I started law school on November 16th, 2014 at Northwestern California University School of Law, one of the few online law schools thanks to California’s relatively progressive stance on legal education. I wrote a review a few months in, noting that all seemed well so far. Now that I’ve passed my 2nd year final exams in my 4 year, part-time program and thus broken the half way mark, I think an update is well-deserved.
Some thoughts on the experience:
First, if you expected that online law school would be easy, you’ve miscalculated. Each course, taken over the full length of the year, requires about 2,000 pages of reading and comes with several assignments to be completed. At 4 courses per year, you’re looking at about 8,000 pages, or 22 pages per day (roughly an hour — there’s no speed reading law school texts!) if you study 365 days per year. It’s very easy to fall behind, and to be perfectly up-front, about 70% of students who start their first year at NWCU do not make it to their second year. This is an online degree with no required class time, and there is no one there to let you know that you need to pick it up a notch until it is too late. You must pace yourself, as the difficulty of the final exams is on par with the difficulty of Bar Exam questions for the relevant topic, so there’s no softball testing.
Second, although there’s no requirement to attend online classes (you could read your casebooks and outlines and pass, if you learn well by reading), they exist and are useful. You can pick and choose from several time slots that cover the subjects you’re taking, and there’s no requirement to attend every week. Come when you can, no penalty when you can’t. There are also discussion boards for each subject where you can interact with other students. Also not required, but extra credit is given to those who regularly contribute in online classes and in the forum. You want that extra credit — it makes a big difference.
Third, start with the understanding that you don’t know how to write an essay for law school. You can’t simply read the instructions on the midterm or final exams and start typing, expecting to produce the results necessary. This applies even though I know quite well how to write legal briefs in the federal court system: law school writing is a different style altogether. If you want to pass, in my opinion you must complete the “How to Write an Essay” activity that the school offers in the online forums, as well as review passing answers for similar essay questions to get a feel for how they look (see below). This is not required by the school, but it very much should be, because you won’t pass otherwise.
Fourth, the goal of the school during your first year is to prepare you for the California First Year Law Students’ Exam — the “Baby Bar.” The Baby Bar is taken by students in California non-ABA law schools (as every online law school is) who have completed their first year, and you are, essentially, required by the state to pass it within a year and a half of the end of your first year. It is the same difficulty level as the real Bar Exam, but only covers 3 subjects — those you are studying in your first year — instead of 14. The NWCU midterm and final exam questions track the Baby Bar questions fairly well (I’d say the NWCU questions are actually slightly more difficult), and California publishes the essay questions and answers from past Baby Bar exams. The pass rate for the Baby Bar is typically in the range of 20% – 25%, so keep in the back of your mind that you’ve got to not only retain, but enhance, all of your first year knowledge even after you finish your first year, until you take and pass the Baby Bar. (A separate post about the Baby Bar is soon to come…)
So, prospective students: don’t start if you’re not 100% committed, because you will fall behind and waste your time and money when you can’t finish your first year. But, if you can stay on top of things, NWCU is the best value in legal education by far: I’ll have a law degree for less than $15,000 total, while traditional schools charge more than that per semester. Current 1L students: really really learn how to write essays, as that is 100% of your grade at NWCU and roughly 60% of your grade after grade scaling for the Baby Bar. Do the “How to Write an Essay” activity, review past Baby Bar answers, and make sure you write at least one practice essay (while timing yourself — 1 hour!) for each subject. NWCU offers a practice grading service for a really nominal fee, which is very much worth it.