Whether you are a military veteran, a caregiver for children or older relatives, or a resident of an area that does not have access to a legal education, there are online law school programs tailored to set you up for success.
Choose the Best Online J.D. Degree for You
Accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA) remains critical for law schools. Unless you graduate from an ABA-approved law school, you likely will not be eligible to sit for the bar exam in your state. When it comes to distance learning, brand recognition is also important; future employers, especially law firms, want to know that a student has been held to rigorous academic standards.
As you begin evaluating law schools with online JD programs, make sure to ask yourself these key questions:
Law school is a long-term investment. It takes multiple years to complete a JD program, and the cost is significant. After spending all of the time and money required, you want to be sure that you are eligible to sit for the bar exam of your choice.
Programs with a longer history offer faculty with greater experience in online teaching methods. Also, the more established the program, the larger the alumni pool that can serve as a wonderful professional resource.
If you have children or need to work while you attend law school, a part-time program may make more sense for you, even if it takes longer to earn your JD degree.
As is so often the answer in law school, it depends. Traditionally, law school is completed in three years. However, there are JD programs that can be completed in two years—students take courses throughout the calendar year (with no break in the summer) to fit in all of the credit hours. At the upper end, a part-time program may take as long as four years to complete.
Online learning is presented in two formats: synchronous content and asynchronous content. Synchronous content requires students and their professor to interact in real-time. Classes meet over video conferencing at specific times each week and students are expected to log in and participate. Asynchronous content allows students to work whenever they like and usually takes the form of pre-recorded lectures and homework materials. Those thriving on interpersonal communication will prefer synchronous coursework. Asynchronous coursework is a huge advantage to students who need flexibility. Some law school programs use both styles, others just offer asynchronous online classes.
As with residential programs, different online programs are stronger in different legal fields. Some programs specialize in a specific area such as intellectual property.
The ABA has only recently approved the first fully online JD program; most online programs still include an on-campus component. Since the on-campus element varies dramatically among programs, from classes on campus once a week to multi-week intensive sessions, make sure to familiarize yourself with each program’s in-person requirements (if any).
If you are an experiential learner, you may want to look into an online JD program that has an externship requirement and will help you with placement. Externships are also a great opportunity to broaden your professional network.
The Role of the ABA
To better understand online education in the legal sector, it is best to start with ABA-accreditation—what is it and why does it matter?
Since 1952, the American Bar Association (or ABA) has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the nation’s accreditation agency for JD degree programs in the U.S. According to the ABA, “Law schools that are ABA-approved provide a legal education that meets a minimum set of standards promulgated by the Council and Accreditation Committee of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.”1 Perhaps most importantly, every jurisdiction in the U.S. has agreed that students who graduate from ABA-approved law schools are eligible to sit for every bar exam in the U.S. This point goes to the heart of the ABA’s power—if you attend a law school that is not accredited by the ABA, you may not be allowed to take the bar exam in your state. To have put in all of that time and effort, taken all of those courses, and sweated through all of those exams only to find out that you are not eligible to sit for the bar exam is a risk you cannot afford to take.
ABA Requirements for Online JD Degree Programs
So how does the ABA govern online learning in law school? Until fairly recently, online or “distance education,” as it has been referred to by the ABA, was governed by Standard 306. Then in the summer of 2020 the ABA adopted a resolution. amending its Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools that directly impacted how it addresses distance education. Among the changes, Standard 306 was deleted in its entirety. A major result of this change is that it is arguably easier now for a law school to have its distance education program approved by the ABA.16
Historically, the ABA permitted accredited law schools to offer very few online courses: up to only 15 credit hours of distance education and, even then, only in the second and third years of law school. (A Juris Doctor program generally requires somewhere between 83 and 90 credit hours, traditionally spread across three years.) Then, in August of 2018, the House of Delegates of the ABA adopted a rule that increased the number of distance education credits an ABA-approved law school could offer.2 The new rule allowed up to one-third of the total credits required for the law degree to be taught online (generally, 30 credits). In addition, 10 of those credits could be offered in the first year of law school. Following this change, a number of accredited law schools materially increased their online offerings. The biggest change to online JD programs, however, came in September of 2021 when it was announced that St. Mary’s University School of Law would become the first law school accredited by the ABA to offer a JD program entirely online. St. Mary’s University School of Law’s program will start in fall 2022 with a limit of 25 students.17
The Impact of COVID-19 on Law School
The biggest change to online law school programs did not originate with the ABA, but rather with the COVID-19 pandemic. To facilitate social distancing during the crisis, universities all over the U.S. sent full-time and part-time students, across all disciplines, home in March of 2020. This massive shift left professors with no alternative but to teach school online.3 With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the ABA issued a memo in which it stated, “Distance learning often may be a good solution to emergencies or disasters that make the law school facilities unavailable or make it difficult or impossible for students to get to the law school.”4 By April 1, 2020, all ABA-accredited law schools in the United States had moved entirely online.5 As Forbes proclaimed, “The coronavirus has turbocharged law’s move to a virtual workforce and distance learning.”6
While hybrid and blended learning legal programs were uniquely well-positioned to handle the crises, residential law school programs faced challenges making the change so quickly. Mitchell Hamline School of Law, which began its online program in 2015, helped other institutions transition their on-campus law courses to online coursework.7 Mitchell Hamline School of Law was the first ABA-accredited law school to offer a hybrid on-campus/online JD program. The program benefitted from five years of honing the online school experience for both students and professors before the COVID-19 crises forced everyone to rely on distance learning. Though the hybrid program at Mitchell Hamline School of Law traditionally provides for an equal distribution of in-person and online classes, due to the continued concerns for the safety of its students and faculty, the school elected to have its fall semester classes in 2020 entirely online.
