How Online Learning Can Transform Legal Education

How Online Learning Can Transform Legal Education in THE RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (EDWARD ELGAR, 2016)

22 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2018

See all articles by David I. C. Thomson

David I. C. Thomson

University of Denver, Sturm College of Law

Date Written: August 23, 2018


Legal Education in the United States has been under significant pressure since the Great Recession of 2008. The recession created new and significant pressures on law firms, which previously had absorbed many law school graduates but no longer could at the same rates. Complaints of graduates being insufficiently prepared for practice preceded the post-2008 shift, but reached a fever pitch afterwards. Particularly in the years 2010-13, graduates of law schools had a significantly harder time getting jobs than they had in the past. At many schools, nearly 50% of graduates were unable to obtain employment in a “J.D. Required” job. All of this led to the legal academy being criticized broadly in blogs and in the press for offering a law degree at considerable cost without providing what many considered to be appropriate employment outcomes. Further, law practice changed significantly in the last decade, with (in particular) corporate clients - themselves subject to digital transformations and the pressures of global competition - demanding a level of efficacy and efficiency that had not previously been required of their outside law firms. In sum, digital transformations in the outside world are finally putting pressure on the legal academy, which until the recent financial crisis had been mostly immune.

At the same time, the cost of law school has dramatically increased and calls for reducing law school curricula from three years to two have increased. One of the reasons the idea to reduce law school to two years is so attractive to many pundits is that it would - emphatically and in one stroke - reduce the cost. But it would also reduce preparedness for practice, and no one wants poorly prepared lawyers.

A possible answer to this conundrum is to reduce law school to two years, but do it by removing the first year. Or rather, significantly reengineering it, by putting most of it online, in a partially hybrid model. The day when well-designed online learning environments achieved outcomes equivalent to or better than “ground” classes has long since passed. The first year classes mostly involve information transfer, and thus are ideally suited to online pedagogy, so there is every reason to think there are acceptable ways to teach much of the first year material primarily online. This book chapter, which originally appeared in the Handbook of Digital Transformations (Edward Elgar, 2016) proposes that we move toward that goal, describes several potential benefits of doing so, and suggests that the ABA relax the online learning limitations it currently has on law schools so that they may experiment more freely with online learning.

Suggested Citation

Thomson, David I. C., How Online Learning Can Transform Legal Education (August 23, 2018). How Online Learning Can Transform Legal Education in THE RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (EDWARD ELGAR, 2016), Available at SSRN: or

David I. C. Thomson (Contact Author)

University of Denver, Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States


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