Earning an Online Law Degree

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Students are able to earn law degrees online, however, online programs accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) are difficult to find. The field of law has been slow to keep up with the ever-increasing popularity of distance learning, and as of 2018, only four states allow students matriculating from online law schools to take the bar exam.

Structure of Online Programs

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 institution. Most online law school classes meet virtually for class discussions, provide lectures and texts for review, and have assignments and assessments that need to be completed.

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. One large exam is commonly found in more traditional courses held at on-campus law schools.

Bar Exam Eligibility

Candidates must pass a state bar exam to become a licensed attorney and practice law, and eligibility to even take the exam varies by state. As of the 2018 ABA guidelines, only three states—California, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico—recognize online law schools as an acceptable means of legal study for bar exam applicants. Schools including Boston University offer specific law programs (not J.D.) that are backed by the ADA, but as of fall 2018, only one school has earned accreditation by the ABA as a Live Online J.D. Program—Syracuse Law School.

One loophole that students might find useful is that if they pass the bar exam in one of those four states, they may be eligible to take the bar exam in another state, even if they attended an online law school. However, this is not possible in every state and other qualifications may be required. Some states have reciprocity agreements that allow lawyers licensed in one state to practice in another state after a set number of years. Usually, one must practice law for at least five years before becoming eligible for reciprocity, and it is not guaranteed.

Landing a Legal Job

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 most top law firms will be looking for ABA-accredited schools. Students holding online law degrees can always work as solo practitioners, but will not benefit from many of the advantages often found when working in a firm, including robust resources and a wide network of support and connections. 

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Fabio, Michelle. "Earning an Online Law Degree." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/online-law-degree-2154813. Fabio, Michelle. (2020, August 27). Earning an Online Law Degree. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/online-law-degree-2154813 Fabio, Michelle. "Earning an Online Law Degree." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/online-law-degree-2154813 (accessed March 31, 2023).