Court win for online law school grad
By Kristina Horton Flaherty
When Ross Mitchell graduated from the nation’s first online-only law
school four years ago, he knew that the school’s lack of American Bar
Association (ABA) approval would disqualify him from taking the Massachusetts
But he sought permission anyway, taking his case all the way to the state’s
Supreme Judicial Court — and, in November, he got it.
“Hopefully, before too long, there will be a less laborious way, a less
time-consuming way, for someone in my position to come into Massachusetts and
take the bar exam here,” said Mitchell, 56, a 2004 graduate of Los Angeles-based
Concord Law School.
Unlike California, most other states require graduation from an ABA-approved
law school — at least for U.S.-trained applicants — to sit for
the bar exam. Online-only law schools cannot, however, qualify for ABA approval
under current ABA standards.
In its Nov. 20 ruling, the Massachusetts high court did not address Mitchell’s
equal protection arguments and Associate Justice Margot Botsford stressed that
the ruling applied only to Mitchell’s particular case.
The court, with one dissenting opinion, waived the law school accreditation
requirement in Mitchell’s case for two reasons. The first focused on
Mitchell’s individual record. An outstanding law student, he passed the
California bar exam on his first try and got a high score on the professional
responsibility exam. And, representing himself, he “filed briefs and
gave an oral argument in this court that were of commendable quality, providing
us with a concrete and positive illustration of his skills in legal analysis,
legal writing and advocacy,” Botsford wrote.
But a recently launched review of the ABA’s approval standards influenced
the court as well. “As the comprehensive review begins, we have no way
of knowing or predicting what recommendations, if any, will be forthcoming
in relation to online legal education programs or methodologies,” Botsford
wrote. But she noted that “the situation with respect to online programs
may change in the reasonably near future.”
Mitchell, a longtime computer consultant from West Newton, Mass., originally
chose to study at Concord because he could juggle his online studies with his
work schedule and business travel. After passing the California bar exam, he
wrote to the chair of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners and, later,
the Supreme Judicial Court’s rules committee, seeking permission to take
the state’s bar exam.
His early requests were denied but a working group was appointed to consider
his request for a change in the state’s ABA-approval rule. The group
did not recommend a rule change but asked the ABA “to give attention
to the issue of distance learning, with a view towards incorporating online
methodologies into the [ABA’s] Standards for Approval of Law Schools,” Botsford
In 10 years, Concord Law School has grown from 33 students to roughly 1,500.
Mitchell’s was the first case in which a Concord graduate won the right
to take a state bar exam by filing suit and appearing before that state’s
Supreme Court. Others have received special waivers allowing them to sit for
the bar in half a dozen other states.
Some in the legal community continue to argue, however, that the in-person
interaction on campus and in the classroom are particularly crucial to a law
Mitchell, who is studying to take the Massachusetts’ bar exam in February,
said he believes the world will eventually “catch up” to Concord
and open the accreditation process to such schools. “It’s not a
question of ‘if,’” he says, “it’s a question