Throughout the law school search, prospective students will inevitably run into the distinction between an "accredited law school" and an "unaccredited law school". As discussed elsewhere on this site, ABA accreditation helps to ensure uniformity and to maintain high standards within legal education. The Council and the Accreditation Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar are the accrediting agency for programs that lead to the Juris Doctor degree. The Council is made up of 21 voting members that include law school deans and faculty members, judges, practicing lawyers, one law student, and no fewer than three public members. In order to become accredited, every law school must go through a rigorous process over multiple years.
Until recently, a prospective online student interested in a law degree would have only one option: an unaccredited online law school. While these law schools are centered on online learning and do ultimately confer a JD degree upon graduation, none of these schools are approved by the ABA. What does accreditation really matter to law students? Whether you receive your law degree from an ABA-accredited law school directly impacts where you can sit for the bar examination and, therefore, where you are licensed to practice law. A student who graduates from an accredited school is eligible to sit for every bar exam in the United States. What is more, 46 states limit bar admission eligibility to graduates of ABA-approved law schools.
Accreditation by the California State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners
In contrast, state bar examiners handle unaccredited law schools very differently; few states permit a student who receives a JD degree from an unaccredited law school to take the bar exam in that state. The prime example is California. California is unique in the many different ways it allows individuals to enter the legal profession. As part of several criteria required to practice law in California, you must pass the California bar exam and meet one of the following legal education requirements.1
- Three or four years of study at an ABA-accredited law school
- Four years of study at a State-Bar-registered, fixed-facility law school
- Four years of study with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation at a registered unaccredited law school, distance education law school, or correspondence law school
- Four years of study under the supervision of a state judge or attorney
- A combination of these programs
There are a number of law schools in California that are not accredited by the ABA but are accredited by the State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners. In addition, due to a recent rule change by the State Bar of California, certain state-accredited law schools are now permitted to teach their JD programs entirely online. If you know for certain that you only want to sit for the California bar exam and therefore do not have to worry about eligibility in connection with another state’s bar exam, these online law schools may be of interest. However, as with the rest of the admissions process, it is important to do thorough research. Some of the California schools that are accredited by the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners but not by the ABA are currently on probation by the Committee of Bar Examiners because the law school’s bar exam passage rate is insufficient; if these schools fail to increase their bar exam passage rate, their state accreditation may be terminated.
It is also worth noting that the California bar exam is arguably the hardest bar exam in the country, so while there are multiple ways of fulfilling California's legal study requirement, you will still be subject to the same rigorous exam as those law students who received their JD degree from an ABA-accredited school.
ABA-Accredited Hybrid JD Programs
- The first hybrid JD program, a combination of online and on-campus instruction, to be offered by an ABA-accredited law school was Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Hybrid J.D., which was rolled out in January 2015. Based on the success of that hybrid JD program (now known as the Blended Learning Program) other hybrid programs soon emerged.
- In the fall of 2019, The University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law launched its Hybrid Juris Doctor Program; it is the only ABA-approved, part-time hybrid JD program with a focus in intellectual property, technology and information law.
- Shortly thereafter, Syracuse University College of Law launched its JDinteractive program, which combines synchronous and asynchronous learning along with on-campus courses and externship opportunities. Syracuse University College of Law has since become the first ABA-accredited law school to offer an online joint JD/MBA degree program in collaboration with the Whitman School of Management.
- The University of Dayton School of Law also started its Online Hybrid J.D. Program in 2019. The program mixes asynchronous and synchronous learning styles allowing students considerable flexibility.
- In the fall of 2020, the University of Akron School of Law introduced its Blended Online Juris Doctor program, which allows part-time students to attend classes in person only two nights per week and complete all remaining coursework online during the first two years of the four-year program.
A number of other accredited law schools have revised current JD programs or launched new programs to provide a hybrid option for prospective law students. As the technology continues to improve (and the public’s familiarity with tools like Zoom continues to grow), it is highly likely that new hybrid JD programs will continue to emerge.
ABA-Accredited Online JD Programs
Even with the advancements in distance education and online learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not until 2021 that the ABA approved an online law degree program at an accredited school. (For clarity, there is still no accredited online law school—i.e., an ABA-accredited school that offers online learning only.) In fall 2022, St. Mary’s University School of Law will launch the first fully-online Juris Doctor program approved by the ABA. This will initially be a five-year pilot program with 25 students in the first cohort.2 It is expected that St. Mary's University School of Law's online program, which is a part-time JD program, will take about four years to complete. Tuition for the online program will be similar to tuition for the school's traditional part-time JD program; however, online students will be able to save money on transportation, moving, and other expenses tied to an in-person or hybrid JD program. Ultimately, this new JD program will allow law students to obtain their degree without having to move to San Antonio, TX. Every online student will also have the opportunity to partake in experiential learning and pro bono opportunities just like their in-person peers. St. Mary's Law was well-positioned to be able to offer the first online law program of this type, since it had launched an online master's degree program five years prior, which, among other things, meant that the law school already had an online learning management system. In addition, the law school already had a yearly assessment in place that can track the progress of each student in real-time3.
Online Master’s Degrees and Certificate Programs
If you are interested in pursuing a legal career but are not prepared to make the financial or time commitment required to obtain a law degree, there are a number of options available that may be a better fit. You may want to explore a role as a paralegal or legal assistant; there are a variety of online legal studies programs (both certificate programs and master’s degree programs) that cater to these professions. The right online legal studies program will give you a foundation in legal research and legal writing that will prove invaluable professionally. As always, make sure you do your homework—ask experienced paralegals about their educational background (many paralegals arrive at firms straight from their undergraduate university while others may have taken an online class in paralegal studies). In addition, you may want to reach out to legal personnel at different law firms to ask what they look for when hiring a paralegal or legal assistant.
Online LLM Programs
If you have already obtained your law degree but want to take advantage of the opportunity to heighten your legal expertise through an online program, consider whether a Master of Laws (LLM) might be helpful. An LLM will allow you to focus on a specific area of the law such as immigration law or environmental law. The University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law is one of the few schools to offer an LLM in international criminal law and justice. This LLM program is asynchronous and can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis. All graduates of the Online Hybrid J.D. Program at the University of Dayton School of Law are given the opportunity to an LLM for no additional tuition. The LLM program at the University of Dayton School of Law allows you to focus in a particular area such as criminal law or social justice; students are also welcome to create their own focus area.