Kijana Mitchell makes a three-hour, 20-minute drive from Florence to Montgomery twice a month to attend class at Faulkner University’s Executive Juris Doctor program, a blend of online and in-person law classes spread out over a four-year time commitment.
She is one of a growing number of non-traditional students seeking law degrees through the expansion of distance learning and flexible scheduling options approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery provides part-time students in the Executive J.D. program with the same curriculum and services as students in the traditional, full-time J.D. schedule. In its second year, the program has enrolled primarily non-traditional, working professionals with an average incoming age of 35.
Mitchell, 26 and the mother of two, has two more years left in the four-year program, and says the Executive J.D. program “is a very convenient and accessible option for me because I am a working mother who just really could not afford to leave the workplace for the amount of time that a traditional program would require.”
Charles Campbell, dean of Faulkner University’s law school, says the new program is “basically our old courses taught in a different schedule” — offering an alternative to the traditional academic schedule that requires students to be “in class on campus, multiple times a week.”
Campbell points out that Jones law school was originally an evening school. “We were started back in the 1920s as a law school for people here in Montgomery who could not go off to Alabama for three years to study law or to any other law schools — Mississippi, Georgia, Emory, whatever — and at that time, Cumberland was not in Birmingham yet.”
In 2000, the institution started daytime classes and moved to a full-time schedule, with fewer and fewer students taking the part-time evening schedule.
“And at that time,” Campbell says, “the way we were doing it, with the part-time program, you had to be in Montgomery three or four evenings every week. We always had a few people who drove up from Mobile or Dothan and some from much longer distances.”
But, Campbell says, the long drives several times a week were an issue and enrollment declined to the point that the program was no longer viable. In 2011, the school halted the program. But “we started thinking about ways to re-imagine doing an evening schedule or something like an evening schedule.”
As online education became more popular, Jones began offering online electives in the summer of 2014.
“And in talking with people who were doing that, we talked about the possibility that you could design a schedule for students, where they would only have to be in Montgomery, say one evening, one morning or on one day a week, and do the rest of their coursework online, or they could be on campus every other week and do the rest of the coursework online. And that way the students would not have to travel to Montgomery as frequently,” says Campbell.
“And if they were only coming every other week, then it would be doable to drive longer distances to get here for class if you are only doing it, say on Friday, and Saturday nights, and so that was what we started to explore. And what we designed was essentially a hybrid.”
In the Jones model, students go to Montgomery every other weekend — Friday night and Saturday — for the on-campus class sessions. They are also on campus for exams.
“It has really opened up legal education to an audience that many of them thought would be impossible because they’ve got a full-time job, they have a family, they have a schedule, they have commitments where they are. They can’t take three years off, move to another city, go to law school and then move back. They just can’t put their life on hold like that,” Campbell says.
“So, we have found that there are a lot of people who thought law school would be an impossible dream but now is a possible dream, and we’ve found that they come from all over — Alabama, Georgia, Florida. We’ve even got a couple of people that are coming in from Texas and Virginia because the schedule makes it something that they can do over a period of four years.”
Preston Roberts, 32, is enrolled in the Executive JD program to help him do his job better as director of agricultural legislation for the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“I work at the legislature mainly when they’re in session and lobby for the Alabama Farmers Federation,” Roberts says. “My job is reading the law, reading legislation, trying to figure out how this bill will impact farmers and impact landowners. And without the background of legal education, it’s hard to know exactly how different legislation would function and either help the farmer or hurt the farmer.”
Post law school, Roberts says, “I’m going to continue to work doing what I’m doing now. The law degree adds another tool to my toolbox to make me better at what I’m doing right now.
“I was nervous to start with, just because of the load that I already had on my plate, being a husband and father to two young sons and my full-time job. I really had concerns about how I would fit it all in. And it’s been a challenge, but it is doable.”
Roberts, who lives in Auburn, says Faulkner does “an outstanding job and recognizes that those involved in the Executive JD program are busy and we have life outside of school and are not full-time students. They provide information way out ahead of time on scheduling and when tests are going to be and when assignments are due.
“They really have been outstanding to work with. Now, it takes dedication. You’ve got to want it, because it is not easy to balance and you’ve got to be great at time management, but it is doable.
“So, after I put the kids to bed at night, I can go to my office and watch a 30-minute lecture or read in the discussion post,” Roberts says, “so that part of it is really one of the big benefits of the program.”
And, he adds, “I think it is going to put me on another level as far as my career goes. I think it makes me much more marketable as an employee.”
Mitchell, who has two more years in the program, agrees with Roberts that success in the program requires planning and dedication.
“When this opportunity came about, I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to make it a reality,” Mitchell says. “It’s definitely not easy. Sometimes you really have to motivate yourself to make that drive and some people drive for way further than I do. But it’s just about motivating yourself to actually make the drive, do the reading and study after working for eight hours. I mean, it can be taxing, but you just have to really look at the end result that you’re working toward.”
And, she notes, it takes having a schedule and careful planning.
“I have to put all of my work obligations on my calendar, my personal family obligations on my calendar, and all of my school, everything has to be on the calendar,” Mitchell says. “Otherwise, I will forget because in addition to school and work, I have children and I’m also very involved in the community. So, everything has to be on the calendar.
“And if you try to wait to do your homework and your readings until the end of the week, it gets overwhelming because it’s a lot of reading. We take three classes per semester. So, you can have reading assignments that are upwards of 100 pages per class.”
Taking root before COVID-19
The executive program launched in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Campbell says. As the pandemic forced people to try online options, people who were skeptical before learned that “it works. It doesn’t work for everything, but it works for a lot of things.”
Tuition is about the same as full-time tuition and is based on the number of academic hours a student takes each semester. The program has 74 students enrolled.
Campbell says he thinks more schools will adopt online or distance education options and notes some law schools that are experimenting with putting their entire programs online.
The American Bar Association has proposed loosening its rules regarding online education, and Campbell says the ABA has been granting variances to some schools to determine if it works and that may lead to greater flexibility for online education in the future.
And that long drive to school for Kijana Mitchell will be over soon. She is moving to Montgomery to take a job as public policy coordinator for the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Bill Gerdes and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of Business Alabama.