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Can I Earn a Law Degree Online?

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With the ever-increasing popularity of distance learning, you may be wondering whether you can earn your law degree online. The answer is yes, you can. Becoming a licensed attorney, however, is a bit more difficult with an online law degree than with a traditional one, so you should consider all the information below before deciding to enroll in an online law degree program.

What are online law degree programs like?

Online law degree programs generally take four years to complete; an academic year consists of between 48 and 52 consecutive weeks. Just as with traditional law school programs, online law schools have certain required courses and other electives, which vary by school. Most online law school classes "meet" virtually for class discussions, and the Socratic Method may even be used.

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, which is common in traditional law courses.

Can I become a lawyer with an online law degree?

In order to become a licensed attorney and be able to practice law, you must pass a state bar exam. Most states (all but California) require bar exam candidates to be graduates of ABA-accredited law schools. Currently no online law degree program is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), which means that graduates holding online law schools can't sit for the bar exam in any state except California.

Can I earn an online law degree and then practice in California?

If you are otherwise eligible to sit for the California bar exam, you may do so with an online law degree. California has specific requirements for those interested in practicing law there, which you can read more about in How to Become a Lawyer as an Online Law School Graduate.

Can I eventually practice in other states?

Maybe. Some states have "reciprocity" agreements that allow lawyers licensed in one state to be eligible to practice in another state after a certain number of years in practice. Usually you must practice law for at least five years before you become eligible for reciprocity.

Is there any other way I can practice where I like with an online law degree?

There are several options you can pursue that may allow you practice law in a state other than California:

  1. Practice in federal court. You may choose to practice only in federal courts; your California bar license would permit you to do that in any state.
  2. Appeal. You can also try to make a case to the bar examiners in your preferred jurisdiction that you should be able to sit for the bar exam; you'll need an extremely strong argument, but it's not impossible. In fact, in 2009, Ross Mitchell, a graduate of online Concord Law School, convinced the Massachusetts Supreme Court to allow him to sit for the state bar exam.
  3. Get another degree. Some states allow those who hold a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.), which takes between one and two years to complete, to sit for the bar exam.

Besides most likely being limited to practicing in California for at least five years, are there other drawbacks to earning an online law degree?

At this point in time, 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 expect top law firms to be knocking down your door with job offers.

That's not to say it can't happen, of course, but the odds would be against you as the holder of an online law degree.

Is an online law degree worth the time, money, and effort?

Only you can answer this question for yourself, but be sure to consider whether you're willing or able to practice in California for a while (assuming you pass the bar exam) and also take a good look at how much your online legal education will cost compared to the job opportunities that await you.

Be aware that the current legal job market is saturated with traditional law school graduates who are having a difficult time securing legal positions, so the job outlook for online law graduates is probably even poorer.

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