Dr. Robert Uyeda is a surgeon who owns Nippon Medical Clinic in West Los Angeles. But he wanted to be an attorney, too, in order to start his own legal practice.

So he went to law school online.

After graduating from Concord Law School of Kaplan University, Uyeda passed the State Bar of California exam in 2005, and started Uyeda Law Office.

"I have served as an expert witness, but having a law degree and being a lawyer puts a whole different perspective on things," Uyeda said. "You can understand the legal issues involved in a case as well as the medical issues, and sometimes they are quite different."

Uyeda isn't alone in his effort to gain a competitive advantage in the professional world.

This year's graduating class of Concord is the school's largest, 186 students from across the United States and abroad.

Since launching in 1998, Concord Law School has catered to professionals who want to earn a degree in the legal field to boost their credentials.

The Westwood Village-based online law school, which became affiliated with Kaplan Inc. in 2007, carved out a niche in the legal education market by giving businesspeople the ability to earn a degree without having to commute.

"A lot of the time you spend when attending any school is driving there and back," Uyeda said. "When the classes are online, you can just go to your back office and get online. And sometimes those are the only two hours I have to study for that day."

At Concord, students watch live online lectures from their home or office. During the lectures, students ask their professors questions and interact with fellow students via instant messaging.

It's not accredited by the national or state bar associations, which require classroom instruction. That means graduates can take the California bar exam, but other states' exams are more problematic.

Is Concord a diploma mill granting degrees to anyone willing to pay the $36,000 tuition for the four-year program? Even students wondered as they signed up.

"There was the perception that you are getting your degree out of the back of Rolling Stone magazine, just sending in money and taking an exam," said Sara Farmer Earll, a producer in the theme-park development department at Walt Disney Co., who completed the course in 2006. "But because Concord law students take the same exams everybody else has to take, we are able to hold our own."

But Harold O'Neil, professor of educational psychology and technology, said students from online degree programs don't learn as well compared to students who interact with their professors and classmates directly.

"When students get together and work with classmates face to face, they are motivated," said O'Neil, who is a professor at USC's Rossier School of Education. "When you can do it anytime and anywhere, the urgent always drives out the important since you don't have an external force pushing you to complete things on time."

Changing perception

But Concord isn't catering to young college graduates who have aspirations of starting their legal careers at prestigious law firms. Rather, 40 percent of its students, who are an average age of 43, are returning to school to earn a second degree.

"People want a law school education, they want their J.D. so they can get barred, but they want to use the degree in their business career," said Barry Currier, dean of Concord.

Currier, who has been dean since 2004, is trying to change the perception of his school.

"Concord offers video-streamed lectures, real-time classes and frequent quizzes," said Currier. "There is a lot of variety in what we ask our students to do."

Currier taught at the University of Florida Levin College of Law for 19 years before serving as a deputy consultant on legal education for the American Bar Association, so he's aware of the school's image issues.

A majority of Concord professors also teach in American Bar Association-accredited law schools or are practicing lawyers. Currier said that shows the school isn't just a correspondent course.

Concord professor Sara Berman-Barrett said the school's online model offers advantages.

"In many ways, our students have much more direct and regular contact with professors than students at most traditional law schools," said Berman-Barrett, who is based in Los Angeles. Other teachers are teaching at law schools and practicing in locations across the U.S.

The California bar is starting to pay more attention to institutions like Concord. In January, the Committee of Bar Examiners, a state bar panel, began regulating unaccredited law schools.

This is a boost for Concord because it confers more prestige on the process. In the past, schools such as Concord were regulated by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, which is also responsible for beauty academies and truck-driving schools.

Now, the Committee of Bar Examiners will work with Concord and other unaccredited law schools to make sure they are fully disclosing to potential students the school's bar pass rates and the chances of starting a legal career after graduation. (Since Concord started offering law degrees a decade ago, 323 of the 700 graduates have taken the California bar exam and 166 have passed it.)

Gayle Murphy, senior executive for the state bar Office of Admissions, said that the bar had been receiving complaints about lack of information from correspondence law schools. In the past, the bar sent the complaints to the vocation education bureau.

Currier said he prefers the regulation by the bar panel because the members are familiar with the legal world. But he'd like to see a greater acceptance of online law schools. And he'd like accreditation, too.

"It's a process to go through and I don't expect things to change overnight," he said.

Lack of understanding

Concord has been reaching out to inform other legal educators about the school's online teaching methods.

In the future, Currier said he expects Concord will be in a position to offer courses to students attending other law schools.

"This will help break down the lack of understanding of what we are doing," he said.

Historically, 41 percent of Concord students who took the bar exam on their first try passed. In comparison, 31 percent of first-time test takers from correspondence schools passed the July 2007 bar exam and 68 percent of all first-time test takers passed. (Detailed statistics for the February 2008 exam aren't available.)

In addition to taking the bar exam, students at unaccredited law schools must pass what is commonly known as the "baby bar," which is administered after the students' first year of law school.

"The first-year law exam is even more intimidating than the bar exam because it's a hurdle you have to pass before you can proceed," said Disney executive Earll.

An Arkansas native, Earll decided to go back to law school after working with Disney's lawyers on trademark, copyright and licensing matters, and becoming more interested in intellectual property law.

"I am incorporating my law skills into my current job," she said. "A lot of what I do relates to creative writing and the development of nomenclatures that we put on signs. So now when I am writing, I have a better idea to know if a name is likely to be trademarked."

Earll passed the bar exam in 2007, and is still weighing her options in terms of practicing, but she said she would like to be an intellectual property lawyer.

L.A. surgeon Uyeda has ventured into the world of sole practitioners.

On average, Uyeda said he spends 70 percent of his time practicing medicine and 30 percent practicing law.

"My law practice focuses on medical issues, like medical malpractice cases, and things related to the medical field, like contracts," Uyeda said.

In addition to building his own law firm, where he also takes on cases dealing with fungus and related medical effects, Uyeda said he advises other lawyers on cases on a casual basis.

"I am able to answer questions posed to me by other attorneys who may want a different perspective when looking at a case involving medical issues," he said.

Uyeda said he wouldn't have been able to get the legal education he wanted if not for the online school.

"I couldn't maintain my practice and attend law school. It wasn't possible before the availability of Internet-based programs."

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