Requirements to Apply to an Online JD Degree Program
The good news is that the application requirements for online JD programs and residential programs are essentially the same. You will need to:
Obtain bachelor’s degree from a college or university.
Take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or, if the school you are considering accepts it, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
Set up an account with the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) and submit your applications through the LSAC portal.
In addition to your LSAT score and undergraduate grade point average (GPA), a law school will review the trend of your grades as an undergraduate, your writing ability (as evidenced in the LSAT Writing Sample), and any professional experience. Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center also notes that, when considering applicants for its FlexTime JD Program (a part-time online program), the admission team will also evaluate whether the prospective student demonstrates the ability to be a self-starter.
Online Programs: Part-time vs. Full-time
Another key question to ask yourself is whether you will be better served by a full-time or part-time online Juris Doctor program. While a part-time program will take longer to complete, part-time students generally have greater flexibility than their full-time peers and can continue to work outside of school. The Weekend JD at Loyola University Chicago School of Law offers a combination of on-campus and online classes, with in-person classes generally meeting every other weekend. Similarly, the Professional Part-Time JD Program at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law has on-campus classes every other weekend and up to a third of its course offerings online. At both law schools, part-time students are taught by the same professors who teach the full-time students. A student in Sturm’s Professional Part-Time JD Program will also have access, either in person or remotely, to all of the student support services provided by the school, such as academic advising, academic support, and career services.
You should reach out to alums of various online JD programs to get their perspectives.
- Did their school provide them with opportunities to get hands-on experience?
- What was the hiring process like after graduation?
- Did their graduating class go on to work at law firms or pursue less traditional legal paths?
In this case, more information is always helpful!
Law school programs with a significant online component vary in cost, but financial aid may be an option.
In addition, online law school programs offer students multiple ways to save money. The Reduced-Residency Juris Doctor program offered at Vermont Law School allows students to earn a law degree with only 18 months of study on campus. The remainder of the program consists of online law courses and a “Semester-in-Practice” externship away from the school’s campus. Thanks to the flexibility that comes with online course offerings, students can complete their JD degree while living at home and maintaining a job.
In addition to remote courses and residential courses, some online JD degree programs also offer externship opportunities. This kind of experiential learning gives students a chance to apply their legal training in a real-world setting and to experience what life is like at law firms and in other professional environments. In the JDinteractive program at Syracuse University College of Law, a student’s externship consists of a placement in a legal practice setting along with an accompanying seminar.9 At the University of Dayton School of Law, the externship lasts the entire final semester and consists of working on-site in a legal setting for a minimum of 192 hours.10
Schools that provide an externship opportunity broaden the professional networks of their students and set them up for a variety of careers after graduation.
Online JD Degree Programs and the Bar Exam
If you are applying to an online JD program, you should check with the jurisdiction in which you plan to seek admission to the bar, in order to ensure graduation from that program will mean you are eligible to take that state’s bar exam. A state’s bar exam eligibility rules may be even stricter than the ABA’s standards. For example, New York does not permit JD students to take more than 15 credits online (out of a minimum of 83 credits) and further restricts them from taking any online courses until they have earned at least 28 credits—effectively prohibiting online classes in the first year of law school. Failure to comply with these rules means that a law school graduate will be ineligible to sit for the New York bar exam.11
Not every state requires that a law student graduate from an ABA-accredited law school in order to sit for the bar exam. What is more, six states permit their bar exam applicants to have attended an unaccredited online law school as their means of domestic legal study: California, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont.13 California was the first state to accredit law schools that are entirely online—a considerable step beyond what is permitted by the ABA.14 The National Conference of Bar Examiners provided the following commentary in their 2020 edition of the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements for a few of these states:15
Should you wish to pursue another degree after graduating from law school, there are a number of different master of laws degree programs (known as an LLM) available online. While a Juris Doctor is a general law degree that incorporates courses that are critical for all attorneys to understand, such as criminal law, an LLM degree provides law school graduates with expertise in a specific area, such as tax law. An LLM also gives foreign-trained lawyers an opportunity to become familiar with American jurisprudence. As with the JD degree, there are some restrictions.