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Weekend JD programs provide flexibility for working students and parents

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Weekend JD Student

As legal education continues to evolve, several law schools have altered their part-time JD programs to expand access for working students and parents.

Among the most innovative new programs are those at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. All three share the same core weekend-based schedules that allow students to continue working full time while enrolled in fully-accredited, ABA-approved JD degree programs. They offer incredible flexibility to students as they pursue their degrees over four years.

Is a weekend JD program right for You?

If you are considering attending a WJD program, there are tremendous benefits for students employed full-time, as well as those with families; but there are also some drawbacks of which you should be aware.

This blog post aims to inform your decision.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a 2L in Loyola’s Weekend JD program. I also earned a master of jurisprudence at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 2016, during which I attended the same classes evening JD students took at McKinney. Both experiences provide background on the two dominant types of part-time programs available to you.

Flexible class schedules for working professionals, parents

All three WJD programs meet in person on alternating weekends, with classes usually held all day on Saturday and Sunday. After the first year, students may also enroll in classes during the week, as well as a limited number of online classes. Class credit for externships, law review, independent/directed study and clinics are also available to Weekend JD students.

Flexible scheduling makes WJD programs the best new pathway to a law degree for working professionals and parents.

“I appreciate that I am able to break my homework time into 4-5 hour chunks each night after work,” Denver 2L Katie Schmalzel said.

My own section of 45 people at Loyola is full of accomplished, hard-working students with compelling reasons for pursuing a JD. Many students are looking for a career change, while others are seeking to advance at their current employers. We have teachers, police officers, pharmacists, engineers, paralegals, a flight attendant, a university administrator, an anesthesiologist, and many more. Many students also hold graduate degrees in their fields.

Kelly Lotterhos, a 2L at Denver, said she loves her job as a paralegal working on health care litigation and saw law school as the next step. For Lotterhos and others, being able to work while in law school cuts down on the loans needed to attend.

Denver’s Katie Schmalzel agreed that the WJD was the best choice financially.

“If I were to quit to go to school full time, I was looking at upwards of $200,000 in loans,” Schmalzel said.

“I teach part-time in my school district right now, which enables me to make some money and stay in touch with the education field,” Loyola 2L Hani Majeed said. “I plan on practicing education law, so the WJD program is a great fit for my career.”

Many of us are also spouses and parents. Students at both Loyola and Denver even gave birth at the start of the fall semester.

“I can’t miss bed time every day to go to class,” Lotterhos, who is also a working parent, said. “The weekend program is just the perfect fit for me.”

Denver’s program is a “wonderful opportunity for working professionals to get a JD,” Lotterhos said.

In my own experience, having a supportive spouse and boss have been critical. In fact, both my wife and supervisor preferred that I attend Loyola’s every-other-weekend program than one closer to home that required sitting in a classroom as many as four nights a week for four years. Besides spending evenings with my family, I’ve even been able to take my daughter to extracurricular activities and attend school events – none of which would have been possible in an evening part-time program.

One downside you should consider with WJD programs, though, is the less frequent in-person contact with professors and other students that happens in an evening program. But the trade off is an appropriate one for many working professionals and parents.

Weekend students bring a depth of experience to classrooms

While not all Weekend JD students are employed full time, most are. As a result, classroom discussions are informed by a depth of experience that simply isn’t possible in traditional full-time programs. Imagine talking about medical liability in torts class with an anesthesiologist in the mix, search and seizure issues in criminal procedure class with police officers, education law issues with teachers, and so much more. The richness and thoughtfulness of class discussions among WJD students is unrivaled because of the experience each student brings to the classroom.

Seton Hall 3L Matt Handley said he sees value in the broad range of life experience in his classes. “Being surrounded by other people who have had careers and life experience,” Handley said, “results in a diversity of experience that everyone brings to all of the problems you work through in class scenarios.”

