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Law Schools' Forced Shift Online Offers Insights for Future

Law Schools' Forced Shift Online Offers Insights for Future

by Zach Hrynowski and Margaret Carlson

Story Highlights

  • 48% of online law students rated their program as "good" or "excellent"
  • Diverse teaching methods improved perceptions of online programs
  • Online, in-person students participate similarly in extracurriculars

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced law schools across the U.S. to shift their programs completely online. Prior to the pandemic, no American Bar Association-accredited law school offered a fully online degree program, and fewer than ten offered hybrid programs. As a result, even if their universities had the infrastructure to support the migration of their courses to an online platform, faculty may not have had the experience needed to make such a rapid transition. Moreover, few students had any exposure to -- let alone a preference for -- an online legal education.

To quantify the impact of these challenges on law students' education, AccessLex partnered with Gallup to produce Law School in a Pandemic: Student Perspectives on Distance Learning and Lessons for the Future, a nationally representative study of currently-enrolled U.S. law students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research finds that while law students report a strong preference for in-person education, there are several indications that this unprecedented period of emergency remote teaching may provide a useful foundation for future distance learning J.D. programs.

Less Than Half of Online J.D. Students Say Program Was Good or Excellent

The AccessLex-Gallup survey, conducted Feb. 25 to March 24, asked law students about their classroom experiences prior to and during the pandemic. About nine in 10 students said that they took at least half of their fall 2020 and spring 2021 courses online, including nearly eight in 10 who said they were mostly or completely online during that period. This represents a significant shift in the legal education landscape, as only 2% of second-year (2L) and third-year (3L) students said they had taken any of their law courses online prior to the pandemic.

The format of the courses had a noticeable impact on how students viewed the quality of their program. Just under half (48%) of students who learned mostly or completely online in spring 2021 rated their J.D. program as "good" or "excellent." In contrast, 73% of students who were learning mostly or completely in person said the same.

How would you rate the quality of your current J.D. program during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mostly or completely in-person Equally online and in-person Mostly or completely online
% % %
Excellent 21 8 11
Good 52 49 37
Fair 23 34 36
Poor 4 9 16
AccessLex-Gallup, 2021

While students attending primarily in person were more positive than online students about the quality of their program, the data suggest the pre-pandemic experiences of 2L and 3L students may have influenced their perceptions of the overall quality of their program.

First-year students (1L) without any prior in-person J.D. experience to compare it with were noticeably more positive about their programs during the pandemic. This is irrespective of their course format as 64% of 1L students said their J.D. program during the pandemic was good or excellent, compared with 43% of 2L and 3L students who said the same.


Horizontal stacked bar graph. Law students' perceptions of the quality of their programs, by year. 64% of first year students rate their programs as excellent or good, compared with 46% of second year students and 40% of third year students.

Highest Rated Online Programs Used Most Diverse Array of Teaching Methods

Though the overwhelming majority of students completed most of their courses online in the 2020 academic year, the data suggest that faculty largely employed the same teaching methods, regardless of whether they taught online or in person.

Please indicate how many of your law school courses have used the following during the COVID-19 pandemic. Percentage "all" or "most"
Mostly or completely in person Equally online and in person Mostly or completely online
% % %
Live lectures from faculty 88 80 89
The Socratic method 66 56 51
Written assignments 27 32 40
Online discussions 18 30 36
Quizzes 14 17 23
Skills-based instruction 19 14 17
Group projects or other collective work 9 8 13
Pre-recorded lectures 8 5 8
Guest lectures 7 6 7
AccessLex-Gallup, 2021

Students who were primarily taking their courses online were at least as likely as their in-person peers to say that most or all of their courses utilized live lectures from faculty, group work and guest lectures. Written assignments, online discussions and quizzes were used more frequently for instruction taking place mostly online than mostly in person, although the rank order of use was the same for both environments.

One method used more frequently in person than online is the Socratic method. This is a common technique in law classes that involves asking students questions meant to help them think more critically about legal arguments, court decisions and hypothetical scenarios adapted from the facts and law in those cases. About 66% of students who learned mostly or completely in person said the majority of their courses employed the Socratic method, compared with 51% of those learning mostly or completely online.

Although distance learning courses relied more heavily on online discussions and formal assessments, this did not seem to detract from the distance-learning experience. Rather, the students learning remotely who were most likely to rate their J.D. program as "excellent" were those whose courses employed a wide variety of approaches.

Please indicate how many of your law school courses have used the following during the COVID-19 pandemic. - Percentage "all courses" or "most courses" among students taking most or all of their courses online in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021
Results among students who rate the quality of their program during the pandemic as…
Excellent Good Fair Poor
% % % %
Live lectures from faculty 94 90 88 87
The Socratic method 65 54 50 43
Written assignments 55 44 35 34
Online discussions 63 38 32 21
Quizzes 39 25 22 11
Skills-based instruction 30 21 12 8
Group projects or other collective work 19 15 10 10
Pre-recorded lectures 12 8 6 9
Guest lectures 11 8 6 7
AccessLex-Gallup, 2021

While online students were less satisfied with the overall quality of their J.D. program, this does not seem to reflect how engaged they felt by their in-class experience. Forty-five percent of students learning mostly or completely online agreed their professors used teaching methods that engaged them, compared with 49% of students learning mostly or completely in person.

Online Students as Likely or More Likely to Participate in Extracurriculars

Students who completed most of their courses online during the 2020-2021 academic year were more likely than mostly in-person students to have participated in a number of extracurricular activities during the pandemic. These include holding an internship or externship and, to a lesser extent, working on their school's law review or serving as a faculty research assistant.

Which of the following have you participated in since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic? Select all that apply.
Mostly or completely in-person Equally online and in-person Mostly or completely online
(%) (%) (%)
Internship or externship 27 41 45
Faculty research assistant position 10 17 17
Law review/journal 21 27 30
Moot court or mock trial 19 22 16
AccessLex-Gallup, 2021

Bottom Line

When asked to rate the quality of their J.D. program, students who were enrolled in online courses were significantly less positive about their experience. They were also less confident that their program is preparing them for postgraduation success: 34% of mostly online students strongly agreed that they believed they would graduate with the skills they needed to succeed in their chosen career path, compared with 47% of mostly in-person students.

However, the underlying experience indicates that many of the components of an in-person law school experience are replicable in an online environment -- even one forced by a global pandemic. Distance learning students reported the teaching methods used in their courses were similar to those of traditional law courses and were about equally as engaging as an in-person experience, and these students were at least as likely to be involved in extracurricular or co-curricular activities as those who were in person. And without a pre-pandemic experience to compare it against, nearly two-thirds of 1L students believed the education they received was excellent or good.

Though a large satisfaction gap remained in Spring 2021 between online and in-person students, the first year of significant online law school instruction has given universities the opportunity to assess the positive outcomes of this forced experiment and to identify the law school experiences that did not seem to translate to the online classroom. As vaccinations allow more students to return to campuses in the fall, it remains to be seen whether law schools will retain any aspects of the distance learning curriculum or even explore permanent online programs that have not been previously offered.

To learn more, read the full report.

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