A Behind the Scenes Look at the New Online Part-Time JD Program

Cassandra Robertson

Q&A with Cassandra Robertson, Faculty Director of the Program

The Online Part-Time JD program (accepting applications now for fall 2024 start) is under the direction of Cassandra Robertson, John Deaver Drinko - BakerHostetler Professor of Law, who has developed expertise in online learning. Here, she provides answers to frequently asked questions about the new program. 

Q: How is CWRU developing the online program?

A: Case Western Reserve University School of Law professors are drawing on decades of experience in law teaching, and they are working together with in-house instructional designers who specialize in online teaching and learning to develop a program that brings CWRU’s traditional strength in legal education to a technology-enabled platform.

Q: How is the online program different from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or an instructional app like Duolingo?

A: Like MOOCs and educational apps, the online program will also leverage technology to aid in student learning. But the biggest differences are (1) the size of the program (MOOCs and apps are massive in scale, while the online program will be limited to a small select cohort); and (2) the direct interaction with professors. MOOCs and apps require entirely self-directed study. In contrast, the online program is built around personalized instruction, regular feedback and an ongoing relationship between the professor and a small cohort of students. In pedagogical terms, this is called “Regular and Substantive Interaction.” Large-scale independent study programs can be valuable–CWRU School of Law offers a leading MOOC in International Criminal Law that has served over 170,000 students. And I’m quite proud of my 541-day Duolingo streak in Japanese! But for the JD program, students won’t be on their own–they’ll be learning within a community of students and engaging with their professors each week.

Q: How is the online program different from in-person instruction?

A: In some ways, the online program will be very much like our in-person program. Both programs will offer the same required courses and will offer a range of elective courses. Both will lead to the Juris Doctor degree that will qualify students to sit for the bar examination. And both will be taught by CWRU faculty members, including a mix of full-time academics with extensive teaching experience as well as part-time faculty members that also work as practicing attorneys who can help students build the bridge from theory to practice.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the online program will be accessible to students wherever they are. Students don’t need to live within daily commuting distance of the law school. Students who have health or life circumstances that make regular in-person attendance impossible will have the ability to get a JD degree. And we made the program part-time to make it as broadly accessible as possible so a student who has a full-time job won’t have to give it up in order to progress with their education–they can attend classes in the evening. 

Q: How do you know that students will learn as much online as they would in person?

A: For the past four years, I’ve taught parallel sections of the same course–one online, and one in person. Both sections take the same final exam. It’s been interesting to see that there has been no significant difference in the online students’ performance and the in-person students’ performance. Of course, it’s important to note that this was not a controlled experiment, and students were not randomly assigned to the sections–they could choose whether they wanted to take the class in person or online. And certainly, particular students may learn better in one environment or the other. Nonetheless, the consistent similarity between the groups overall has given us a level of confidence that students are ultimately learning the same material regardless of the class’s modality.

Q: Why is CWRU starting a fully online program as opposed to a hybrid program which has some required in-person aspects?

A: Our goal is to make the JD degree accessible to a wider range of prospective students, including those whose current geographic location or life circumstances prevent them from participating in traditional class scheduling (even when confined to the evenings). 

Q: Does that mean there will be no in-person contact?

A: Not at all— the program provides opportunities for students to come to Cleveland for short in-person residencies if they wish to. We recommend students attend at least one of these each year. And our online students will also have to complete their experiential education requirements, including the Capstone, which (as for all of our students) may be done in-person throughout the United States and abroad.

Q: Will online learning replace traditional in-person education at CWRU?

A: Our faculty strongly believe that the traditional approach to legal education still has an important role to play at our school for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we believe that some students can thrive and excel in a remote combined asynchronous/synchronous part-time model.

Q: Can a student take every class offered by the law school in a remote format, and take it whenever they want?

A: No. The curriculum will roll-out in a set format, with required classes during the first year (as is true for in-person 1Ls). All 1L, upper-level required and general education courses eventually will be available in the remote format. We anticipate that some elective courses will be available only in one of the two formats (online or in-person) and students who choose to take that elective will have to accept the format offered. In addition, some classes, even when available remotely, may only be available in a fully synchronous format. While the required courses for the remote JD program will be scheduled taking into account working students (e.g., with synchronous sessions scheduled later in the day), the timing will be set to the eastern time zone. 

Q: Can online students participate in the law school’s extracurricular activities?

A: Extracurricular activities won’t be identical to those offered in-person, but there will be options to participate in several extracurricular activities. These may include law journals, student organizations and/or other activities. We will also have opportunities to remotely attend law school conferences, symposia and guest-speaker programs.

