Distance Learning in Legal Education

Hats off to LSAC for its important webinar yesterday featuring Berkeley Law Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky.  As LSAC President Kellye Testy said at the close of the session, I too felt a longing to return to the richness of law school learning while listening to Dean Chemerinsky’s review of recent Supreme Court decisions.

The session yesterday also provided a hopeful counterpart to Dean Paul Caron’s post yesterday, “Is A Law School Meltdown Coming?”  (Thank you, Dean Caron for this warning that I hope we all heed, and for the rays of light in between the cautionary notes.)  Dean Chemerinksy showed every prospective law student —via a distance learning delivery system I might add — why the law and legal education are critically important —indeed vital to the future of our democracy.  And, to all who watched and listened or will do so when the video link is posted, yesterday’s Constitutional Law session provides irrefutable evidence that great teaching is great teaching, in any delivery mode.  

Distance learning is not new.  We have long been engaged in deep learning without being in the same room through books, movies, and educational television. How many Americans learned just recently about the history of the founding of our nation through singing the lyrics of Hamilton (from a distance, not “in the room where it happened”)—and how many more will learn our history when the play comes out this week on television?  Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, @Lin_Manuel, one of today’s greatest distance educators!  How many of us know about how a bill becomes a law or proper use of conjunctions because of watching Schoolhouse Rock? And, history is replete with people who have fallen in love, sustained relationships, started revolutions, and changed the world through letter writing.  

I am a legal ed distance learning pioneer.  When people question me about online learning in legal education, I often point to Professor Arthur Miller, who in addition to teaching in person for more than fifty years at Harvard Law School and now at NYU, has taught more American lawyers, judges, and everyday citizens about civil procedure and the American legal system than anyone could possibly ever count, in multiple distance formats—through his treatise, casebooks, and hornbooks, his decades of bar review, the PBS Fred Friendly series for which he won an Emmy, his Good Morning American legal commentating, not to mention the incomparable civil procedures lectures he recorded for the first online law school, where I served for some fifteen years as a faculty member and assistant dean.  

Quite simply, anyone who categorically dismisses “distance learning” in legal education as some sort of inferior substitute has never heard, watched, or read the teachings of Arthur Miller or Erwin Chemerinksy, or any of the thousands of other brilliant law professors across this country who are right now preparing to teach superb online courses this fall.  And, this is what we should be doing —preparing for the fall.  In a June 30, 2020 brilliant post, former Northwestern Dean Dan Rodriguez rightly lauds Professor Deborah Merritt as follows, “What Prof. Merritt captures well, and what I and others have tried hard to capture as we have discussed this issue privately and publicly is this:  We can and should put on a full-court-press to develop and refine our remote/online teaching abilities so as to commit to giving our students an excellent educational experience — excellent in curricular content, excellent in experiential/skill-building opportunities, and excellent in the community-building that technology can assist us with, if we are diligent and strategic, energetic and empathetic.” 

Coincidentally published today is the Summer 2020 issue of the AccessLex publication, Raising the Bar, which I founded and am so proud to serve as managing editor of. This issue is dedicated to distance learning in legal education, and features among other content, important wisdom from four visionary law school deans who are at the helm of hybrid JD programs that were educating for the 21st century prior to the pandemic.  I hope that readers will feel inspired to continue working to develop the kind of excellent educational experience in learning that Professor Merritt and others envision. 

As legal education continues in part or fully online in the new academic year and until this virus is eradicated, and perhaps beyond, let’s work together with the same fervor depicted in Alexander Hamilton’s writing “like he’s running out of time,” to see the virtual halls of our nation’s law schools filled this fall with the brightest, most engaged minds —students from all backgrounds who are ready to learn to protect the Constitution and to ensure that our nation remains a thriving democracy, governed by the rule of law.  

Author: Sara J. Berman

Sara J. Berman, a graduate of the UCLA School of Law, is a Professor of Law and Assistant Dean at the Touro Law Center. She formerly served as a Director at the Washington DC-based Center for Legal Education Excellence.

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