TL;DR / Key Takeaways
- The American Bar Association (ABA) oversees the law school accreditation process. In most cases, you will not be permitted to sit for the bar exam if you did not graduate from an ABA-accredited law school.
- Hybrid JD programs are a combination of in-person and online courses. These programs require a student to spend significantly less time on campus than traditional programs.
The ABA, Accreditation, and the Bar Exam
To begin with, what does it mean for a law school to be “accredited”? The accreditation process1 is overseen by the American Bar Association (ABA) and can take a number of years for a law school to complete. Accreditation is used to ensure a level of uniformity among law schools and to continually hold those schools to a high standard. Failure to meet the ABA’s standards can ultimately mean that a law school will lose its accreditation. All ABA-accredited law schools are listed here.
In fall 2022, the first JD program offered by an ABA-accredited law school that is entirely online will launch at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Previously, the ABA only permitted accredited law schools to provide up to one-third of their credits via “distance education” (i.e., online courses). While there are other JD programs delivered entirely through online courses, these programs are offered by unaccredited law schools.
The difference between ABA-accredited law schools and unaccredited law schools is significant for students. Graduates with a law degree from an accredited JD program are eligible to sit for the bar examination in every U.S. state. In contrast, graduates of unaccredited law schools are barred from taking the bar exam in most states.
To obtain a license to practice law, nearly all law school graduates are required to apply for bar admission through their state’s board of bar examiners. Generally, this board is an agency of the highest state court in the jurisdiction (occasionally, the board is tied to the state's bar association). One of the criteria for licensure is a demonstration of competence. If one is not already licensed in another state, competence is usually established by:
Requiring that an individual receive a JD degree from a law school that meets the ABA’s educational standards; and
Receiving a passing score on the bar exam.2
Therefore, it is imperative, when researching JD degree programs, to confirm that they are all ABA-accredited and that you will be eligible to sit for the bar exam. Otherwise, you risk not being licensed after spending years obtaining a legal education.
Hybrid JD Programs
Before COVID-19 forced ABA-accredited law schools to move online in the spring of 2020, four of those schools had previously applied for, and been granted, a variance from the ABA’s rules regarding distance education. Each of these law schools, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law, and University of Dayton School of Law, have a hybrid Juris Doctor program. A hybrid Juris Doctor program is a combination of online and in-person education. The hybrid JD degree program is just as rigorous as the on-campus program; however, a hybrid program gives its students considerably more flexibility. Hybrid law degree programs such as JDinteractive at Syracuse University College of Law, the Blended Learning program at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and the Online Hybrid JD at the University of Dayton School of Law only require students to come to campus for short periods a few times a year. This freedom from campus means that students who cannot live at school and are not within driving distance of a law school can now work towards a law degree. Limited time on campus also means that students can continue to work while pursuing their legal studies. One JD program, the Hybrid Juris Doctor program at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law caters specifically to working professionals in the intellectual property (IP) and technology sectors who want to transition to the legal profession.
In the summer of 2020, the ABA adopted resolutions that arguably make it easier for other ABA-accredited law schools to develop hybrid Juris Doctor programs. Since this resolution was initially proposed, Suffolk University Law School has received ABA approval to add a hybrid Juris Doctor program. In addition, St. Mary’s University School of Law has become the first ABA-accredited law school to offer an online JD program without any on-campus component.
Experiential learning is one way hybrid JD programs are able to meet the ABA’s standards. Externships and other forms of experiential learning allow students to apply their legal education in a real-world setting. The University of Dayton School of Law’s Online Hybrid J.D. program includes an externship as one of its graduation requirements. Likewise, Vermont Law School requires a Semester-in-Practice as part of its Reduced-Residency Juris Doctor program. Both of these externships are one semester long and allow students to further their education by working for legal practitioners in different areas. What is more, students receive credit towards their degree for participating in these externships.
In addition to the one-third limitation on distance education credits, the ABA also provides that up to one-third of required classroom minutes may be satisfied at “distance,” without counting as distance education credits.3 One result of this policy is that some classes can be taught both online and in person without counting towards the cap on distance education credits. The FlexTime JD Program offered at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center did not apply for a variance, nevertheless this part-time law degree program only requires its students to attend class in person 26 Sundays per year. The rest of the time, FlexTime JD students can pursue their degree online.
In order to apply to a hybrid JD program, you must have: (1) a bachelor’s degree by the time you wish to enroll in the program, and (2) taken the LSAT (in some cases, the GRE may be accepted instead).
Your application to any hybrid JD program at an accredited law school will need to be submitted through LSAC.org.
A law degree from a hybrid JD program is the same as one from a residential program. Your diploma will not specify that you graduated from a hybrid JD program.
If you are interested in taking the New York bar exam, keep in mind that, currently, New York only permits up to 15 credit hours of distance education courses.4 This bar exam eligibility policy is even more restrictive than the ABA’s present standards.