Q: Are all the classes the same format in the program?

A: No, different classes will use different formats, depending on pedagogical needs. This includes remote synchronous, remote asynchronous, remote combined and even hybrid (for some smaller classes that can work well with both in person and remote students at the same time). The goal is to be as flexible as possible, meeting student preferences and needs while still paying close attention to pedagogical requirements. 

Q: How do I know if I’d be a good fit for the program?

A: Studying law is never easy–it’s an analytically rigorous program with a lot of reading, with new styles of writing and a substantial amount of work. The time commitment is significant, especially if students are planning to combine full-time work with part-time study. So students should carefully consider factors such as:

  • Do I know my “why”--that is, what is motivating me to become a lawyer? Personal motivation and well-developed goals will help students succeed even when the hours are long.
  • Do I have the time to dedicate to studying? Law study requires a great deal of reading and study. Part-time students will take two classes a semester (about seven credit hours). Each credit hour requires about three to four hours a week of effort. This means that part-time students should plan to spend more than twenty hours a week on educational activities.
  • Have I had success in the past with online education? Students who were in school in recent years almost certainly have some experience with online education and have a frame of reference to consider whether the experience worked for them or whether they would be better served by attending an in-person program.
  • What if I’ve been out of school for a while, and never studied online? Having work experience can be very helpful! If a prospective student is concerned that they haven’t had experience learning in an online environment, I would recommend that they consider participating in the JD-Next program, which offers both a fully online course introducing students to fundamental reading and analysis skills and an examination that can be used for admission. The program can help students prepare for law school, demonstrate their readiness for further study and also give the student a sense of what it is like to participate in online education. Taking the class can help them decide whether they would like to continue their legal education online.

Q: What if I want to shift from the online program to the in-person one or vice versa?

A: This will be possible at certain points in time, but a student will have to apply, there will need to be space in the program in question and students need to be at a point in their studies that transfer is workable. Transfer from online to in-person will be possible at multiple points in time, although keep in mind that the in-person program is set up as a traditional full time degree. Transfer from in-person to online will be much more limited both because there are very limited seats in the online program and because the part-time nature of the program means that the classes offered won't be relevant to students until a few years down the road– at which point most current students will have finished their legal studies.

Q: What credentials will you require for the online program versus the in-person program?

A: We will be looking for the same strong record of academic achievement in both the online program and the in-person program. In particular, we’ll examine the applicant’s undergraduate record and their entrance exam (whether LSAT, GRE or JD-Next). We expect to see the same high credentials in both programs.

For the online program, however, we also look for more. We are especially looking for students with a level of maturity and a sense of self-direction that would show that they are likely to thrive in an online program. Students with substantial work experience, students with a successful track record of online learning and students with a well-developed goal for their legal education would be good candidates for the program.

Q: Are there scholarships available for the online program?

A: Yes, just like our in-person JD, we offer a number of merit scholarships. And we plan to have some additional need-based funds available to enrolled students to help defray the costs of travel and housing for the optional in-person residencies.

Q: How long does it take to finish the online program?

A: If students decide to take courses year-round (including summer sessions), the program can be finished in 4.5 years. But students may also stretch that out to as long as 6 years.

Q: How (and when) will the law school assess the success of the program?

A: There are multiple points for evaluation: This year–looking at the quality of our applicant pool, and over the next couple of years–looking at performance in classes and retention of students. We plan to continue to compare performance between the in-person and remote cohorts. In order to facilitate this, we will build on an effort we have started in the traditional law program–developing a bank of bar-type questions for bar-tested courses and have all course sections coordinate to use some of these questions on final exams. We will also continue to evaluate the program looking at feedback from experiential placements (externships and capstones) 3-4 years out, employment statistics 5-6 years out and feedback from employers 6+ years out.

Q: You said the online program will open up the field to people who would not otherwise be able to attend law school. Do we really need more lawyers?

A: Yes, especially in underserved areas. The American Bar Association has defined “legal deserts” as counties where there is less than one lawyer for every thousand people. By comparison, the national average is four lawyers per thousand people. So there are certain areas within the United States where people with legal needs have a very difficult time finding legal representation and counsel. These “legal deserts” tend to be rural areas that are not within commuting distance of a law school.

An online program can make legal education accessible to rural residents, and those students are more likely to serve their communities when they graduate.

Looking more broadly to the United States as a whole, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the employment of lawyers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2022 to 2032, which the BLS notes is faster than the average for all occupations.