The UNH School of Law in Concord is about to take its first big steps into the world of online education, and if all goes as planned it will go further and create what it calls the nation’s first specialized law degree.
The school is awaiting permission from the American Bar Association for a largely online law degree focused on intellectual property, a topic that covers everything from patents and trade secrets to databases and privacy. UNH School of Law has long been known for its emphasis on IP and already offers a certificate in the field, but this new version of what is known officially as a Juris Doctor or JD degree will go further, said Dean Megan Carpenter.
“It will be the first JD that is curated from beginning to end in a particular area of the law – in this case, intellectual property and technology law. The students will still have exposure to basic areas of the law, including contracts and civil procedure, for example … It’s still a JD, but it is JD with a focus in a particular area of the law,” Carpenter said.
“This is where law is going: increasingly specialized,” she said. “Earning a JD focused on IP allows students to do a deep dive into a subject that’s relevant in almost a third of all industries nationwide.”
The stumbling block for accreditation is the number of online classes, known as distance learning. The degree would require students to be in Concord for only three or four weeks each year, spread out over the fall, spring and summer terms. Virtually all classes would be taught online.
American Bar Association standards, however, say that law degrees can offer at most one-third of total credit hours through distance learning; the rest must be on campus.
Law schools can apply for an exception from this rule but few have done so. According to the ABA, only three of the 205 accredited law schools in the country – Syracuse in New York, Southwestern in Los Angeles and Mitchell-Hamline in Minnesota – have received approval to offer an online JD degree. UNH would be the fourth.
“Intellectual property is a perfect area for this,” said Carpenter. “It is the law of innovation, so we should think about ways to innovate in legal education while teaching it. … It’s satisfying to use a technology when you’re learning about law that supports that technology.”
The shortage of distance learning reflects how law schools, like most graduate schools, are moving online more slowly than undergraduate colleges.
There is an incentive for law schools to expand online learning however – stagnant or declining enrollments on campuses. The number of new students enrolling in the nation’s law schools each year peaked in 2010 at 52,000, but then fell precipitously to about 38,000 in 2017. The figure perked up in the current academic year – a change that some say reflects interest in the law spurred by turmoil in Washington – but it’s unclear if that’s a long-term trend.
Carpenter said UNH School of Law’s entering class rose by some 20 percent this year from last year, to 94 students, but is still well under half the size it was just a few years ago.
Carpenter said online education is just an example of changes coming to legal education. In January, for example, the school launched two professional certifications, one on blockchain and cryptocurrency, the other on sports and wagering integrity, which are geared toward non-lawyers.
“I think law schools have isolated themselves for so long in the context of higher education. There is no law without other disciplines; it applies to real people doing real things,” Carpenter said.
Another possibility that the School of Law is examining is whether to create online classes or courses and offer them to other law schools through a company called ILaw. Such an exchange could also work in reverse.
“Other law schools may have a more robust tax program than we have, for example, and we could bring it into our school. I would love that. … We are getting rid of some of the silos where schools felt so in competition with one another. Let’s all collectively leverage our strengths,” Carpenter said.