"Wait, you're telling me that you attend a law school in California, but live in Virginia? Is that legal?" My questioner was an earnest homeschool father who had approached my booth at a recent conference I attended in Phoenix. As he scanned the materials on the table he politely asked where I was attending school. "Oak Brook College of Law, a small law school based in California," I replied.
His next question was a natural one. "Oh, so you're living in California?" I breathed a small sigh as I thought here we go again, another lengthy explanation of my school. I said, "No, I live in northern Virginia."
He didn't expect that answer.
A New Approach to Higher Education
In order to understand Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy (OBCL) it helps to know something about distance learning. Recent years have seen a small explosion of interest in this alternative education method, with many universities and colleges adding distance learning programs. The idea has been around for decades in the form of correspondence courses, but with the ready availability of e-mail and the Internet it has been reborn in a much improved form. A real difference, however, is the ability of students and professors to be connected with each other in an almost real-time environment through technology, eliminating much of the "Lone Ranger" feeling and lack of accountability inherent in traditional correspondence courses.
Ten years ago I had no idea what distance learning meant. I gained a whole new understanding when my father, who has an extensive background in college administration and teaching, helped start a small Christian college designed for homeschoolers a few years ago. The school is called The Telos Institute International, and uses almost exclusively distance learning courses, with mainly Bible and counseling course offerings. Telos started about the same time I graduated from high school, so it was natural for me to enroll there.
A New Kind of Law School
My positive experience with distance learning in Telos convinced me to take a closer look at OBCL's law program. Upon first glance, the school appeared to be very nontraditional but with a well-rounded course of study.
In most traditional law schools, students enroll in a three-year Juris Doctor program that involves daily classes, writing assignments, and final exams all taking place on a brick and mortar campus. Graduated students take their state's Bar Exam after finishing their degree, and are then admitted to practice as attorneys.
OBCL contains many of the same elements, but all of them are carried out primarily in the student's home. Each semester the students receive a set of audio or video lectures and a syllabus for each course with writing and reading assignments. They periodically turn in their papers and progress reports to the professors. Several of the courses require a one-week on-site class held at a conference facility in Oklahoma City.
Speaking of the professors, a major selling point to me was the excellent roster of conservative, experienced attorneys the college had gathered. The dean of the school, Roger Magnuson, is a senior partner of Dorsey & Whitney, one of the largest law firms in Minneapolis. His educational background is no less impressive, with degrees from Stanford University, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University, and his resume includes several published works. The Assistant Dean, Robert Barth, formerly served in the administration of Regent University School of Law. The list of professors includes Jordan Lawrence, a recognized legal expert on constitutional law who has argued multiple cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
I said earlier that distance learning had grown rapidly in recent years, but most of that growth has been confined to undergraduate and some graduate programs. Professional degrees, specifically law degrees, have not been part of the movement. This has not been due to a lack of interest, but to an American Bar Association rule that prohibits accreditation of distance learning law schools. California is the only state that allows non-accredited law schools to operate - thus OBCL's reason for locating there.
Counting the Cost
I enrolled in the Juris Doctor program at OBCL in the fall of 2000 and am currently finishing up my last semester. While I have never regretted this course of action, careful evaluation is needed by any student interested in the school, especially because of the distance learning aspect and the lack of accreditation. With this in mind and with the help of several Oak Brook graduates I have put together a list of things a prospective student should consider.
By using the distance learning method OBCL students are able to complete their studies in any location, thus allowing for a variety of job and intern experiences. For example, during my time in Oak Brook I have been able to work in three different states as an aide to two state Senators, an analyst in a state Attorney General's office, and a Legal Assistant at Home School Legal Defense Association. Nathan, an Oak Brook graduate currently living in Virginia, remembers that he "clerked for a small law firm in Missouri, working on everything from lawsuits arising from car accidents to complex eminent domain abuse cases. I was able to put my legal research and writing classes into use from day one."
Nathan also commented on the downside of this flexibility, however, which was that "[a] student could easily spend four years in relative isolation unless they make an effort to be part of their class." Students are not forced to spend time with one another as on a regular college campus. It is not impossible to have interaction with classmates, however; it just takes more work. Many classes hold regular chat sessions to discuss assignments, and the majority of the students are part of an active e-mail group which functions somewhat like a student forum.
