Even before the pandemic forced law schools to close their doors, forward-thinking educators were working hard to increase the accessibility of legal education through online learning. In this ABA Law Student Podcast, host Meghan Steenburgh talks with Dean Craig Boise and faculty director of online education Nina Kohn about Syracuse University College of Law’s JDinteractive (JDi). They discuss their drive to reach a greater diversity of students and outline the JDi program’s ability to offer learners a fully interactive experience.
In an additional segment, Meghan is joined by Mandy Mobley Li, Ernie Sawyer, and Katy Morris, all 2Ls in the JDi program. They offer fellow law students tips and tricks for adjusting to online learning.
Craig Boise is dean and professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law
Nina Kohn is the David M. Levy Professor of Law and faculty director of online education at Syracuse University College of Law.
Mandy Mobley Li is a 2L in Syracuse University College of Law’s JDinteractive program.
Ernie Sawyer is a 2L in Syracuse University College of Law’s JDinteractive program.
Katy Morris is a 2L in Syracuse University College of Law’s JDinteractive program.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Law School Innovators: Taking Legal Ed Online
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meghan Steenburgh, a 1L in Syracuse University’s College of Law, JDi program. I am also a graduate of Georgetown University and have a Master’s from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications.
Today’s episode differs from normal in large part because we’re providing not one but two sets of interviews. When we recorded our first and primary interview with Dean Craig Boise and Nina Kohn on February 11 of this year, we were not in a position to see the future and know that a nationwide shutdown was weeks away. That said, there are many aspects of this interview that are quite prescient and there’s a lot to take away from this conversation in our current climate.
Whether you are a professional attorney or a law student, I hope you will find a great deal of benefit from these two luminaries. Additionally, with the COVID-19 situation becoming more impactful every day, we want to provide a little something extra. As such, we’ve also recorded a brief second interview with some law students who for more than a year now have been working on their law degree remotely. We think their perspective and experience are going to be of great benefit to you, so stick around after our first interview to hear from them. So let’s turn now to our first interview.
Craig Boise is Dean and Professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law, where he has established a reputation as one of legal education’s leading innovators. During his nine years as a law school dean, he has established one of the nation’s two largest hybrid online J.D. programs, and the first online joint J.D./M.B.A. program.
Before joining academ, Dean Boise practiced Corporate and International Tax Law for nearly nine years. He holds an LL.M. in Taxation from NYU, and a J.D. from the University of Chicago.
Nina Kohn is David M. Levy Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Online Education at Syracuse University College of Law. Her scholarly research focuses on elder law, civil rights of persons with cognitive disabilities and legal education.
Kohn led the development and launch of Syracuse’s JDi program. Professor Kohn holds an A.B. from Princeton summa cum laude and a J.D. from Harvard magna cum laude. Professor Kohn is also currently a visiting professor at Yale Law School.
Both of these incredible people deserve much longer BIOs but in the interest of time I’d urge you to read more about their achievements on the show page for this episode.
Now, let’s turn to my conversation with Dean Boise and Professor Kohn.
You are not the first program to be outside the four walls of the classroom. There are other online legal education approaches, but Professor Kohn, let’s start with you. Talk to the vision of creating something different and how Syracuse University College of Law differs from other programs out there?
Nina Kohn: So Syracuse is really the first school to take a regular ABA accredited JD program and build it online in a way that’s fully interactive, and we’re the first to combine fully online courses with standalone intensive skills-focused residential courses. So one thing that really sets us apart, will continue to do so, is our online courses. It’s both their structure and their quality.
As you know, each of our online course has two parts. First there is the self-paced section in which students are engaging with interactive videos and these videos which are designed and taught by our faculty are embedded with questions and exercises. So students can really apply what they’re learning and professors can evaluate student performance, and then the second part of each online class is the live class, which mirrors what we’re doing in our residential classes. So as a faculty member I can see all my students, they can see each other and me, we can have a fully interactive Socratic dialogue.
