LAW SCHOOL: William Mitchell College of Law
STATUS: 1L, Part-time ABA-approved hybrid (online-on campus) program
UNDERGRADUATE: B.A., Social Science Studies, cum laude, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
OTHER DEGREE: Graduate coursework in History, Sam Houston State University; TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language), St. Cloud State University.
HOME CITY/STATE: Currently in Twin Falls, Idaho; originally from Phoenix, Arizona.
Living outside the U.S. left Colby Jones and his wife, Melissa, with a unique appreciation for the challenges faced by immigrants inside the U.S.
Now, even though they’re no longer abroad, the experience continues to wield an influence. Colby Jones plans to use the law degree he’s obtaining in a singular online-on campus degree program at William Mitchell College of Law to provide community legal training that empowers immigrants and refugees.
“Seeing and, to a lesser extent, experiencing injustices to people on the basis of their nationality and economic status made us more sensitive to those in the U.S. who experience racism and other forms of discrimination,” Jones said. “As a lawyer, advocacy is important, but empowering others to be their own best advocates is a goal, I think, of many in the legal profession.”
The couple’s time overseas, in both South America and Asia, was motivated by a desire to expose their son to different countries and cultures, he explained.
“We decided to live in Ecuador, which was possible because I taught online college courses in music appreciation and theory,” said Jones, a student adviser and adjunct instructor at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and a 1L part-time at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.
They lasted in Ecuador about six months. “I became ill with pneumonia and people were dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in the apartment complex where we lived,” Jones said in e-mails and a telephone interview.
In that time, though, he and his family began to understand discrimination and prejudice as experienced in the U.S. Jones said his family learned firsthand about the marginalization of minority groups, such as the Quechua. They learned about children selling trinkets on city streets – youngsters drugged to keep them from eating or sleeping, so the Joneses would give them food and stay to watch them eat. They saw many elderly and disabled people, lacking social services, forced to beg.
Later, while living in South Korea, where Jones taught English at Woosong University, they met Filipino women who had been sold into abusive marriages with older men and immigrant factory workers living in the squalor of company dorms.
In their travels the family experienced the discrimination directed at foreigners in some countries: doctors who claimed ignorance of how to treat “your kind”; public transport bus drivers who wouldn’t stop and pick them up; store clerks who wouldn’t sell to them and restaurants whose staff wouldn’t serve them food.
Those occurrences also made the family realize how difficult it is to make people who have never experienced discrimination understand it. “It’s like a ‘death by a thousand cuts,’” Jones said. “If you try to explain one or two of the wounds, your listener thinks you’re making a lot of very little. If you try to explain them all, you sound crazy.”
The result was a powerful desire to practice law and represent underserved populations for what Jones admits may sound like the most idealistic of reasons: “I want to help secure the social progress that our diverse national population has worked so hard for and that shapes our unique national character,” he said.
LAWDRAGON: What factors did you use to choose a law school?
COLBY JONES: Idaho has one law school that is about an eight-hour drive from my rural community. I would not have been able to realize my dream of attending law school had it not been for William Mitchell’s efforts to innovate legal education with its part-time, hybrid online-on campus program. I also found the qualifications of Mitchell’s faculty for the hybrid program to be quite impressive.
LD: Impressive in what way?
CJ: Let me illustrate with an example. While researching the program, I came across the information page about our criminal law instructor, Prof. Sara Deer. Besides serving as an Appellate Judge for the White Earth Nation and as an Associate Justice for the Prairie Islands Court of Appeals, she was recently named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
More than that, though, Professor Deer advocated for victims of domestic abuse in tribal communities. Through her research, she was able to home in on the real issues, which turned out to be legal ones, and then advocate tirelessly for needed changes. I wanted to learn the craft of a lawyer from professors who have that kind of strong commitment to identifying social issues and taking action to ameliorate those issues through legal reform.
LD: Are there other elements of the program or course offerings that attracted you? I’m asking because operating the only hybrid J.D. program doesn’t mean it’s the right law school for you.
CJ: Well, several things specifically helped me zero in on William Mitchell. First, I want to engage in public service and Mitchell has created an academic culture that focuses on public service and the importance of legal pro bono work. Second, the focus on practical skills and wisdom really appealed to me. That may be because I’m an adult learner, but I also like the idea that rather than focusing solely on legal theory, William Mitchell students are basically ready to practice law upon graduation. The law school has excellent clinics and hands-on opportunities. The faculty is vested in helping us experience, as students, doing the work lawyers do.
Now that William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law have agreed to combine forces, there are even more benefits, at least for me. I’m talking in particular about Hamline’s nationally rated alternative dispute resolution program (tied with Harvard for #3), which the new combined school will make available to online students. I intend to take advantage of that, since I believe that much good can be accomplished through means other than litigation.
LD: What do you wish you knew about law school before enrolling?
CJ: Actually, the recommended readings and copious information provided by Mitchell’s staff and by my student mentor, Ella Phillips, prepared me well for what to expect. Many of the books on the practical aspects of law school, for example, touched on the rigors of the curriculum, the Socratic method and case briefing and outlining.
