Can I Earn a Law Degree Online?

Online Law Degrees Have a Few Disadvantages

Online Student
Hero Images/Getty Images

With the ever-increasing popularity of distance learning, you might be wondering whether you can earn a law degree online. Actually, you can. Becoming a licensed attorney is a bit more difficult with an online law degree than with a traditional one, however. 

What Are Online Law Degree Programs Like?

Online law degree programs generally take four years to complete. An academic year consists of 48 to 52 consecutive weeks.

Just as with traditional law school programs, online law schools have certain required courses and other electives which vary by school. Most online law school classes "meet" virtually for class discussions, and the Socratic method may even be used.

One big difference between traditional law degree programs and online degree programs is that many distance learning courses have more than just one large exam at the end of the course that determines a student's grade. This is more common in traditional law courses.

Can I Become a Lawyer With an Online Law Degree?

You must pass a state bar exam to become a licensed attorney and practice law. Most states – in fact, all but California – require bar exam candidates to be graduates of law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Currently, no online law degree program is accredited by the ABA, which means that graduates holding online law schools can't sit for the bar exam in any state except California.

But if you become licensed in California, you can then take the bar exam in Vermont or Wisconsin even if you attended an online law school. And at least one online law school grad successfully took on his state and was granted the right to take the bar exam there, so times are changing. Ross Mitchell, a graduate of online Concord Law School, convinced the Massachusetts Supreme Court to allow him to sit for the state bar exam in 2009.

Some states have reciprocity agreements that allow lawyers licensed in one state to practice in another state after a certain number of years. Usually, you must practice law for at least five years before you can become eligible for reciprocity.

Is There Any Other Way I Can Practice With an Online Law Degree?

If you choose to practice only in federal courts, your California bar license would permit you to do that in any state. And some states allow those who hold Master of Laws degrees (LL.M.) to sit for the bar exam. This degree takes from one to two years to complete. 

Are There Any Other Drawbacks to Earning an Online Law Degree?

Many legal employers still aren't fully on the distance learning bandwagon. The legal profession is reluctant to changes in long-standing traditions, so don't expect top law firms to be knocking down your door with job offers. That's not to say it can't happen, of course, but the odds would probably be against you as the holder of an online law degree. Of course, you can always hang out your shingle on your own as a solo practitioner.