August 31, 2012 by Aaron Strauss
Drexel University law professor Karl Okamoto received a $500,000 grant in late July from the National Science Foundation to continue his development of LawMeets, a free online legal apprenticeship simulator that is open to the public.
This is the third NSF grant that Okamoto has received for ApprenNet, a two-year-old startup company that he founded to create LawMeets and other similar e-learning programs that train users for specific professions. LawMeets challenges users to think of solutions to several legal scenarios and record videos of themselves responding to each scenario as if making a professional proposal to a colleague. An example of one of these scenarios, as described in an Aug. 14 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, is that a company’s CEO has just resigned and the user must advise the company’s board on how to retain the chief financial officer in light of this event. Users critique each other’s responses and receive feedback from legal experts.
While most current LawMeets users are students or faculty at Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law and other law schools, the program is not restricted to this specific audience. Okamoto explained in an email that he and his LawMeets leadership team see mass participation as an essential strength of e-learning tools.
“The more, the merrier,” Okamoto wrote. “We believe that learning occurs best when learners are engaged with experts in shared challenges. We believe that the opportunities for this kind of learning in traditional apprenticeships have diminished. We believe that one answer is to provide comparable learning opportunities using technology so that large numbers of learners can participate at any one time.”
A major goal for LawMeets and the other ApprenNet programs is to provide a way for aspiring professionals to get a taste of the real-world experiences needed to be competitive in the job market. At least one LawMeets user, Randy Barr of the University of Virginia School of Law, has already credited the program with helping to earn a job offer, according to the Inquirer article. Although ApprenNet programs can teach in ways that traditional internships cannot, Okamoto did not describe them as something that can or should replace internships entirely.
“I don’t think LawMeets is a substitute for other forms of experiential learning. It is simply a way to offer comparable learning opportunities in more places more often,” Okamoto wrote.
The three grants that ApprenNet has received, totaling $680,000, have all come from the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program. This funding program supports research aimed at developing commercial technologies. One of several categories under the education branch of the program is entrepreneurship education.
“LawMeets serves this focus by improving the education of transactional lawyers, who are a critical element in any entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Okamoto wrote.
ApprenNet hopes to expand to more career fields and serve more learners in the coming years. The company has already planned events to expand the LawMeets experience beyond the regular exercises. There will be a large one-day LawMeets class in November to prepare law students across the country for the first national LawMeets competition in February. Another tentative idea for expansion would allow users to have profiles showing their video responses to employers.