“Law schools are pretty conservative,” admits Michael Koby, an associate dean at the Washington University School of Law. “They don’t tend to be as innovative as the business schools are.”
But Wash U. has ventured into some uncharted territory. At the beginning of this year, the school launched @WashULaw, an online LL.M. program for international students. More than 50 students are currently enrolled in the unusual program.
It’s something of a risk for a prestigious law school. After all, Washington is one of the most revered universities in the U.S. Yet for many people, the words “online program” conjure up images of students mindlessly clicking through cheesy graphics on a computer screen. “I think at first there was a little bit of skepticism,” admits Ken LaOrden, general manager of the @WashULaw program at 2U, the company that created the platform. “But everyone who has taught in our program has come around and had a truly positive experience. They’re even thinking of new ways to enhance it.”
Koby, who teaches an introductory law class, is among them. “I’ve never had a class with someone from all these different countries,” he gushes. “It’s just remarkable.” Students aren’t “just watching canned lectures,” he explains. “We have this remarkable, cutting-edge, web-based format that really doesn’t sacrifice the academic quality of the program.”
Wash. U is currently the only top law school offering a program of this kind, but it’ll soon face competition. The University of Southern California (USC) is preparing to launch its own version of the online LL.M. “We’re really getting our feet wet in terms of that whole realm,” says Misa Shimotsu-Kim, director of USC Law’s Graduate and International Programs. Students in this program will be able to earn certificates in business law or entertainment law—two of USC’s biggest strengths—at no additional cost. The first class will start next fall; Shimotsu-Kim expects to start with 35 students.
Though 2U works with two other schools within USC, the company has an exclusivity policy with Wash. U Law, so USC’s law school has partnered with rival service Embanet instead. Still, with course development underway, Shimotsu-Kim is thankful to have good models to follow. “The challenge is anticipating what we don’t know,” she says.
Meeting an unmet need
Why go virtual just for international students? To explain, Koby paints a portrait of the program’s target demographic: prominent lawyers with 7 to 12 years of experience who would like to become their offices’ resident experts in U.S. law—without hauling their lives to the U.S. for a year. ‘The lawyers from overseas all understand the inherent value of understanding the U.S. legal system,” Koby says. Often, though, the opportunity to relocate has passed these students by, whether because they’re too far into their careers or because they have families to consider. “That’s really the niche that this program is filling,” Koby says.
Shimotsu-Kim of USC describes a similar rationale. “I think that we just felt that there’s kind of an untapped pool of potential students who want to earn the degree but have the challenge of being in the U.S. for a year, both financially, personally, and professionally,” she says. “We were really looking to move in the direction of an online program, and we felt like this would be the best population for us to offer it to.”
Nonetheless, USC will be delivering the program to slightly different students. Shimotsu-Kim anticipates that the online student body will mirror the residential student body, which includes attorneys who’ve practiced full-time as well as students who’ve just earned their first law degrees; work experience is preferred but not required.
In contrast, Wash U. has been drawing students who’ve largely proven themselves in their home countries. Koby’s class includes a member of the upper house of India’s parliament and a barrister with the supreme court of Nigeria. “One of the real positives of the program—and this is something that as a teacher, I didn’t really see coming—is that unlike our on-campus students, our online students are all experienced lawyers,” Koby says.
There’s one notable thing the programs have in common: As far as cost goes, online students don’t get any breaks. @WashULaw’s tuition is “pretty much in line with our on-campus tuition, but it’s by credit,” Koby explains. Since each credit costs $2,085, the total cost of the 24-credit program is $50,040. Tuition for USC’s online program will also be similar to tuition for its residential program, with each unit costing around $2,000 (it takes 21 units to complete the regular LL.M.). The schools aim to make the online programs as good as their residential counterparts, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re charging just as much.