A Minnesota law school will become the first in the country to allow students to earn their degrees largely from home, with the blessing of the American Bar Association.

On Wednesday, William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul plans to announce its new hybrid option: Students will spend only a week or two on campus each semester, and take the rest of their classes online.

It's the first such program at a fully accredited law school. And depending on whom you ask, it's a risky, or a long overdue, venture that could shake up the tradition-bound halls of legal education.

"It moves them slightly forward into the 21st century," said Robert Oliphant, a professor emeritus at William Mitchell who supports online teaching. "Law schools are about the last institutions in the world to try to change. They're just very stuck in the mud."

The ABA, which accredits 203 law schools nationwide, has imposed strict limits on online classes for the past decade. But this month, for the first time, it approved a pilot project at William Mitchell that will permit students to complete up to half their coursework online.

Starting in 2015, students who opt for the hybrid will spend 12 weeks a semester taking online classes from home, sometimes through live webcasts, said Eric Janus, law school dean. Half the credit hours will still be taught on campus, but they'll be squeezed into intensive weeklong marathons at the beginning or end of each term.

"This is not an online degree," Janus said. But it will open up new possibilities, he said, especially for students in rural areas, who would otherwise have to quit their jobs or uproot their families. "This is going to allow us to [reach students] in ways that were never possible in a traditional sort of program," he said.

The decision to add the hybrid option hasn't been universally popular, even among the faculty, who voted to approve it Dec. 11. "I won't claim that it was unanimous," Janus said. "Not everybody believes that it's a good idea. But by far the overwhelming majority of the faculty voted in favor."

Prof. Douglas Heidenreich, a former dean of the school, was one of the dissenters. "I don't think it's a good approach for education in general," he said. "I think there is something about legal education that makes the direct, face-to-face contact important."

For a profession that loves a good argument, the notion of online education has stirred up passionate debate. "I'm not sure there is a consensus," said Phil Duran, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The big question, he said, is whether the quality of education suffers "if you are, in fact, participating in a class sitting at home in your jammies."

Just this month, he noted, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to allow practicing lawyers to take a third of their CLE (continuing legal education) credits online, and "that was controversial," he said.

How to teach law

Today, most law schools still rely on the lecture style known as the Socratic method, immortalized in the 1973 movie "The Paper Chase." A professor stands in front of an amphitheater of jittery students, calling on them at random to answer questions.

It's a good way to teach how "to think like a lawyer," Janus said. "But frankly, it's not a tool that works for everybody."

As a rule, the legal profession largely ignored the rise of online education for many years, Oliphant said. In 2000, he wrote a law review article taking his fellow academics to task. Law schools, he wrote, "appear comfortably entrenched in an environment that functions, in many ways, much as it did a century ago."

In fact, the ABA eased its rules about a decade ago, allowing up to a third of classroom credits to be taught online. Few law schools, though, have gone even that far, said Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education at ABA. "It's been a little bit slow getting going," he said.

Meanwhile, a handful of online law schools have popped up in California. Because they're not accredited by the ABA, their graduates can't practice law in most states.

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