The Supreme Court often opens its sessions by swearing in new members of its bar -- a ritual that is routine and, usually, forgettable for all but the lawyers involved and their families.
But at one recent session, four lawyers who were sworn in symbolized a milestone -- and an irony -- that was years in the making.
The lawyers were graduates of Concord Law School, the first fully online law school in the United States. As high court rules require, they have been lawyers in good standing for three years. The four are members of the California Bar, the only state bar that allows students from unaccredited, nonclassroom "correspondence" schools to sit for its bar exam.
The irony is that soon after Concord opened nearly 10 years ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was openly critical of the school and the concept of "distance learning" for law schools.
In a 1999 speech at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., Ginsburg said she was "troubled" by Concord, adding that, "The process inevitably loses something vital when students learn in isolation."
Having Concord alumni sworn into the Supreme Court bar March 17, with Ginsburg watching, was a moment to savor, says Concord Dean Barry Currier.
Far from being upset with Ginsburg, Currier says, "I don't know if she understands this, but she really helped make the school." Publicity generated by her criticism introduced the school to a broader public, and a wide range of students have been applying ever since, Currier says.
Concord has about 1,500 students, Currier says, many of them nontraditional career changers, at-home parents and the like -- people who for financial or family reasons can't drop everything, move near a physical law school and enroll full time. Through interactive online classes, Concord students learn the law over four years.
Ginsburg's worries have not been borne out, Currier says, citing student satisfaction surveys that give Concord high marks for student-faculty engagement, even though it is online. Currier is also not losing sleep over the fact that American Bar Association accreditation is out of reach for Concord because of rules requiring substantial face-to-face classroom time -- rules he hopes will change as the success of the school becomes better known.
The four Concord grads sworn in were:
- Larry David of Pasadena, Calif., a former businessman with a general law practice who also handles domestic violence cases pro bono;
- Dentist Michael Kaner of Newtown, Pa., currently a consultant on risk management and forensic dentistry;
- Ross Mitchell of West Newton, Mass., a computer consultant who is now promoting online education and multijurisdictional practice of law; and
- Sandusky Shelton of Clio, Calif., a retired telecommunications manager who now takes court-appointed juvenile dependency cases.
"Having our graduates sworn in at the Supreme Court symbolizes the fact that we have attracted people to our school who are highly qualified and passionate about becoming lawyers -- and for the best reasons," Currier says.