Denver 3L Tatum Perez, who is director of operations for an art museum, said she’s become really close with others in her cohort, especially since many of the weekend students have some common life experiences.

“If you’re a working adult, you’re going to get more out of a weekend program,” Perez said.

Required: Discipline, good time management

Going to law school while working full time is not easy. But it’s entirely possible with the right attitude and effort.

“It’s definitely doable,” Seton Hall 4L Alessandra Masciandaro said. “The trick is discipline and priorities.”

“Try to create a support network for yourself,” Handley, the Seton Hall 3L, said. “Find a couple friends to be your study group or support group.”

Like Handley, I’ve developed close relationships with a number of other Loyola students, with whom I text, email, and WhatsApp message every day. As a result of our shared experiences, I’ve never felt alone during law school.

Masciandaro, who was a kindergarten teacher her first two years in law school before she accepted a job at a law firm, said Seton Hall is “invested in our success.”

“Law review and moot court have both gone out of their way to accommodate WJD students, Masciandaro said. “Seton Hall is truly invested in seeing their weekend students succeed.”

Like Denver and Seton Hall students, my classmates and I agree that Loyola has really been an excellent experience.

“I feel supported by Loyola University Chicago in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” said 2L Cat Bishir, who is also a teacher, wife and parent. “As hard as this is, and it is HARD, it is still possible, and I’m loving it!”

Majeed, the Loyola 2L, said she appreciates the weekend model’s flexibility.

“As a mother, teacher and a travel enthusiast, this program has the flexibility to allow me to do things that make me happy, while pursuing my goals,” Majeed said. “I did not have to move to the city and disturb my children’s schedule, nor did I have to waste time and money on commute every day.”

Programs draw students from around the U.S.

While some Weekend JD students are within driving distance, many others fly, take trains, or ride buses. The schools’ geographic reach expanded considerably when they changed from evening- to weekend-based programs. And they are now attracting students with higher LSAT scores and UGPAs.

Loyola students come from at least 20 states, as far away as New York, Florida, Texas and California. Denver students fly in from Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Ohio and Illinois. Seton Hall students come from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

“Our previous, part-time program, which was structured so that classes took place primarily on weekday evenings, was shrinking,” Seton Hall associate dean Brian Sheppard told me this summer. “That model did not give students a high degree of flexibility when it came to school work and lectures, and it required them to travel during high-traffic hours. Converting to a hybrid weekend model maximized efficiency: Students commute less frequently and when travelling is at its easiest.”

Weekend JD programs aren’t perfect

Weekend JD programs have a few drawbacks, but they are more than offset by the many benefits. These shortcomings include less in-person contact with professors and other students, as well as travel and lodging costs.

Loyola 2L Sam Wilburn, who lives in Georgia, estimates his costs for flights, hotels and airport parking at as much as $5,000 per semester. My own hotel stays have ranged from $75-$125 per night, and taking a bus has been as cheap as $7-10 each way for the 4.5-hour trip. In fact, Wilburn and I have both taken advantage of Loyola’s reasonable rates at a hotel-type dorm across the street from the law school.

Another consideration is whether you can withstand classes all day on Saturdays and Sundays. Breakfast and lunch are provided by Loyola, which works out well since it’s on site. But, as Wilburn pointed out, those are very long days of class.

Finally, being away every other weekend means missing out on some activities back home. Again, though, two weekends a month is a small price to pay when compared to typical evening programs that may mean being away from home on 16 or more nights each month.

My friends at Loyola make the most of the weekends away though by having dinner together most weekends.

“Where else could we be at a dinner table with classmates that live in Indiana, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Utah, and Illinois?” Wilburn asked.

As a working parent, Loyola’s WJD program was absolutely the right choice for me. And if you have read this far, it may be for you, too.

Travis Thickstun Travis Thickstun is a first-year student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. He has master’s degrees in jurisprudence from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and in theological studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a husband, father and police lieutenant.