Dean Ken Randall joined George Mason University’s Scalia Law School in December 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing the legal industry— including legal educators — to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
As the pandemic progressed and other law schools scrambled, Randall didn’t just rework the law school’s curriculum for the new normal. He also took advantage of his extensive experience in distance-learning technology to establish more remote education programs that will remain in place even after the pandemic subsides, and he increased Scalia Law’s emphasis on interdisciplinary learning experiences.
A Tech-Forward Dean for Tech-Forward Times
Randall is no stranger to smart adaptation in fraught circumstances. During his twenty-year tenure as dean at the University of Alabama School of Law, the school was one of the first to deploy a distance learning program in an effort to save an LLM program that was, as Randall puts it, “losing its shirt.”
The opportunity to earn an LLM remotely proved attractive for would-be students, and enrollment numbers shot up the following year.
At the time — around the mid-1990s, according to Randall — distance learning required special hardware and students still had to attend classes in-person at off-campus facilities that had the necessary technology to transmit lectures and allow remote learners to contribute to class discussions using voice-activated microphones.
“That technology transformed the LLM program,” Randall says. “It was great for the school because you had a whole lot more enrollments from the student body, and it was great also because you had a whole lot more inclusivity; people who couldn’t drive to a campus could drive to a more convenient location.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Randall says, the rapid adoption of distance learning across the nation validated his efforts as dean at the University of Alabama and as co-founder of legal education-focused distance learning software company iLaw, which was acquired by BARBRI Holdings in 2017.
“Still, to me, [distance learning] was just such a no-brainer, so it was really kind of interesting to see that adoption of it happen overnight” during the pandemic, he adds.
Using Remote-Learning Technology to Boost Inclusivity
As an early adopter of distance learning, Randall can attest to the benefits technology can offer law schools outside of the context of the pandemic — especially when it comes to increasing access to degree programs for individuals who might otherwise not be able to pursue a legal education.
One of the dean’s big takeaways from the early adoption of distance learning at the University of Alabama was that providing the opportunity to learn remotely plays an essential role in making higher education programs more inclusive and accessible.
In recognition of the potential for distance learning to promote more inclusive legal education, Scalia Law now offers a primarily online Flex JD program with twice-weekly in-person sessions, according to Randall.
“The only reason for those two nights a week is that the ABA still has rules limiting the amount of distance education,” he says, adding that the school’s close proximity to Washington, D.C. makes Scalia Law an excellent choice for working professionals interested in taking classes at night.
“It’s a game changer for a person who has personal responsibilities or family responsibilities or work responsibilities to come to a building two nights a week rather than five nights a week.”
To boost the inclusivity efforts of the Flex JD even further, Scalia Law offers breaks in tuition for prospective and current students working in the D.C. area in government or public interest jobs.
In addition to the Flex JD, the law school now also offers an entirely online LLM program designed specifically for foreign-educated lawyers seeking to qualify to practice U.S. law in Washington, D.C. The expedited program sets students on the path to complete their education in U.S. law and be eligible for the D.C. bar examination in just one year.
The Future Is Interdisciplinary
Though technology adoption might be one of his specialties, Randall is pushing the school to look beyond tech trends when it comes to preparing students for a future in the legal industry.
From his perspective, an essential part of preparing the lawyers of the future lies in responding to a shift in the type of work current law students will likely be expected to do down the line. Randall has taken notice of the growing demand for attorneys who can apply their knowledge of the law and legal processes in collaboration with non-lawyers, and he is pushing Scalia Law to follow the change.
“One of the things that a lawyer has to do is understand what their clients do,” Randall says. “Maybe it’s not enough just being able to say, ‘the law is X’ or ‘capital gains tax is X’ or ‘the statute of limitations is five years.’ You really have to understand how those rules apply to a sector and how to think creatively about applying the law.”
“The skill sets, the things that we’re asking lawyers to do, are less linear and less rule-specific than they used to be, and more problem-solving-oriented. Lawyers really have to see themselves as problem-solvers.”
The law school is preparing for new opportunities presented by George Mason’s Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA), where faculty and students specializing in science and engineering are enjoying the fruits of a five-year plan for expanding IDIA facilities on the university’s Arlington campus — right next door to the law school.
“Lawyers don’t work in a vacuum,” Randall says. “They work with bankers, and they work with technologists, and they work with engineers. That’s the kind of exposure that we want our students to have and to work with.”