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Online Education: A New Frontier for Law School?

Jun 27, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

Distance education and law school have a long and storied connection. The self-taught lawyer was common in frontier days, when many new lawyers learned through correspondence courses and studying law on their own or under the guidance of a more experienced lawyer.

If you want to earn your law degree online today, however, you’re out of luck—at least if you want to become a lawyer. That’s because the American Bar Association only allows students from approved law schools to sit for the bar exam. Among the criteria, approved law schools are not allowed to count more than 12 credits of distance education toward a Juris Doctor degree - make sure you check with the school's website or online college reviews to find out which schools will accept online credits.

This may look like a hopeless situation for prospective lawyers who want to study online. But there are a few signs that online education is slowly—very slowly—gaining acceptance in the law industry.

Law Student

In some states, holders of Masters degrees in law are also allowed to sit for the bar—but in most cases, this is not true of those who hold Masters degrees from an online program.





You can earn a law degree entirely online through Concord Law School, based in California—but you can’t sit for the bar. Still, this law degree is useful for other careers within the justice system. And while the American Bar Association’s rules may seem monolithic, in actuality they’re influenced heavily by state regulations. For instance, in California, you can sit for the bar even if you earned your Juris Doctor online through Concord Law School.

In addition, the University of Washington, which runs the seventh-highest ranked public law school in the country, has recently announced it will offer an entire Master’s degree online in United States law. The degree is designed for foreign students practicing overseas.

Under American Bar Association rules, holders of this new degree will not be able to sit for the bar—in most cases. In some states, holders of Masters degrees in law are also allowed to sit for the bar—but in most cases, this is not true of those who hold Masters degrees from an online program.

There is a possibility, however, that students holding the degree will be able to sit for the California bar. That’s because California allows both Masters degree holders and those with degrees from online programs to take the bar exam.

Washington University isn’t the only university to make inroads into online education. Vermont Law School offers an online Masters degree in environmental law and policy*; American Studies University offers a Masters in Legal Studies**, and you can earn several law degrees, including a Juris Doctor, at Taft University***.

If you’re considering enrolling in an online school for a law degree, bear in mind that many schools will claim to be nationally or regionally accredited—or may use the term “fully accredited” in their marketing materials. This may be completely true—regional and national accreditation, however, do not mean that graduates of this school can sit for the bar. Only graduates from schools approved by the American Bar Association have that privilege, and currently, no online program is approved—except in the state of California.  Click here for more information on college accreditation and how it works.

So far, it’s almost impossible to become a practicing lawyer in the United States through online education—unless you plan to practice only in California. However, more and more law schools are beginning to offer Masters degrees and even full Juris Doctors online—it’s no longer unusual, and thousands of students graduate each year with these degrees. With the improvement of online education technologies, the possibility of fully interactive online classes, and increased demand from students, it’s likely that the American Bar Association will have to come around eventually.


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