Do Your Due Diligence at Online Law School

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Attending an online law school is not quite as simple as for most of the online degree programs that are currently available for other fields. If you want to practice law as an attorney after earning a degree at an online law school, you must be prepared to deal with some extra conditions and restrictions on where, when and how you may practice as a lawyer.

There are plenty of accredited online schools for students looking for a paralegal degree, but if you are hoping to earn your Juris Doctor—a degree every lawyer must earn—online, you should know that despite a school's accreditation, no online law schools are currently approved by the American Bar Association and in every state except California, you must graduate from a law school approved by the ABA in order to sit for the bar exam.

California has a provision that allows students to earn their law degree online from an accredited school. What's the catch? First, you'll need to register with the State Bar of California when you begin your legal studies (all law students need to do this in California if they want to eventually take the California Bar Examination).

Additionally, you'll need to pass the First Year Law Student Examination (FYLSE), also known as the "Baby Bar," after your first year of study. This is a rigorous exam that is administered in July and October and covers first year subject matter such as contracts, criminal law and torts. Students will be required to travel to one of three California locations to take the FYLSE. You'll then need to apply to sit for the California Bar Exam once you complete your legal education, and if you pass it you'll only be qualified to practice law in California.

So, what if you don't want to work and live in California? There are a few alternatives that will allow you to practice law elsewhere even if you've earned your degree online:

  • Practice law in California for at least five years and then apply to take the bar exam in another state.
  • Pursue an additional two-year LLM, or a Master of Laws, degree program.
  • Some states allow you to work with a state-licensed attorney in an apprenticeship program.
  • Appeal to the admitting authority in the state in which you would like to practice to sit for that state's bar exam.
  • Pass the California Bar Exam and practice law in a federal court in another state.

How Online Law School Programs Work

An online degree takes four years to complete, which is the same amount of time as attending a traditional law school part time (attending a traditional law school full time normally takes three years). As with all online programs, most classes are "asynchronous," meaning you and your professor won't need to be online at the same time. However, expect to find at least a few "synchronous" classes where students and professors will meet online and discuss legal issues and cases.

While many distance learning training programs allow students to enroll at any given time, some online law schools restrict applications and admissions to specific times during the year. Be sure to check your chosen school's admission policy carefully.

Not all of the people who choose to earn an online law degree plan to become a lawyer. Some are hoping to enhance an existing career and are seeking a graduate degree in order to advance in position or salary. For example, a law degree can be useful in human resources, sports management, health care or patent law, and professionals in these fields can benefit greatly from the curriculum that a law program offers. By acquiring the legal skills that are applicable to the positions they hold, they can become an invaluable asset to an employer.

Common Law School Degrees

There are several types of degrees available for students who are seeking an online law school degree. One thing is certain, however: if you want to become a lawyer, you'll need to earn a Juris Doctor, which is a professional doctorate rather than a research-based doctorate, in order to practice law.

  • Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies (BSLS) – The BSLS prepares students for work in several legal environments and it focuses on legal knowledge, skills and ethical issues. Programs associated with this degree address the organization, function and processes of American lawmaking systems as well as teaching legal analysis, writing, research and computer competence. The BSLS will help you prepare for law school or a career in business, government or health care.
  • Master of Science in Law (MSL) – The MSL provides skills to enhance existing knowledge from a person's current profession and does not prepare students for a new legal career. It is designed for people who work with lawyers on a regular basis, such as auditors, CPAs, government employees or those whose jobs deal with laws and legal constraints, such as a child welfare worker or healthcare administrator.
  • Master of Laws (LLM) – The LLM is an advanced academic degree usually focusing upon research. The LLM is a post-graduate degree program that generally takes one year to complete and involves very little classroom time. It is usually earned by those who want to develop more concentrated expertise in a particular area of law. A Master of Comparative Law (MCL) covers the same territory and will be granted instead at the student's request, after the completion of post-graduate work.
  • Doctor of Comparative Law, Doctor of Judicial Science (DCL, SJD) – The DCL and SJD doctorates are research and academic based and are comparable to a PhD.
  • Juris Doctor (JD) – The JD is required for students who plan to become a lawyer. Generally this is a three-year full-time program at a traditional law school and is the only law degree recognized by all 50 states as being the prerequisite for taking any state bar exam. As noted above, California is the only state that allows JD holders from an online law school to take the bar exam.

How to Find an Online Law School

When you begin to look for an online law school, be sure to do your own due diligence. Consider your goals and choose a school that suits your personal style. If you plan on practicing law in California, be sure to research whether that school fulfills the minimum registration requirements by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California. Consider the following questions when choosing an online law school:

  • Is the institution accredited?
  • How many full-time instructors are on the faculty and what are their credentials and merits? Are they accessible to online students?
  • How do the courses offered compare to those at a traditional law school?
  • What percentage of students graduate and sit for the bar exam, and what percentage of those students who graduated actually passed the bar exam?
  • What do graduates and current students say about the program?