety and as much peace of mind as possible. Thank you, law schools, for all you are doing for our nation’s law students.

We at AccessLex are with you every step of the way.