I read a lot, truthfully, because I knew that working full-time and going to law school wouldn’t be easy, so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Beyond that, Ella was available practically 24/7 and provided great support. Especially when those dark thoughts that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for law school entered my mind, Ella would respond with genuine encouragement.
So far, law school has certainly met my expectation for being rigorous and demanding. Mitchell expects the same amount of work from hybrid students as from the “brick and mortar” students – a term they coined at Mitchell to avoid referring to on-campus students as the “normal” students, which turned into quite an inside joke.
Law school is a lot of work, but the Mitchell faculty and staff are very supportive. We are connected to one another through Microsoft Lync and other technology, so that I see when professors are available and also other students, library staff, technical support personnel and counselors. We all have been made to feel free to approach anyone to ask for help.
LD: With all that prep work has anything surprised you about law school or about this program?
CJ: I was surprised by how emotional an experience it was beginning my law studies during the Prep Week on campus. In our torts law course, I was stung by regret after realizing how often over the years I should have consulted a lawyer about an issue that affected me or people I knew. I didn’t realize at the time how critical lawyers are in obtaining justice, nor did I understand that what was at stake was justice.
Then in criminal law most of us were fairly choked up to learn of the many injustices occurring within our criminal justice system. We covered social, economic and racial issues openly and honestly, which opened my eyes to specific areas that need the attention of lawyers.
LD: What’s been your most memorable or valuable experience?
CJ: So far, I would say our Prep Week, where the first hybrid class of law students met for orientation and intensive coursework, was the most valuable experience. The approachable faculty and staff, the outstanding instruction and pedagogy, and the varied backgrounds of fellow students all made for a top-notch educational experience.
We each were assigned one student mentor and one instructor mentor. Each class was divided into smaller groups of about 10 students that will last through the semester, so that we know the individuals with whom we are interacting online. Additionally, student or alumni assistants were assigned to courses to help us throughout the semester, even offering tutoring sessions via online video conferencing. A practicing lawyer teaches my writing and reasoning course the first part of the semester, and a practicing judge teaches the second half. I couldn’t ask for a better education than this.
One event within the Prep Week stands out among the rest, though, and that was the evening social event where Mitchell alumni and members of the board of trustees took the time to get to know us personally and provided encouragement and practical advice. It was a priceless opportunity getting to know these lawyers and judges, hearing their experiences and wisdom, and then having them hand us their business cards and suggest that we call them and keep them posted on how we’re doing or if we need assistance.
LD: You’ve mentioned pedagogy several times. What do you mean in the context of online J.D. courses?
CJ: I’ve taught online courses for many years, so I really watched to see how these courses would be designed and if best practices would be used. Well, Mitchell did not disappoint. The school hired an instructional designer, and I must say that every aspect of the pedagogy and online structure is excellent. Every effort was made to eliminate obstacles technology sometimes presents to students learning to create a seamless online environment, standardized across courses.
Each assignment, including discussions, shows a rubric by which the elements of our work are assessed. These rubric areas align with the student learning outcomes and course objectives provided in a summary page for each week. One of the best aspects of online learning is that discussions are informed and well thought out. Our discussion posts are not chats, but must meet legal writing standards as do our assignments. As a result, we’re receiving what I would think to be more practice writing than if we were participating in person.
Having met the instructors face-to-face first made for a smooth transition to the online format. Their personalities come through loud and clear in the responses they write. We’re able to speak with them through online video chat as well.
LD: What is it like to be in a law class online?
CJ: I love online learning, but I may be biased. I like the freedom of working at my own pace throughout the week. All the courses are asynchronous, so we have no requirements for everyone to meet at the same time, but we do meet the same deadlines for assignments and discussions. Many students have formed online study groups.
My daily routine is a bit crazy, even as a part-time student, because I work full time as an academic adviser and teach online, as well. I usually get up early to read a bit and get organized for the day. I’ll use my lunch period to study as well, but evenings and weekends make up the bulk of my study time.
In one week, for example, I briefed 11 cases, completed four discussion essays relating to those cases and applying case law to hypotheticals, and submitted an assignment on mens rea, which involves someone’s state of mind in terms of criminal intent. I still had an exam covering intentional torts due Friday and two more assignments due Saturday on case fusion and research.
It is hectic at times, I admit that, but my family is very supportive. At one point, I felt a bit discouraged so my 16-year-old called out: “Hey, Mom! Dad needs encouragement,” and they both gave me a much-needed pep talk. Considering the amount of information that students at any law school need to cover, I feel that William Mitchell has made every effort to ensure that we aren’t completely overwhelmed; it created a curriculum that while rigorous, is also accessible to nontraditional students.
LD: What do you plan to do with your law degree?
CJ: Because the nature of the hybrid program allows students to remain in their hometowns, I can plan on contributing to my community. This is a great benefit for me, because I’m more familiar with the needs of people where I live than elsewhere.
Having lived in other countries, my goal upon graduation is to provide community legal education to empower immigrants, refugees and others. I know that I am not alone in saying that William Mitchell’s focus on practical wisdom, in addition to legal theory, helps me feel assured that I’ll be able to make a difference in my community.
Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or email@example.com.