PHOENIX – Sharon Garshak of Gilbert always dreamed of going to law school, but her job with an aerospace company and having to support herself made that impossible until she found Kaplan University’s online Concord Law School.
“Despite working full-time at a demanding job, I was able to go to law school and learn the legal principles really well,” she said.
After graduating in 2011, she passed the California bar exam. But she can’t practice in Arizona because the state only allows graduates of law schools accredited by the American Bar Association – a list that includes no online law schools – to sit for the bar exam.
“I don’t intend on moving to California,” she said. “But without being able to take the Arizona bar, I won’t be able to help people.”
A state lawmaker wants to change that.
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, has introduced a bill that would allow graduates of online law schools to take the bar exam and become attorneys.
Allen said opening the exam to more people could increase access to the legal profession and give students a cheaper option to traditional schools.
“It’s just a discussion we should have as a community: Where are we going to accept people to come from in education?” Allen said. “Because someone goes a brick and mortar school, do they have an exclusive right to a test?”
HB 2120 calls for the Arizona Supreme Court, which administers the bar exam and licenses attorneys, to change its rules governing who can take the exam and become attorneys to include graduates of online law schools. It also would codify the high court’s authority to license attorneys.
Currently, California is the only state with rules allowing graduates of online law schools to take the bar exam and become attorneys.
However, Allen acknowledged that he faces the question of whether a law can force the state Supreme Court to change its rules. Because of that, he called his bill “more of a curiosity.”
“It’s a good place to start the discussion, and I’m not going to die if it doesn’t pass,” Allen said.
Jennifer Liewer, chief communications officer for the Arizona Supreme Court, had no comment on the bill. She said those seeking changes to the court’s rules may submit petitions that the justices review once a year.
The Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education licenses non-public universities to confer degrees in the state. At present, Concord is the only private online law school licensed by the board. Neither of Arizona’s public law schools offers online juris doctor degrees.
Concord Law School Dean Greg Brandes said in a telephone interview that having online law school graduates as lawyers in Arizona, where Concord reports about 30 alumni, would be a “great addition to the legal landscape.”
“We support these kinds of efforts and think it’s good for the public,” he said.
Brandes said many Concord students go through the program with no intention of practicing law, but rather seek a background of legal knowledge to further their current careers.
Douglas J. Sylvester, dean of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said although the school offers some legal courses online, it won’t offer an online juris doctor program. He noted that a traditional law school experience features immersion and interactions.
“It’s very hard to do that in an online environment,” he said.
Allen said that even if graduates of online law schools are licensed to practice law in Arizona, they would still be subject to the free market. Employers would decide whether a lawyer’s education is of value, he said.
In the end, Allen said, the bill may push people to think about the current barriers to entering the legal profession, including time and money.
“We are in the information age; we should start acting like it,” he said. “We should stop being afraid of hurting big education and start saying … it’s what you know that’s important, not where you learned it.”