Vershawn Young, a college professor from Canada, started his first day of law school on Monday. So did Dr. Brooke Baker, an anesthesiologist from New Mexico.
But they won’t have much time to learn their way around their St. Paul campus.
By this weekend, they’ll be heading home. They’re part of the first “hybrid” class at the William Mitchell College of Law — which means they’ll be doing most of their coursework online.
Until now, no accredited law school in the country has offered such an option.
But on Monday, William Mitchell became the first one. It welcomed an eclectic group of 85 students, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, who jumped at the chance to pioneer a version of law school that, some say, could be the wave of the future.
Baker, 40, said she’s been waiting for years for a program like this. She plans to juggle law school while practicing medicine back in Albuquerque. “There are certainly people that say, ‘Wow, are you crazy?’ ” she admitted. “I think of it as an adventure.”
Young, 41, who teaches communications at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, said the hybrid program is the answer to a dream that got sidetracked 20 years ago. “I’m ecstatic about it,” he said. “I do expect to experience something phenomenal.”
Last year, William Mitchell won a special waiver from the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, to introduce its hybrid program. School officials said they saw it as a way to nudge the tradition-bound field into the 21st century, using online courses to make law school more accessible to working adults.
“I think higher education in general, but legal education in particular, is wary of big changes,” said Eric Janus, the retiring dean of William Mitchell. “So I think that many people in legal education are going to be watching this.”
So far, at least, the gamble is paying off. At a time when law school enrollment nationally has dipped for four consecutive years, to a 40-year low, William Mitchell — with both its hybrid and traditional programs — bucked the trend with an 8 percent overall increase.
The hybrid class that showed up Monday morning for a weeklong orientation, toting suitcases and five-hour energy drinks, is a bit grayer and more accomplished than the school’s traditional first-year law students. The average age is 38, and more than a third already have graduate degrees, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Glass.
Brian Kennedy, a 59-year-old grandfather from El Paso, Texas, was bubbling over with excitement after posing with fellow students for the official class photo. “I was accepted to William Mitchell in 1981 and life got in the way,” he said. “That was my one regret, that I didn’t get to go to law school.” Now, after a career in the recording and entertainment industries, he said, “I’m starting a new career. It just took me a while to get here.”
As part of the hybrid program, the students will spend one week each semester in face-to-face sessions on campus. It will take four years to earn a law degree, and tuition is the same as William Mitchell’s traditional part-time program: $27,770 this year.
The kickoff week, which began bright and early Monday, gave the hybrid students a taste of what they’ll miss when they study online: real-live professors, pacing in front of a lecture hall, peppering them with questions about torts and criminal law. In some ways, it’s a lot like the first week for any law school class, said Prof. Sarah Deer, who teaches criminal law. But “I think the intensity of this week is probably beyond anything I’ve experienced.”
The idea, she said, is to immerse the students in the skills that they’ll need to master the rest of their coursework online.
“So much of our profession is communication skills,” she said. “They learn the law online. They learn how to be lawyers when they’re here.”
Young, the college professor, said the hybrid program appealed to him for practical reasons — it’s the only way he can get a law degree and still keep his job, he said. And yet, he’s designed and taught online courses himself, in African-American literature, and he wasn’t entirely sold on the experience. “The jury’s still out for me,” he admitted. “I’m eager to see what the experience is like as a student.”
Studying the students
One of the selling points of the program, though, is that William Mitchell is going to study how well its hybrid program works, said Helen Meyer, a former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, who is chairing the search committee for the law school’s next dean. “It’s [getting] a lot of interest nationally because it’s a true innovation,” she said.
Janus, the outgoing dean, said William Mitchell will study how the hybrid students compare to traditional students in everything from graduation rates to passing the bar exam. “One of the worries that people sometimes express about learning that takes place partially online is that students won’t be as personally engaged,” he said. “I personally don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
Another open question, he said, is how they’ll be perceived “in the marketplace” by potential employers.
Young said he’s not worried, because he’ll always have his teaching career. But, as a member of the first hybrid class, he said he feels an obligation to “do a bang-up job as a student” and prove it a success.
Baker says she, too, feels the pressure to do well and serve as “an ambassador” for the program. “A lot of law schools are going to be watching this,” she said. “The next thing you know, there’s going to be 50 different online hybrid programs. I think it’s going to be commonplace sometime in our future.”
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384