Of course, another thing that sets apart is really the breadth of courses we offer to our JD interactive students. Our upper level students can choose classes that match their interests, that match their career plans. For example, as you know we have a really strong program in national security, and so like our residential students JDi students can take specialized courses in this area, and of course, our faculty are also really central to our unique model.
Our students are taught live by our regular faculty every week. We’re not using adjunct graders or having students only meet with professors in their office hours or in the final week. We’re really making sure that that student faculty relationship is throughout the entire course, and so the students get that same benefit that our residential students get.
Dean Boise, would you like to add on a little bit more about how this fits into your vision for innovation?
Craig Boise: Sure, Nina. So I’ve been at Syracuse University Law School now for — it’s my fourth year, and when I came in of course I was asked like, you always are asked when you’re a new Dean, what’s your vision for the law school? What do you envision us doing? And we came up with a vision statement which is that we are leveraging our knowledge, skills and imagination to expand legal education in innovative ways and that really does reflect the theme of what we are doing here at the College of Law, and of course the JDinteractive program is just one aspect of that innovation, it spans the use of the courses we’re creating in JDinteractive and other innovative programs which we can certainly talk about.
The expansion of an externship program, which is an innovation itself, it’s kind of going back in time back to something more like an apprenticeship model where our students can gain a valuable practical experience that prepares them for the legal workplace that they will go into when they graduate. So we are relentlessly innovating here at the College of Law and this is of course one of the innovations it has the most eyeballs at the moment and has generated a lot of interest.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, and that’s what, you were just recently the keynote speaker at the New York State Bar Association Meeting, clearly you are being watched. So when you are speaking to the legal scholars, what do you want their takeaway to be? What’s the biggest challenge?
Craig Boise: Let’s move decisively out of the 19th Century and think about how we can make legal education something that works for the 21st Century, and I think part of that is giving information to people who are the gatekeepers in the parts of legal education that are sort of stuck. So if you think about our crediting institution, the ABA, the standards that apply to all law schools that are ABA accredited, they frequently are a reflection of the past and are not forward-thinking. So how do we modify the accreditation standards to allow schools to be innovative?
When we think about state courts which in most states are responsible for the Bar exam and for the licensing requirements of the state, are those things part of what’s important for the 21st Century, are we looking back at something that comes from a different time.
So speaking to judges, speaking to courts, speaking to our creditors, and of course, speaking to deans and faculty members of other law schools as well about the possibilities and the ways in which we can make legal education more accessible, more affordable, more forward-thinking.
Meghan Steenburgh: And I think a fascinating component to all this is that not only are you reaching out for students and to create that interactive world of academic Socratic method discussion but this has a practical application for lawyers out there. You are creating an idea that will help lawyers focus on reaching clients who may never have access to that legal support; and so, regardless of whatever program you’re in right now as a law student, technology is going to be a part of that practice. Can you speak more to those practical applications that you see now even or envision down the road?
Craig Boise: Certainly, the platform that we’re using right now, Zoom is one that’s used every day by lawyers and law firms across the country, around the world. There are other similar programs, Blue Jeans and the like, having the facility and the confidence to be able to use those, know how to navigate those technologies will be increasingly important in the workplace of the 21st Century, and then there’s a whole host of other things that we are tackling on our curriculum side that relate to cybersecurity and data privacy, Artificial Intelligence, autonomous systems. The use of Artificial Intelligence is already very widespread in legal practice in looking at predictions about what judges and juries might do, looking at predictions about whether people are likely to jump bail or not. So this is already a set of technologies, it’s penetrated the law. We don’t always know about it, but it’s really critical that our students get this and are prepared for it.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, it’s sort of this three — I see three areas in terms of reaching to the students, reaching to the lawyers and then as you just address reaching into those subject areas, Professor Kohn, how do you predict as Dean Boise was talking about? How do you say, okay, these are the things we’re reading about and we’ve got to make sure that we have the subject matters in our program and we’ve got the scholars who can teach about it?
