[Edit – You may also be interested in my two-year update…]
In November I announced that I would begin law school at one of California’s part-time, distance learning schools, Northwestern California University School of Law. Nearly two months later, here are my thoughts so far:
First, I’m impressed with the online community that the school has built. Their integrated online platform connects forums, video lectures (both live and recorded), course materials, chat sessions for Q&A, and more, which allows every student and faculty member to meet and engage with each other.
I was concerned that not going into a school would mean that I would be essentially “on my own,” but what they’ve got going on more than meets expectations.
Second, I’m impressed with the format and content of the courses. Courses run for a year and four are taken simultaneously. The basic plan for every course is that there are case books (which are, as you might expect, big thick books containing highlights of the important cases relating to a particular area of law), outlines (books that walk you through the legal concepts one must understand for a particular area of law), and supplemental resources that must be read (or listened to, in some cases) over the course period. There are a few assignments to be turned in and graded for each course, and a final exam. After the first year, there is also a state exam to pass (the California “Baby Bar“), and after the fourth and final year, of course, the actual California bar exam.
Given the state tests, there is no room for screwing around. If you haven’t studied enough to bring you to where a first year law student at a full-time law school would be, you’re done. Which brings me to the third point, which is also something I like: the study is very, very self-paced. The assignments are all known to you at the beginning of the course and have pretty generous deadlines, but it’s up to you to keep track of. If you’re the kind of person who can study daily when nothing is due for a couple of months, you’ll be great, but if you don’t and try to leave it all to the last minute, it will be literally impossible. With freedom comes responsibility, and at this point in my life, I appreciate not being micro-managed by professors. Would I have been able to keep on top of my law school game when I was 22? Probably not, and I suspect most of the students at NWCU are not fresh out of college. My work with the TSA is also a distinct advantage in that most of the legal terms, and many of the concepts, are already quite familiar to me. If this were all completely new, I’d have to take things a lot slower.
The verdict: so far, I’m extremely happy with my decision. I’d recommend the program to anyone interested in a law degree, with the caveats that: 1) you have to press yourself forward, without hand-holding, every day for 4 years or you will fail, which may not be for everyone, and 2) if your aspiration is to work at a big law firm, they’ll probably still prefer the “big name school” — but working in a big law firm seems about as pleasant as chewing on broken glass, and there are so many people out there who need representation who, with a little business skill and creativity, you can find on your own.