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Graduates Make a Case for Earning a Law Degree Online

Concord School of Law students make history by becoming the first practicing lawyers trained on the Internet.

May 31, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

One beautiful sunny day, Laura Collins grabbed a laptop computer and wandered into her backyard in Montecito to listen to Harvard law professor Arthur Miller speak on intellectual property.

The lecture was part of her studies, in which she earned a law degree over the Internet.

This week, Collins and five classmates made history when they passed the bar examination. They will be licensed to practice law in California, becoming the first practicing lawyers in the United States to be trained over the Internet.

Critics of Internet law schools, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have challenged the idea of a legal education in which students and teachers never work face to face. Some critics have questioned whether such schools should be accredited.

No bar groups accredit Internet schools. California is the only state which permits graduates of Internet law schools to take its bar exam.

But Collins, who worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time mother, said an Internet curriculum was the only way for her to get a law degree. "It was just impossible to go to school at night and take care of the kids," said the 46-year-old mother of two.

Collins studied through the Westwood-based Concord School of Law. Enrollment has swelled from 33 students in 1998, when Concord was founded, to 1,200 today, school officials said.

Students spend 20 to 30 hours a week studying. They read many of the same textbooks used in traditional law schools. They communicate with each other and their instructors by e-mail and telephone.

They download videotaped lectures -- including the series on intellectual property by Miller, one of Harvard's best-known professors -- to watch at their convenience.

Classes are conducted in chat rooms, where students can hear their teachers speak and respond in writing.

Unlike students at traditional law schools, many of Concord's students -- many of them doctors and accountants whose average age is 42 -- are getting law degrees to enhance their skills at their current jobs, according to law school officials.

Farzad Naeim, 48, of Porter Ranch said he enrolled at Concord while working for a structural engineering firm, John A. Martin & Assoc. "I realized ... there was a problem," said Naeim, who holds a doctorate in engineering from USC. "We don't understand what these attorneys are saying and they don't understand what we are saying.... We felt someone should fill that gap."

On Tuesday, after he is sworn in as a member of the State Bar of California, Naeim will become the firm's general counsel.

The American Bar Assn. amended its rules last August to allow students to take as many as 12 total course hours over the Internet, said Barry A. Currier, its deputy consultant on legal education. A California bar task force is expected to make recommendations on the accreditation of Internet law schools next month.

"I think we've shown we can succeed," said Andy Rosen, president and chief operating officer of Kaplan Inc., a unit of the Washington Post Co., which owns Concord, a for-profit law school. But "it's going to take time before people find out we are turning out excellent lawyers." Tuition is $7,500 a year.

Six of Concord's first 10 graduates passed the California bar exam. Only 50% of all those taking the exam pass the first time, according to State Bar of California statistics.

Jack Goetz, the school's provost, said Concord should be judged, not by its nontraditional teaching methods, but by its students' achievements. "We want to be known for producing valuable people with knowledge and skills in the community."

Chris Kouboulakis, 40, said no one questioned his credentials when he interviewed for his job in the Santa Clara County district attorney's office. "I thought they would be negative," the former environmental engineer said, "but they've been great."

Like many of the other graduates, Kouboulakis, a stay-at-home dad, said he would never have gone to law school if it had not been available over the Internet.

When Naeim enrolled for internet classes, he said, he gave the start-up university six months to prove that it could offer him the kind of post-graduate training to which he had been accustomed.

"For some of these courses, I've studied more than I have ever done in my life," he said. He said he had no trouble communicating with faculty members.

"I had questions day in and day out, and they usually got back to me within 24 or 48 hours," said Naeim, who has taught engineering courses at USC, UCLA and UC Berkeley.

"I never gave that kind of service to my students."

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