Mike, another graduate from OBCL who is currently working as an attorney for a public interest group in Washington State, avoided isolation because, as he says, "We made an effort to communicate regularly in order to combat feeling isolated... Some of my best friends and closest work associates are OBC[L] students or graduates."
OBCL's professors are all dedicated Christians, and it shows in their teaching. Although the law itself can seem objective, a person's approach to it is always subjective and determined by their worldview. OBCL teaches the law through the worldview of William Blackstone, the father of the English common law, and many of the other early founders of our legal system. In addition to this, several of the required courses teach the foundations of Biblical law and how it applies to today's legal world.
Law students often face immense debt after graduation from law school. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did not finish paying off his law school debts until well after his appointment to the Court.
OBCL's tuition rates are much lower than average, however, because the classes all use the distance learning method. In addition, students can take advantage of the flexibility offered by the school schedule to work full-time throughout the four-year program, further decreasing the need for loans.
Mike agrees that "the reduced cost of a distanced-based school allowed me to graduate with very little student debt. This allowed me to pursue personal opportunities and provided me with the freedom to be selective in my job hunt."
A Proven Track Record
While flexibility and low cost are great benefits, the real question is whether the whole idea works. Are the students successful? Can they get a job as attorneys afterwards?
Academic success for any law school can be measured by the average Bar passage rate of its students. California happens to have one of the hardest Bar Exams in the nation, with a statewide passage rate for the February 2004 Bar of only 46 percent. For that same exam, OBCL had a passage rate of 73 percent, a number higher than that of some of the more prestigious California law schools, including Stanford University School of Law and University of California at Berkeley.
Much of this success, however, is due to the individual motivation of the students. The distance learning method does not give students the luxury of depending on professors and other students to keep them on track; they must push themselves. OBCL requires an average of three hours of study a day, six days a week, for approximately 48 weeks a year. While that seems very doable at first, it is a very large commitment, and many students find themselves overburdened halfway through the first year. Therefore, students must carefully "count the cost" before making the commitment to enroll at the school.
The possibility of getting a job is a trickier issue. The majority of states have rules in place that prohibit graduates of an unaccredited law school from taking their Bar Exams until they have practiced for a specific period of time, usually five years. Therefore, at first glance, it looks like students have to practice in California for up to five years before being eligible to practice in another state.
Many OBCL graduates are very interested in alternative routes and changes to the existing laws, however, so much work has been done in recent years to expand the available options. To date, students have been able to take the Bar Exam in Washington, Idaho, and Wisconsin, and much work has been done on legislation in Texas that would also make that Bar available. Virginia allows an unlicensed attorney to serve as counsel for a corporation, as long as legal representation is restricted to that corporation only. The remaining states still require approximately five years of law practice for admission to their Bar.
For now, many students have opted to practice in the available jurisdictions, while others have found opportunities in Federal law, which usually can be done on the basis of a California license, without the need to pass the Bar Exam in the state of residence. For example, one graduate is an immigration law attorney in Texas, another is legal counsel to a Congressional Senate committee, and several others practice bankruptcy law.
Most of these opportunities have opened up in just the past few years, and the trend continues to be positive. Creativity and patience are still required virtues for an OBCL student looking for a job, but the track record has been solid to this point.
Even a casual observer can see that OBCL in its present state will not work for everyone. However, for many people, including myself, it has presented a unique opportunity not available through traditional methods. I will graduate from the school next year with no debt, four years of legal work experience, and with a variety of options for a legal career.
Added to all those benefits is the bonus of being able to use my school choice as an icebreaker in any conversation. After growing up as a homeschooler, where would the challenge be in attending a school that everyone immediately understands?
Where to Find It
Oak Brook College of Law
P.O. Box 26870
Fresno, CA 93729
Tuition for OBCL is currently $3,000 per year, for a four-year course of study. This does not include books or state examination fees.
The Telos Institute International
2820 North Meridian Street
Indianapolis, IN 46208