How to Earn an Online Law Degree

Become a Practicing Lawyer Through Online Education

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Would you like to earn an online law degree from the comfort of your own home? It’s not easy, but it is possible. Earning an online law degree poses several unique challenges. No online law school is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), and 49 states require that law school graduates earn a degree accredited by the ABA in order to take the bar exam needed to practice law.

California is the one state that allows graduates from distance learning law schools to sit for the bar exam, though the examinees must meet certain requirements.

If you live in California, or if you’re willing to relocate, you may be able to become a practicing lawyer with an online law degree. Once you've worked as a lawyer for a few years, you may even be able to practice law in other states.

Earning an Online Law Degree and Practicing Law in California

In order to take the California Bar Exam, students must meet certain requirements set by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California. There are seven steps to becoming an accredited lawyer.

Step 1: Complete your pre-legal education. Most law students have already completed a bachelor’s degree. However, California’s minimum requirement is that students complete at least two years of college-level work (60 semester credits) with a GPA equal to or above that required for graduation. Students can also demonstrate that they have the intellectual ability of a second-year college student by passing certain examinations accepted by the Committee.

Step 2: Complete your legal education. Online law students may sit for the California Bar Exam once they have completed 864 hours of study for each year through a correspondence program that is registered with the Committee. The Committee does not accredit online law schools; instead, it allows distance learning schools to register with the Committee if the schools meet certain requirements.

Because the Committee won’t vouch for the quality of these programs, it is essential to thoroughly investigate any online law school before enrolling. The State Bar of California provides a list of the schools currently registered with the Committee.

Step 3: Register as a law student. Before taking any examinations, online law students must register with the State Bar of California. This may be done online through the Office of Admissions.

Step 4: Pass the First-Year Law Student’s Examination. Students must pass a four-hour test covering basic contracts, criminal law, and torts (concepts that are taught during a law student’s first year of study). The exam is administered in June and October of each year.

Step 5: Receive a positive moral character determination. All California lawyers must first prove that they have “good moral character” by undergoing an evaluation by the Committee. You will be asked to provide information, fingerprints, and references. The Committee will talk to your former employers, your online law school, and will check for driving and criminal records. The entire process can take four to six months, so get an early start.

Step 6: Pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination. This two-hour-and-five-minute exam will test your understanding of appropriate lawyer conduct.

You will answer sixty multiple choice questions regarding representation, privilege, contempt, and related issues. The exam is offered three times a year.

Step 7: Pass the Bar Exam. Finally, after completing your online law degree and fulfilling the other requirements, you may take the California Bar Exam. The bar exam is offered in February and July of each year and includes three days of essay questions, multi-state components, and practical exercises. Once you pass the bar, you are eligible to practice law in California.

How to Practice Law in Other States with an Online Law Degree

Once you’ve used your online law degree to practice law in California for a few years, you may be able to work as a lawyer in other states. Many states will permit California lawyers to take their state bar exams after five to seven years of practicing law.

Another option is to enroll in a Master of Law program accredited by the American Bar Association. Such programs take only one or two years to complete and will allow you to qualify to take the bar exam in other states.

The Drawbacks of Earning an Online Law Degree

Earning an online law degree can be an appealing option for professionals with existing work and family responsibilities. However, there are several drawbacks to studying law online. If you plan to practice law, you will probably be limited to working in California for several years. Additionally, law firms will know that your online law degree is not accredited by the American Bar Association. You should not expect to be a contender for the most prestigious, highest-paying jobs.

If you choose to pursue an online law degree, do so with realistic expectations. Studying law online is not for everyone, but for the right person it can be a worthwhile experience.