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Supreme Court decision on online law schools could impact state's attorney shortage

February 15 ruling paves the way for online law schools
Indiana Supreme Court.png
Posted at 2:41 PM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 18:32:27-05

INDIANAPOLIS— A decision by the Indiana Supreme Court could have a significant impact on the state’s growing attorney shortage.

It’s a problem WRTV Investigates exposed last year, one that is hurting our criminal justice system.

The Indiana Supreme Court issued a ruling February 15 that allows graduates of online law schools not accredited by the American Bar Association to take the Indiana Bar exam as soon as they graduate.

The graduates have to get a waiver to do so, but lawyers say the Supreme Court’s decision is huge for addressing the state’s attorney shortage.

The ABA currently requires a physical campus for accreditation.

Indiana’s new rules will allow a law school graduate who did not attend an ABA-approved school to apply for admission to the Indiana bar.

Purdue Global is the nation’s first fully online law school.

“I think it will make a difference,” said Martin Pritikin, dean and vice president of Purdue Global Law School. “I don't think you'll see hundreds of attorneys per year, but perhaps you'll see dozens. And that does make a big difference especially in rural areas."

Our investigation, Attorney Shortage, found Indiana’s rural areas are the hardest hit—victims and the accused are waiting longer for justice because there’s not enough prosecutors and public defenders.

Rural Indiana is special, but it’s also the hardest hit by the state’s attorney shortage.

Meanwhile, the number of attorneys coming out of Indiana law schools has been on the decline.

In 2017, Indiana had five law schools:

  • IU McKinney in Indianapolis
  • IU Maurer in Bloomington
  • Notre Dame in South Bend
  • Valparaiso University in Valparaiso
  • Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne
IU McKinney School of Law launched the Rural Justice Initiative back in 2019, which places students to work with judges, prosecutors and public defenders in rural counties.

Indiana Tech closed its law school in June 2017.

Valparaiso closed in 2020, which according to a report from the Indiana Public Defender Commission, eliminated a law school that trained 18% of the attorneys practicing in Indiana.

Pritikin said online law school is more affordable and students don’t have to pay for living expenses.

"If someone can stay in their community, a small town in a rural area, they can stay there while they go to law school,” said Pritikin. “They can remain there after they go to law school. It makes it a lot more attractive to go to law school without having to disrupt their lives."

Indiana becomes the second state, after California, in which Purdue Global law graduates could be eligible for the bar exam immediately upon graduating.

"The Indiana Supreme Court is very aware of the access to justice problems in rural areas and has been looking for concrete ways to address that,” said Pritikin. “This is part of that. They also know that when Valparaiso law school closed that exacerbated the lawyer shortage in the state and they're serious about trying to address that."

The Indiana Supreme Court decision comes as elected prosecutors across the state are pleading with their county councils for more funding.

"At some point, it's going to break, and that's my fear,” said St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter.

Cotter’s office pushed the county council and in 2024, they received 6 new support staff positions and a 10 percent raise for staff — a move that cost $536,390.

Cotter said the county still needs to address salaries for deputy prosecutors which start at $64,000 a year.

"How do we compensate those who go into public service well enough so that we have good attorneys prosecuting cases, defending cases?” asked Cotter.

Currently, 24 Indiana residents are enrolled in Purdue Global Law School, and 20 graduates live in the state.

Indiana’s new rule goes into effect July 1, 2024.

The February 2025 bar exam marks the first time applicants will be eligible to petition for a waiver under the new rule.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Pritikin. “The wheels of justice turn slowly.”

WRTV Investigates reached out to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Chief Administrative Officer, Justin Forkner, provided the following statement.

“The decline in the number of Indiana attorneys has a direct impact on access to justice. The Supreme Court’s decision to amend Rule 13 is one piece of the puzzle related to addressing challenges that arise from the lawyer shortage. This rule change provides a path for qualified applicants to sit for the bar exam. To become a licensed Indiana attorney, all applicants must pass the bar exam and meet all other requirements for admission, including character-and-fitness requirements. This change maintains the standards for bar admission and expands testing eligibility.”