The American Bar Association (ABA) announced in January of this year that it recommends easing restrictions, or expanding opportunities, on distance-learning law school classes. If the proposal, or Standard 306, is adopted the ABA would allow law schools to offer one-third of their required credits in an online format. The current rule utilizes a permissible number of credits rather than a permissible percentage. The ABA currently limits the number of credits that students may earn online to 15 credits. If approved, the proposal would additionally remove the prohibition on first-year law courses being offered and would permit 1L students to take up to 10 credit hours through distance learning.
Riding the early wave of this proposal, the University of New Hampshire School of Law seeks to offer what UNH calls the nation’s first online specialized law degree. The School of Law is awaiting permission from the ABA to begin offering a J.D. that will be specifically curated from the start to focus on intellectual property and technology law. While this news is certainly great for educational institutions that are looking for new ways to “stream” income, I personally believe that this is even better news for the profession of law librarianship. Distance learning can offer transformative new options for law librarians.
These new course formats represent an opportunity to expand library services. With new degree programs being offered in law schools, presumably requirements to support those programs will also shift. For example, new online degree programs could require a law librarian to support the online program, just as those law schools that have evening programs must have law librarians (or reference hours) to support the evening students. A need for expanding library services is ever-present in our industry, but new revenue flow, one can hope, should mean job creation for law librarians—or, Online Law Librarians.
Law librarians are adept at wearing several hats and making the most of the resources available. That being said, if law schools begin ramping up technology in order to offer online degree programs, then I am hopeful that will soon lead to technological advancements in the law library. Not all, but many law libraries have faced several budget cuts in recent years, which means that there is little room for the technological advances that are required to keep up in the information world. Distance learning could reverse that trend.
All in all, I am excited about this potential transition in the administration of legal education as it presents many new opportunities for educators and librarians alike. Similar to the concept of a living Constitution, legal education and law libraries must evolve and adapt to new circumstances in order to accommodate a changing community.