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Education

St. Mary’s University To Launch First-Ever Online Law Degree Accredited By The American Bar Association

St. Mary's University School of Law building
Robin Jerstad
/
Provided / St. Mary's University School of Law
St. Mary's Campus buildings

St. Mary’s University in San Antonio is the first college in the country to offer an online law degree accredited by the American Bar Association.

The new program launches in the fall of 2022.

“The idea with this program is that we would prevent students from having to move to San Antonio (to earn a law degree),” said Patricia Roberts, the dean of St. Mary’s School of Law.

St. Mary’s is the only law school in South Texas, so it attracts a lot of students from the Rio Grande Valley. But moving 200 miles north to San Antonio for three years to earn a Doctorate in Jurisprudence isn’t something everyone can afford to do.

Roberts said St. Mary’s estimates housing and transportation adds $20,000 to a student’s yearly expenses on top of tuition and fees.

“When I first arrived at St. Mary's, there were a number of alums whom I would meet from South Texas in the valley,” Roberts said. “I was often encouraged that we could do more.”

St. Mary’s online law degree will start with an initial cohort of 25 students in the fall of 2022. The program will be part time and take around four years to complete.

Roberts said the law school was able to show the bar association a fully online program was possible by demonstrating their successful move online last year during the pandemic. Existing online programs aren't accredited by the ABA.

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“There are about 10 or 12 (accredited) hybrid programs across the country at law schools with a significant online component. But there was not yet one that did not require any credit bearing or curricular activities on campus,” Roberts said. “Originally, we were thinking we might do a hybrid. But … I felt very strongly that if we were going to do this, and one of our reasons was to reduce the cost for people to attend, then we should do it in a way that does not require considerable time here in San Antonio on campus.”

She said the ABA observed St. Mary’s online classes and interviewed students and faculty before granting approval for a five-year pilot program in May.

Roberts said St. Mary’s hosted trial competitions for law schools across the country last year, and is experienced at organizing virtual mock courts and study groups.

“Pretty much the only thing that we don't think will work as well online as in person is a clinic experience, where a professor will supervise students engaged in practicing law or representing clients,” Roberts said.

Instead, she said students will have the opportunity to find internships with attorneys closer to home, or participate in virtual pro bono work that St. Mary’s facilitates, like a housing hotline.

Kathryn Cantu from Edinburg, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley completed her first year at St. Mary’s School of Law online last year.

“Even though it was very challenging, it taught me how to be disciplined. And it also made me realize how much I wanted to be in law school,” said Cantu.

She said she was able to develop a connection with her classmates and professors through Zoom office hours, virtual study groups and the occasional meet up with classmates who lived in the same city.

“I think it's really exciting that St. Mary’s School of Law is going to be the first in the entire nation to have this type of program,” said Cantu. “It's going to open up a lot of doors for a lot of people who have always wanted to go to law school, but couldn't because they couldn't make the sacrifice to move to a different city or have to keep working to provide for their family.”