Nina Kohn: That’s a great question. I think we’re very fortunate to be located a major research university. So our faculty are constantly in dialogue with scholars in other fields who are seeing emerging issues in technology, right? So we’re not just looking at what’s happening in the legal field but we’re looking at what’s happening in other fields and learning from that to predict how that might in the future influence the legal field and what that means for preparing our students. But that dialogue between disciplines and across disciplines I think is increasingly crucial.
Craig Boise: I would also say that we’re fortunate to have an alumni base what we call the Orange Nation of about 10,500 law school alumni, and literally hundreds of our alumni manage law firms, they manage in-house counsel departments. They are our eyes, ears into practices as it’s happening every day, and so that’s a great resource for us to be able to tap into as we’re thinking about what we want to teach our students. And we partner with other organizations, for example, New York State Bar Association has a committee on technology and the law. We partnered with them to create a one credit course here that addresses a whole host of technology related things including cybersecurity, data privacy, and autonomous systems. There are a number of things that the blockchain and the way that that’s going to impact transactions. So we’re informed by practitioners as well.
Meghan Steenburgh: Can you speak also to the access that you are providing as you look forward, as you look back into areas where people don’t have access to whether it’s legal education or a lawyer, how this impacts and creates a more diverse access to the law as well, and is that a motivating factor for you?
Craig Boise: It absolutely is, I mean, when we undertook the JDinteractive program, one of the things that was sort of foremost on the minds was the populations that we could reach, that traditionally would not have had an opportunity to gain a legal education and then take that legal education in many cases, apply it in their own communities which are frequently in what we call legal deserts, parts of the country where they’re just a tremendous shortage of the lawyers. Students with disabilities, students whose personal family circumstances, career circumstances prevent them from doing a traditional live near campus for three years and do a residential JD. These are all folks that we knew early on would be a target and I identified as really appealing.
Nina Kohn: And we found that really plays out with our student population in the JDinteractive program. As you know we have many students with military backgrounds, many of our students are also caregivers, both for children or for older relatives, in fact majority of our students are caring for somebody else while going to law school and we’re finding that many students are living in places where they don’t have access to a high-quality legal education and I think we’re really excited not only to be able to provide legal education to those students but also for the downstream effects that can have.
So often law schools try to bring lawyers to rural communities by finding those potential students in those rural communities, pulling them out for three years and then hoping they will somehow go back having spent three years potentially severing ties and building new ones. And if we can instead provide education to people where they are at, I think we have a much better chance of serving those legal deserts as Dean Boise says.
Meghan Steenburgh: So Dean Boise, as you look for that next generation of lawyers and you cultivate those attending Syracuse University College of Law now, what kind of student makes a good lawyer? Is that changing at all or is it just the mindset within a traditional person who might be attracted to the law?
Craig Boise: Now I think it is changing. There are some demographic trends at work here. We’re facing by 2025 a pretty significant enrollment cliff at the undergraduate level for colleges across the country, of course that cliff varies by region, but the Northeast is going to be pretty hard hit by that and so we need to be thinking about how we’re going to address the fact that there are just fewer college graduates available to go to law school even assuming that the job market remains strong, it remains an appealing career option for students.
So what we’re seeing, what we’re preparing for, and what JDinteractive is directly aimed at is what we call the post-traditional students. So post-additional students best defined by who they’re not, they’re not the 17 to 21 year old, they’re not enrolled in a four-year college. They’re not living on campus, and so that encompasses graduate students as well as undergraduate students and these are folks who have to work in education and re-education retooling around a career, around supporting families.
So we see a real opportunity to provide ongoing education for those students. And because a significant segment of that prospective student pool is undergraduate, we are also looking at creating an undergraduate online bachelor’s degree in law, which we think will be increasingly important as the practice of law becomes more diffuse and people other than lawyers are doing many of the things that lawyers used to do, it’s going to be increasingly important that college graduates have some facility with the law and can make that transition to understand how our legal system works and how that applies in areas like compliance and the regulatory environment, human resources and the like.
Meghan Steenburgh: And as you look then 5, 10, 20 years down the road, then do you see most of our world and most of that legal education being in this interactive environment?
