SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The world's first Internet law school is tucked away in office space that looks like it could house an insurance adjuster. There is no ivy on the walls, no grand gateway to greet aspiring lawyers or their law professors. One floor below is a copy store, a Rite-Aid pharmacy and a lunch spot called Spike's Teriyaki Bowl.
But from humble beginnings, the Concord University School of Law is threatening to drag the future of legal education kicking and screaming into cyberspace. With the click of a mouse, the school has riled the stodgy legal establishment, which collectively still prefers to have its professors close enough to their students to watch them fidget and sweat.
"The law is a conservative profession," says Jack Goetz, Concord's dean, who spends much of his time these days pitching the merits of his legal Web world. "But I know what is successful in a law school. And I think we can teach all of those things on the Internet. We just do it differently."
Concord became the first online institution to offer a law degree a little more than a year ago, when it opened its portal to about 180 students living from Alaska to Switzerland. Its professors are scattered around the country. The dean of students is in Boston, while the dean of faculty lives in Denver. E-mail is the preferred method of communication -- the telephone, at least at Concord, is almost an anachronism.
As the first handful of Concord students -- the digital-age equivalent of young Abe Lincoln studying law at home by lamplight -- awaited results of a make-or-break first-year exam they took recently, this collision between Silicon Valley-style technology and "The Paper Chase" is generating considerable debate.
On one side are traditionalists, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who shudder at the thought of future lawyers getting their degrees solely from a desktop computer. On the other side are educators who insist that Concord is a perfect blend of law and technology that expands access to a law degree to those who either live in remote areas or simply cannot attend a "traditional" law school because of money or circumstances.
Students such as Chris Zoboulakis, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., can "attend" Concord while caring for children or working in other professions, paying less money than a traditional law school would require and avoiding the grind of night school.
Zoboulakis, 36, is a stay-at-home dad of two young children during the day, necessary because his wife is working long hours for a Silicon Valley software company.
"The only way for me to get into law school was to find something like Concord," says Zoboulakis, an environmental consultant who hopes to get a law degree so he can become an environmental prosecutor. "It allows me to pursue a legal education while at the same time doing it in my underwear.
"What we're going through is the future. I think we are going to shock the naysayers."
Despite such enthusiasm from Concord's first crop of students, the prospect of the nation's future lawyers learning their craft in cyber-lectures is horrifying in some quarters of the legal profession, already worried about its ever-deteriorating image.
The traditional view
Ginsburg framed the debate in a speech this fall at Rutgers University, where she singled out Concord for moving the future of legal education in an undesirable direction. With law schools churning out thousands of freshly minted lawyers each year, Ginsburg and other members of the legal community prefer good old-fashioned hands-on training.
"I am troubled by ventures like Concord," said the justice, who formerly taught at both Rutgers and Columbia University law schools. "I am uneasy about classes in which students learn entirely from home, in front of a computer screen, with no face-to-face interaction with other students or instructors."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ginsburg's comments provoked a raucous online debate on a Web site for legal scholars and law students. While some lawyers and professors agreed with the justice, others condemned her views.
"I suggest that she might want to take a Tylenol or two and get ready for the 21st century," wrote William Boletta, a Concord student living in Japan.
But if there was one thing Ginsburg's remarks demonstrated, it is that Concord -- and any schools that mimic its concept -- has a way to go before gaining broader acceptance in the off-line legal world. Even though higher education is turning increasingly to the Internet to supplement academic programs, the notion of getting a virtual professional degree has not caught on.
The American Bar Association, which accredits the nation's law schools, is refusing to sanction Concord's program, greatly limiting the options of graduating law students. For the most part, Concord graduates will be able to take the bar exam only in California, which permits unaccredited schools to operate in the state.