How Online Learning Can Help Address Three Persistent Problems in Legal Education

24 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2020 Last revised: 22 Jul 2020

See all articles by David I. C. Thomson

David I. C. Thomson

University of Denver, Sturm College of Law

Date Written: January 7, 2020


The debate about whether we should teach law online is over. Indeed, it has been over for some time, we just may not have noticed. Today the tools, disciplines, and practices of online learning pervade law school courses, whether nominally taught online or not. Whether through a site that offers quizzes on legal subjects, or through a full-featured learning management system which hosts links to myriad supplemental materials for the course, law professors are consistently using interactive and engaging online learning tools to enhance their courses. With new technology in all spheres we tend to think in binary terms. Yes or no. On or off. All or none. But history teaches us that is this is not how technology is adopted, and as a result, it is rarely the most productive way to think of it, and it does little to help us prepare for the new paradigm. This is because, quite simply, we live in a hybrid world, and have for at least two decades. We are somewhat late to the party, but the future of legal education will be even more hybrid of a learning experience than it already is. Thus, the question of whether we should or should not teach law online is no longer the interesting question (if it ever was). The interesting question, or questions, is which courses ought to be taught online and in what ways and to what degree should we deliver small or large parts of our courses online?

While examining these interesting questions, we see an opportunity to address, finally, three persistent and intractable problems that have plagued legal education for many years. They are: 1) some of our graduates struggle to find employment while many in our society lack legal representation; 2) the rising cost of legal education and high student debt to pay for it; and 3) and the embarrassingly low levels of diversity in the legal profession. This article describes how a hybrid curriculum, and hybrid courses within that curriculum, will help to address these three intractable problems. It argues for more schools to experiment with putting much of the traditional first year content in a hybrid online environment, to a larger cohort of prospective law students, less rigidly filtered by the LSAT/GRE access barrier, and at less cost. After a rigorous first year with regular assessments, a smaller, highly-qualified cohort of students would be admitted into the second year of law school, where they would hone skills and learn modern practice, with more “live” simulation-based classroom learning, clinics, and externship opportunities. Students who did not successfully pass that first-year barrier would be given a Master of American Law degree (or similar recognition). Further, such a degree could become a prerequisite to the training and examination process for certification as a Limited Licensed Legal Technician, which would help with access to justice issues in our profession because such graduates could afford to do such work, since their debt would be substantially lower.

Suggested Citation

Thomson, David I. C., How Online Learning Can Help Address Three Persistent Problems in Legal Education (January 7, 2020). Syracuse Law Review, Forthcoming, U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-01, Available at SSRN:

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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