Craig Boise: Yes, absolutely. I think that online is here to stay, it’s growing. I was just looking at a statistic this morning, Southern New Hampshire University which provides online, a different type of, a different model of online than we do, but it’s certainly, it’s an appealing model. They’ve got a 130,000 students enrolled, they’re just gigantic and they’ve recently entered into an agreement with the State of Pennsylvania to provide completion degrees for students and community colleges across the State of Pennsylvania. This is going to have a huge impact on four-year colleges in the State of Pennsylvania.
So these kinds of shifts, this kind of disruption is happening, happening everywhere in the world, certainly legal education, higher education more broadly are not immune from this. So we have to adapt and figure out a path forward.
Meghan Steenburgh: And practically I remember hearing stories of residency and then having lived in Alaska for a little bit, you have these virtual arraignments and you have people helping others at the border right now from elsewhere not only law school students at the border going on interactively, but lawyers virtually interactively helping clients in areas that otherwise it would be inaccessible.
Craig Boise: Right, absolutely.
Meghan Steenburgh: So if you are both in law school again, even perhaps if you’re in law school now, maybe what advice would you give yourself? Professor Kohn?
Nina Kohn: Oh goodness. I think the thing you want to take out of law school is learning what questions to ask. You can always look up answers, but if you don’t know what questions to ask, you are in deep trouble.
But personally if I go back and look at the law student I was when I was in law school, I would really encourage myself to do more to make connections with faculty, with alumni, with people in positions that I would aspire to. That was definitely not my ammo in law school, but I really see how helpful it can be for our students.
I’m constantly impressed by how generous our alumni are with our students. The Syracuse alums are always happy to support our students, to share their vision, to talk about, how they got to where they are and what advice they would give, but frankly as a law student, it never occurred to me to reach out to alums for guidance.
Meghan Steenburgh: And Dean Boise?
Craig Boise: So I guess I would encourage myself to be more entrepreneurial about my legal career. I think a lot of people view law school as preparation for a profession, and in people’s minds that’s a very clear-cut thing. You go to a law firm, you practice law, maybe you go to a prosecutor’s office, a public defender’s office, but I think there is a world of opportunities out there for using a law degree.
And so, I would encourage myself as a young law student in this environment to think about the education I’m getting and think about how that can be applied in a host of other career paths and to really explore those during law school and think about the kind of career that I want to have, how I see myself taking a legal education using that. Both of my own satisfaction and fulfillment to hopefully do some good in the world, but I think we have to think more broadly about what to do with the legal education.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, great advice. You both are quite the team and your vision is inspiring. We certainly have things changing faster than it seems we can keep up with, but you both are staying way ahead of the curve, and we all appreciate that.
Craig Boise: Well, we try.
Meghan Steenburgh: Thank you both so much for your time. And while both Dean Boise and Professor Kohn predicted greater growth toward virtual learning, no one could have predicted the imminent transition. That’s created a mix of emotions among everyone about what this means.
Our next guest those sought out a law program for its virtual classroom, Mandy Li, Katy Morris and Ernie Sawyer are 2Ls in the Syracuse JDi program. They have been studying remotely for more than a year now.
Mandy is a Technology Business Developer with MBA in Computer Science degrees from MIT. Her former employers include Deloitte, Intel and IBM. She is based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Katy is a Certified Regulatory Compliance Manager currently working as Vice President and Risk Advisor at Columbia Bank in the Pacific Northwest. She sits on the American Bankers Association Compliance School Advisory Board and lives in Oregon.
Ernie just retired from 20 years of Active Duty in the Air Force. His expertise in computer security and intelligence work will help provide perspective to fellow lawyers in the field. He has three children including a newborn.
Thank you all for being here. I think one area that’s been difficult for students is the transition from residential to virtual studies.
Katy, let’s start with you. How did you transition when you started the JDi program and what advice can you give?
Katy Morris: Hi, thanks for having me. I would say that one of the biggest changes for me is I was going into the field of online learning specifically was, I’d kind of been used to functioning on paper and on my computer in conjunction with one another, and I found that especially because of travel that I had previously been doing for work, that what I needed to do was to go completely electronic.
