One local law school will soon be moving part of the classroom experience online.

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MINNEAPOLIS - ST. PAUL, Minn. - As job prospects after graduation dwindle and enrollment continues to decline Twin Cities law schools are getting creative in an effort to get students back and better prepare them for the tight legal job market. Now, one local law school will soon be moving part of the classroom experience online.

Finals Crunch

It's finals time at William Mitchell College of Law and everywhere you look, students are studying. Several people are sitting at tables in the school's law library with their heads tilted down reviewing lecture notes or taking one last look at a case from their contracts class they studied during the semester.

Often, the grimace on their faces says it all.

"Stressful."

That's how Meg Kelner, a third year Mitchell student - or 3L – describes this time of year. She's preparing for an exam in a class called 'secured transactions'. Kelner says a lot rides on every exam, especially as she nears her last semester.

"It's great to know that after two and half years, almost three years, I'm finally going to have a law degree. Obviously that's what I'm here for. And at the same time I actually have to be a lawyer. There's a lot more pressure in that," Kelner says.

As Meg prepares for the test, there are fewer students preparing with her. Like law schools around the country, William Mitchell has been facing a population problem. Since 2010, the number of law school applications has declined, as well as enrollment numbers. The same is true for the Twin Cities' three other law schools where enrollment is down anywhere from 15 to 42 percent in just the last three years. According to the American Bar Association, the number of first-year law students fell 11 percent this year nationwide.

The decline started during the economic downturn, when law firms cut back on hiring. Some students chose not to travel down the difficult and expensive law school path, not knowing if they would get a job at the end. Classes became smaller and some schools were forced to cut faculty.

As a result, law schools had to become creative in tackling this nationwide issue.

Mitchell's Plans

At William Mitchell, school administrators like Associate Dean Mehmet Konar-Steenberg, hope a new generation of learning helps bring students back and better prepares them for the job market.

"There is so much history here in terms of innovation and so many firsts at this law school," Konar-Steenberg says.

Now, Mitchell will soon offer the nation's first accredited hybrid law school program – a four-year option that students can take online and in-class. The program will be accredited by the American Bar Association, which means it has the same requirements, difficulty, rigor and cost as a traditional 3-year law school program taught mostly in the classroom. In addition to the hybrid program Mitchell will continue to offer its long established 3-year and part time law school programs.

Fifty percent of the new hybrid program would take place in a digital learning environment with pre-recorded lectures and live online lectures students can take part in from anywhere. Students can ask questions through discussion boards and email as if they were actually sitting in the classroom.

Picture a torts class you might attend in your pajamas.

But Konar-Steenberg says convenience is not the goal.

"We're really thinking about who are the folks out there for whom law school, a traditional law school experience, is just out of the reach. It may be out of reach because of geography, maybe you just live too far away from a law school to think about uprooting," he says. "Through the innovations of this program, it permits those people to have access to the same kind of ABA accredited JD that folks would have it they attended a traditional program."

The other half of the program will bring students together on campus in groups at least one week each semester for intensive real life legal simulations, in mock courtrooms or mock negotiations for example.

Konar-Steenberg hopes a hybrid program will also prepare students for digital work environments and help solve a lawyer shortage in rural Minnesota. Because half the program is online, students may not have to uproot from their hometowns and might choose to practice there after they graduate.

The school plans to offer its new online-in classroom hybrid law school program starting in 2015, but is not alone in trying to respond in an innovative way to declining law school enrollment.

Twin Cities Law Schools Get Creative

Hamline Law School has increased its hands-on legal opportunities for students, and its certificate programs. Students can get a JD and a certificate in health law, business law or dispute resolution to make them more marketable. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Morgan Holcomb says Hamline students also work closely with the career services department from the moment they walk in the door.

"Our students are really savvy consumers and they are demanding and we are happy to help them figure out how to best prepare themselves for their career," Holcomb says.

At the University of St. Thomas Law School, administrators decided to freeze law school tuition for several years. Dean Robert Vischer says the school has also increased its legal services clinics for students and introduced a master's program in corporate compliance.

"That's a booming field. It brings in the need for knowledge of business operations, of legal analysis or understanding of how you promote an ethical culture in organizations," says Vischer.

And at the University of Minnesota Mondale School of Law there is also creativity. Dean David Wippman says the school has revamped its curriculum, introducing a new 'law and practice' class for students in their first year. The U of M has more legal clinics, is trying to increase scholarships and generate revenue through new masters programs. And like William Mitchell, the U of M is also exploring online legal education.

"Trying to figure out - is there a niche for us in the marketplace, something that takes advantage of our strengths, the university's strengths and the strengths of this area," says Wippman.

Trisha Volpe reports for both KARE 11 and Minnesota Public Radio. She is also a graduate of William Mitchell College of Law. You can watch extended interviews with administrators at all four Twin Cities' law school on mprnews.org.

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