Concord Law School was founded in 1998 as the nation’s first online law school, with a mission to make high-quality legal education accessible and affordable for those who could not attend a traditional law school due to work or family commitments, military service, or other life circumstances. At the time, many thought the very notion of an online law school seemed outlandish. But Concord not only managed to survive—it has thrived and flourished.
Since its founding, over 2,400 people have graduated from Concord, many of whom have gone on to distinguished positions in law or used their advanced legal training in government, business, higher education, health care, and other fields. Our teams have won awards in moot court competitions against brick-and-mortar law school students.
The school itself has won awards, including the Leading Edge Prize for Innovation in Legal Education and the ABA Brown Select Award for Access to Justice. And Concord is part of Purdue University Global, a nonprofit university within the Purdue University system, one of the country’s premier public research institutions.
I am proud to report that Concord has now achieved another historic first: becoming one of the first online law schools to earn accreditation by the State Bar of California.* This is significant not only for Concord but for the future of legal education.
The History of Online Law School Accreditation: How We Got Here
The coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding, online legal education still faces significant headwinds. The American Bar Association (ABA) will not accredit a fully online law school—its accreditation standards limit law schools to offering one-third of their program online.
In light of the pandemic, ABA law schools may operate remotely temporarily, but this is only a stopgap measure. Schools must still seek a variance to go beyond one-third online on an ongoing basis.
While this variance option has existed for years, only four ABA schools have sought and obtained variances to offer hybrid-online programs. None have pursued a fully online program, and none offer a significant discount from the six-figure tuition for their campus-based programs.
The State Bar of California is one of the only other bodies that accredits law schools. There are two tiers of State Bar regulation: accredited law schools and unaccredited registered schools. Graduates of both categories of law schools may only sit for the California bar exam immediately upon graduation. What they can do in other states depends on each jurisdiction’s rules.
The two major differences between California accredited and unaccredited law schools is that:
- Accredited law schools must maintain a 5-year cumulative bar pass rate of 40%, whereas unaccredited schools do not;
- Students at unaccredited law schools must take and pass California’s First Year Law Student Exam (the FYLSE or “baby bar”), whereas the former do not.
We at Concord have long believed we have met the standards for accreditation. But for decades, full accreditation by the State Bar was only available to fixed-facility law schools.
Then, in July 2019, the State Bar amended its rules to allow online law schools to apply for accreditation. We were the first online law school to apply, and in March 2020, we became not only the first online law school to have an accreditation site visit, but the first law school to have its site visit conducted remotely.
The Committee Grants Concord Law School Accreditation
Finally, on August 21, 2020, the Committee of Bar Examiners voted unanimously to grant Concord accreditation. Because Concord was found to be in full compliance with the guidelines for accredited law schools, it was not required to undergo an interim period of provisional accreditation, which is typically the case for registered law schools seeking accreditation.
Earning State Bar accreditation is a monumental accomplishment, and one that can be attributed not only to the current faculty and staff, but every faculty member, administrator, and student who has been a part of the Concord family since it opened its doors over 20 years ago.
What This Means for Concord and the Future of Online Legal Education
Some of the changes for Concord upon gaining accreditation will be logistical. Concord will enroll new students in its first-ever accredited term on September 24, 2020. Existing JD students in Concord’s unaccredited program will be given an opportunity to apply to “transfer” into the accredited program in the coming months.
The curriculum will largely remain the same, but over the course of 2021, Concord will transition from 24-week terms to 16-week terms, which will align better with traditional academic calendars and will enable students to focus on fewer courses at a time.
Then there’s the bigger picture. ABA accreditation may still be a way off, but California accreditation could potentially expand opportunities for Concord graduates for licensure in some other states, at least after passing California’s bar exam. The Supreme Court of California recently made its own historic decision to lower the artificially high bar exam cut score from 1440 to 1390, which, although still well above the national median, should enable more Concord graduates to obtain licensure in-state (and diversify the profession more generally). And accreditation will lend Concord’s program additional prestige in the marketplace and the public sphere.
Concord’s accreditation could have impacts far beyond the school itself. We may look back years from now and see this as the first step toward the dismantling of artificial barriers to online learning in legal education. Indeed, students in law schools across the country have all been exposed to online learning this year. Although many traditional students and faculty are eager to get back to face-to-face learning, the idea that law school can happen online is no longer a novelty in anyone’s mind.
If recent events have taught us anything, it is that many aspects of our lives can adapt to the remote environment. Even before the pandemic, most of the things a lawyer did could be accomplished remotely, so why not teach people how to be lawyers remotely as well—especially if it can be done at a dramatically lower cost in a highly accessible format?
We at Concord look forward to more milestones in the years to come. For the moment, though, we’re going to savor our latest achievement.
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