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Digital Degrees

The next time you enter an office "war room" and peruse boxes of documents and mountains of overstuffed Redwelds, consider the following: The average lawyer can use the equivalent of 20 trees--every year. Given the latest American Bar Association (ABA) estimates that there are more than 1.1 million lawyers in the U.S., that is a sobering 20.2 million trees! The roots of such consumption often start in law school and grow dramatically from there.

Fortunately the growth of e-discovery, computer-based document management systems and electronic court filings have gone a long way toward saving a lot of trees in our overpapered profession. Legal libraries, long known for their enormous casebooks and reporters, are shrinking as lawyers increasingly rely on laptops, rather than library stacks, for research. At the same time, videoconferencing has greatly reduced a lawyer's need to travel.

For the most part, legal organizations view these moves as an effort to increase efficiencies. From the larger global perspective, these changes also represent a significant reduction in the amount of fuel, energy and paper consumed.

While the shift toward electronic resources has swiftly changed the way many lawyers do business, there is another environmentally friendly phenomenon afoot that is changing the legal landscape: online legal education. In 2006, according to a Sloan Consortium report, almost 3.5 million postsecondary students took at least one course online, and that number is expected to grow exponentially as the number of high-quality offerings continues to surge.

At my company, Kaplan Higher Education, students can earn their associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in legal studies without taking time off from work or leaving their homes. To meet the market demand for specialized paralegals, students in Kaplan University's online programs can tailor their coursework to areas such as health care, real estate law and legal technology. Since 1998, more than 400 students have graduated from Concord Law School of Kaplan University with a J.D. earned online.

While online legal education is attracting students for myriad reasons, including affordability, accessibility and convenience, its multiple environmental benefits cannot be ignored. Reduced fuel consumption associated with driving to campus, paperless assignment submissions, and online legal texts and research virtually eliminate the carbon footprint of a traditional legal education.

At the same time, many employers support employees pursuing online education because it doesn't interfere with their work schedule, which is critical for legal teams working under typically tight deadlines. Online education can also increase productivity and provide legal expertise that an organization lacks, making the employee a greater asset. It benefits the community because students who may have moved away to pursue an education can now remain at home, maintaining a stable workforce and increasing the pool of well-educated professionals.

While the legal profession has been slower than others to adopt online education, there has been progress. Most states now allow lawyers to get at least part of their continuing legal education online, and several providers, including the ABA, offer online tools such as Webcasts, downloadable materials and streaming audio and video. Additionally, ABA-accredited law schools may offer up to 12 credit hours via distance education.

The change represented by online legal education will undoubtedly come grudgingly, but it will come. And when it does, it will not only revolutionize the manner in which some of our finest lawyers are educated, it will forever alter the environmental impact that has marked our profession.


Janice L. Block is executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for Kaplan Higher Education.

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