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SILVER LININGS: Reflections on teaching law online

By Lisa A. Mazzie

Lisa A. Mazzie is professor of legal writing at Marquette University Law School

Lisa A. Mazzie is professor of legal writing at Marquette University Law School

At Eckstein Hall, we have officially closed out the teaching segment of our 2020 Spring semester. Like the rest of Marquette University, we did so through online education. It wasn’t where we thought we’d be, but it was where we found ourselves.

As have law schools throughout the country, we moved to an online format in mid-March as the threat to in-person instruction amid COVID-19 became clear. At first, we believed our foray into online instruction would be brief: just from March 22 (at the Law School) until April 10. But then, unsurprisingly, it extended until the rest of the semester, and now through the summer sessions.

The university first decided to move to online instruction at the tail end of Spring Break, suspending the classes the week after. That week was our time to learn how to move ourselves online from our homes.

Ideally, of course, a professor has more time to plan her course and how it’s delivered. Courses that were intended to be delivered online look a lot different from courses that suddenly get bumped online midway through a semester.

But any kind of online course is, for the Law School, virtually unknown for two reasons. First, for more than 100 years, law schools have relied on a specific pedagogical method that mandates in-person instruction. Second, the accrediting body for law schools sets specific standards about what it calls distance education; those standards tend to make online courses less prevalent in the law-school curriculum.

First, law schools’ signature pedagogy is the Socratic method, and Marquette Law School is no different. Most professors, in most courses, use some version of it, in which the professor engages one-on-one with a student—asking questions, posing hypothetical situations—to test the boundaries of logic and to reach the heart of the issue under discussion. The learning, for those not in the hot seat during that class, is in following along, mentally answering the professor’s questions.

Not all law professors use the Socratic method, and it doesn’t work particularly well in seminars or in classes with experiential learning. Still, even in those classes, the professors rely largely on face-to-face discussions and in-class guided work. For example, in my legal analysis, writing, and research classes and appellate writing and advocacy classes, we’ll practice research techniques or citation format, or we’ll form small groups to draw up legal rules for our writing or to outline legal arguments. In classes like that, I move from person to person or from group to group. Further, twice each semester I meet in person, one-on-one, with each student to go over a draft of their writing.

Thus, whether law professors use the Socratic method or not, by and large, law school has involved face-to-face instruction.

Second, the American Bar Association—which accredits law schools—has allowed law schools to provide some distance-learning courses only within the last 10 years. The relevant ABA standard defines a “distance education course” as “one in which students are separated from the faculty member or each other for more than one-third of the instruction” and the instruction “use[s] technology to support regular and substantive interaction” among and between faculty and students, either synchronously or asynchronously.

A law school offering such courses must meet other ABA standards, as well. One of those standards is that no more than one-third of the credits for a law degree can be through distance instruction and only up to 10 of those credits can be during the first year. Moreover, the ABA has not accredited any law school that provides its complete JD program online. (The council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recently proposed a change to its rules to allow it to temporarily relieve law schools from needing to comply with the standards during regional or national emergencies, like a pandemic. That rule change must be approved by the ABA House of Delegates, which may come this August.)

Although law schools can offer online courses, here at Eckstein Hall, no professor—before COVID-19—had ever offered a completely online course. We were in uncharted territory.

So, having within a week to figure out how to move online was a tall order, not just having to become familiar with the technology needed to do so, but also figuring out how to fit the specific law school teaching method into an online format.

I’d say, in general, what most of us seemed to end up doing was a stopgap; we tried to do what we always did, except not in the classroom, but from our homes through some sort of online platform. I don’t think it was the best way to deliver legal education; it was, however, the only way, given the circumstances.

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