And so I found it very important to kind of know going into class, how I was going to set up my screen. It sounds like something really simple, but knowing where you’re going to put your Zoom folks, where you’re going to put your outline or your book even if you have an electronic textbook and that kind of how your setup is going to look on screen, where you’re going to be in your house when you’re doing online learning I think is also important. So it made me more comfortable when I kind of had a plan going in for that aspect of it.
But the other thing that I do want to mention is the importance of study groups, so going into this experience, I’ve been an independent learner, but I think that this material in particular in law benefits a lot from being able to bounce it off of other people and sort of take it and twist it and turn it and figure it out that way.
And so, it was important to me going into the online learning situation to maintain the ability to do that with other people. So I would recommend to folks that are looking at this transition right now, maintain your study groups, instead of reserving a room at the library, just do a Zoom link, just like you are for class and keep track of everyone that way.
Meghan Steenburgh: And as we mentioned at the beginning sort of nearly everyone is juggling something. Mandy, you juggle work twin 8-year-olds at home, how do you divide your time and ensure that along with everything else the studying happens?
Mandy Mobley Li: Thanks Meg. Yes, time management is one of those skills that all of us, pre-lawyers, are really trying to hone and virtual learning really gives us an opportunity to do that.
For me, I had been a physical learner until going online and so what I found important was to simulate that the physicalness of the learning process as much as possible.
So for example, if you used to have classes in your law school building at 10 and at 2 and you would stay and study or prep for class in between, then you take that chunk of time, block it off on your calendar and put “Do Not Disturb” on your cell phone, or as Katy mentioned, create a Zoom, with your study buddies 30 minutes before class and you guys all prep that way. So use the technology to recreate that physical learning environment as much as you can.
Meghan Steenburgh: Ernie, thanks for your service. I think it’s fair to say that in this profession we’re expected to lead, adapt, help others, as you have alluded too as well. Ernie, how do you think this moment will help law students and those in the profession down the road?
Ernie Sawyer: So now because we’re all going online and getting away from that I guess physical meet space kind of environment, we’re all distanced and stay away from each other, that’s going to be a big shift for a lot of people, but at the same time the law profession itself is going to have to adapt just because people may not want to go into a law firm. People may know how to study together. The whole idea of being at home even right now is going to throw some people for a loop because before they would leave the house, go to class and have that time dedicated.
Going forward even if it’s an app for potential clients to reach out for legal help you are more on demand legal services, able to reach more people potentially just because everybody has a phone in their pocket, they have access to computers for the most part, so you might actually be able to get more business that way too.
Meghan Steenburgh: One final piece of advice, and these are — I know it’s been super quick, I think it’s great for people to just have an idea of, okay, others have survived this, others have sought this out, what’s one final piece of advice? Katy, we’ll start with you.
Katy Morris: Absolutely. I think that we’re all probably aware as law students that self-care and mental health are extremely important no matter what when you’re in law school and I would just advise folks to keep that in mind even more so under the current circumstances as well. Take care of yourself.
Meghan Steenburgh: Good advice. Mandy.
Mandy Mobley Li: So my one piece of advice would be show up for class on Zoom like you would show up for class in-person. If you would get there five minutes ahead of time, get on Zoom five minutes ahead and that way you can anticipate any kind of technical issues you might bump into before class.
Meghan Steenburgh: Ernie.
Ernie Sawyer: You might be the one going through school, you might be the one attending class, but it’s a family thing, it’s a friends’ thing. Make sure they help you stick to your schedules, make sure they don’t pressure you into, hey, now don’t study, let’s go to this movie, but also make sure there like Katy said, to make sure you’re healthy and stay in, okay.
Meghan Steenburgh: Great advice from all three of you. Mandy Li, Katy Morris, Ernie Sawyer, thank you for your time. Good luck studying, good luck to everyone.
Thank you for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcast.
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I’m Meg Steenburgh, thank you for listening.
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