The National Jurist, January 12, 2018 – Cristina Buskohl is a full-time paralegal, wife and a mother of three school-aged children. Now she can add law school graduate to that list — something she would not have been able to do before Mitchell Hamline School of Law launched its Hybrid J.D. program three years ago.
Buskohl and 15 other law students were the first to graduate from Mitchell Hamline’s Hybrid J.D. program on Jan. 4, 2017. The Hybrid J.D. program began in January 2015, becoming the nation’s first on-campus/online J.D. program at an ABA-approved law school.
“Accessibility to legal education is something that affected me,” Buskohl said. “I would not have been able to go to law school and do all the things I was able to do but for this program. I would have had to make a choice. I would have to decide to quit my job or move my family closer to a law school so that I could go full time.”
The program has attracted students from around the country, many of whom are established professionals searching for a law degree while continuing their full-time jobs. Students study online than travel to campus for one to two weeks of intense experiential learning each semester.
Buskohl, who has worked at the same law firm in Sterling, Illinois for the past seven years, continued to work full-time while pursuing her J.D. She worked 45 to 55 hours each week, spending time with her family in the evenings before retreating into her home office to study. While others slept, she watched lectures online, communicated with other students and studied case law. At the end of each semester, she drove six hours to Mitchell Hamline’s Minnesota campus to attend class.
“I think that the option to do a hybrid program like this is going to open the door for a lot of people,” Buskohl said, “It is going to bring in a lot of people who I think will be really good lawyers who would not otherwise go into the profession.”
The 16 Hybrid J.D. program students came from two classes, one that began in January 2015 and another that began in September 2015. These 16 students took an accelerated path to complete the program, which allowed them to finish in two-and-a-half to three years instead of four. The rest of the roughly 150 students in the entering classes are expected to graduate in 2019.
More than 350 students are currently enrolled in the Hybrid J.D. program, many of whom do not fit the typical first-year law student profile, Mitchell Hamline President and Dean Mark C. Gordon told the Star Tribune. Classes include venture capitalists, doctors, pilots, and teachers.
Mitchell Hamline is one of only two ABA-accredited law school allowed to offer a hybrid online/on-campus J.D. program. Typically, the ABA limits online education to 15 credits. To get permission, the law school had to invest a considerable amount of resources to convert coursework into an online format, hiring three full-time designers providing round-the-clock IT support to handle emergencies.
The hybrid program’s tuition is $30,346 per year, the same cost as the law school’s part-time program.
“The graduation of the first 16 students in our Hybrid J.D. program is a historic moment for Mitchell Hamline and for legal education,” Gordon said. “The Hybrid J.D program graduates, and all of our graduates received the excellent practical training in the legal profession that has been a hallmark of Mitchell Hamline for so many years. We’re incredibly proud of all of Sunday’s graduates, who come from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds and who I am confident will make noteworthy contributions to the profession and our nation at large.”
From the beginning, the Hybrid J.D. program has had to overcome skepticism from the legal profession. Buskohl said that when she told her co-workers (who attended traditional law schools) about the hybrid program, they expressed concern about the loss of the Socratic method and closed book exams. Buskhol explained that the online classes were set up in a way that facilitated class discussion and rigorous examination of case law.
“The school created an environment where we still had to challenge each other, even though we were not face-to-face and we had to do it through writing,” Buskohl said. Buskohl also completed an externship for credit at her law firm, sitting in during mediations, hearings, client interviews and trials.
Online legal education is expected to grow if and when the ABA further eases its rules on online education. That is expected to happen after Mitchell Hamline’s first hybrid class takes the bar exam.
“The bellwether will be bar pass rates for Mitchell Hamline’s online students,” said Ken Randall, CEO and president of iLaw Ventures and former chair of the ABA’s technology committee. “I think we will see them perform equally as well. That is what we see in other disciplines and licensing exams. “
Buskohl plans to join the firm as a lawyer once she passes the bar, which she is currently studying for.
“I am hopeful that if there are good pass rates, then other schools will consider doing this too,” she said. “A lot of people have careers and families to take care, and excluding those people from the profession is a detriment to the profession.”