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School for working families
William Mitchell officials say they decided in May to launch the hybrid law degree after having experimented with online classes for about a decade.
Janus, the dean, said he knew the decision would be controversial, but it seemed like a natural move for the college, which began as a night law school. “Our traditional mission [was] providing law school to working families,” he said. “In a way, this is night law school for the 21st century.”
Like night school, the hybrid program will take four years to complete.
Meg Kelner, a third-year student, says it’s about time. “To be on the cutting edge of technology is only going to be a good thing,” said Kelner, who is president of the Student Bar Association at William Mitchell. “It’s not even a crazy idea. It’s just that it hasn’t happened in the legal community.”
A second-year student who was studying for finals last week had some doubts. She didn’t want to be identified, but said she “doesn’t like online classes in general. I need the face-to-face.”
Heidenreich, who’s been teaching at William Mitchell for 50 years, fears that students will miss something valuable — the chance for spontaneous conversations with professors and one another. “The benefits you get from class participation … I think really can’t be replicated elsewhere,” he said. At the same time, he worries that working from home can be a fatal distraction. “I just don’t think that there is the discipline that most people can exercise on their own in this kind of situation.”
But many say that online classes could, eventually, help cut costs and ease the crushing debt on law students. “They’ve got to do something,” Oliphant said. “It offers the potential for tuition to stop going up and maybe, at some point, making law schools more available to a wider group of people.”
At the moment, there’s no sign of other law schools rushing to follow suit, said Currier, of the ABA. But he said they will be watching closely to see how the experiment pans out.
If it’s a dramatic success, he said, “that will be a signal to other schools and to the ABA that maybe they need to change the rules.”
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384