Guide to an Online Law Education

Library bookshelf with student

"Law school" -- for many people, the phrase conjures up images of ivied halls, dour professors, thick casebooks, and, above all, shelling out heaps of money. While it can still be difficult to study law or become a licensed attorney outside that well-worn track, the situation is evolving, and you can be a part of it.

Law Education Over the Internet: How It Works

Typically, two main types of law degree are available online: The main Juris Doctor (J.D.), which is necessary to become an attorney in general practice, and the Legum Magister (Master of Laws, LL.M.) that certifies your knowledge of a legal specialty. You'll need an existing undergraduate degree to start either track.

Once you register and the classes you enroll in get started, you can begin accessing course content:

  • "All of our handouts and assignments are available online," reports Daryl Fisher-Ogden, J.D., Ph.D., Academic Dean of Abraham Lincoln University. "We also provide live lectures over streaming video and 'digichat' instant messaging with professors, as well as lots of telephone consultation and email."
  • Our material "is available online through standard browsers and sent out to students," says Robert Strouse, J.D., Associate Dean of William Howard Taft University.
  • Peter Kochenberger, Executive Director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut, tells me that for their LL.M. in Insurance Law (currently the only such program in the world), classes are carried "live over the Internet, and students can communicate during those classes over the phone."

Most programs will also require you to buy some physical casebooks from online bookstores. "The law environment has been slow to move to e-books," laments Barry Currier, Dean of Concord Law School. Fisher-Ogden mentions that although ALU students will need casebooks, they also have access to Westlaw, which is "equivalent to a nine-story law library." One exception is the Novus University School of Law, which eschews most casebooks in favor of LexisNexis. Novus' General Counsel, Jay Thomas, J.D., says their students go online to "research the cases and the conflicts between cases and jurisdictions."

Paying for Online Law Education

"The cost of legal education is one of the things that bothers me the most as a legal educator," says Currier.

Sadly, however, even though most of these schools are accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) http://www.detc.org, their students aren't eligible for most federal financial aid, and some don't even have financial-aid offices. But other funding might be available, depending on the institution and on your circumstances, including:

  • Loans through SLM Corporation, better known as "Sallie Mae"
  • Private loans or loans from the school itself
  • Tuition reimbursement from your employer
  • Occasionally, grants or scholarships from the school
  • Rarely, external scholarships

Learning Law Online and Your Career

Here's the sticky wicket. Standard 306 (Distance Education) of the Standards for Approval of Law Schools of the American Bar Association contains the following provisions:

  • (d) A law school shall not grant a student more than four credit hours in any term, nor more than a total of 12 credit hours, toward the J.D. degree for courses qualifying under this Standard
  • (e) No student shall enroll in courses qualifying for credit under this Standard until that student has completed instruction equivalent to 28 credit hours toward the J.D. degree
  • (f) No credit otherwise may be given toward the J.D. degree for any distance education course

Furthermore, Section 6-8 of the bylaws of the American Association of Law Schools requires its member institutions to maintain a "brick-and-mortar" physical library. Because of these requirements, none of the primarily online J.D. programs are currently ABA or AALS accredited or sanctioned, meaning that graduating from such a program doesn't qualify you to take the bar exam in most states.

The exception is California, which Fisher-Ogden singles out as having a "uniquely open" system. People with J.D.s earned primarily online are free to take the California bar; if you pass, you have several options:

  • You can start a law career in California
  • You can practice law for five years in California, then take the attorney's bar exam in one of the other states where that professional experience is considered to qualify you
  • You can take additional credits at an ABA-accredited school, then take the attorney's bar exam in one of the other states where the accredited learning is considered to qualify you

Besides the "California route," Currier mentions other alternatives that online J.D. graduates have: "You can go into patent law, practice certain specialties in federal courts, or become an in-house corporate counsel." When asked whether the policies of the accrediting bodies are liable to change, to allow more recognition of (and wider opportunities for) graduates of online J.D. programs in the short or long term, Currier replies, "Yes -- the only question is, in which term? If people look at what we're doing, they'll see that it's sound. We just have to get their attention."

Online LL.M. programs don't have this difficulty, says Kochenberger: "Accreditation is more flexible than for the J.D." He adds that many students in UConn's insurance LL.M. "already work in insurance" and are pursuing the degree for "professional development." Graduates of the program, he says, can find work with "risk-management departments, law firms representing or suing insurance companies, or insurance regulators."

Conclusion

Given the challenges that can face students pursuing this type of education, why would you want to do so? "Legal education is the most valuable education you can get after a bachelor's degree, even more so than an M.B.A.," asserts Thomas. And why do it online?

  • Cost: As Fisher-Ogden observes, "You can get an entire education for the cost of one year" at a major law school.
  • Convenience: "Most students continue to be employed full-time, which is virtually impossible in a residential setting," says Strouse, and they "don't have to disrupt their family situation."
  • Interaction: "You're engaged in a program that involves more than just sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk," Currier points out. Online students get "more feedback, more interaction with professors, and content that's archived for 24/7 retrieval."

Fisher-Ogden captures the raison d'ĂȘtre of online law schools when she says, "The law is an integral part of American society, so having legal knowledge is a way to help people. We supply legal education to those who might otherwise be unable to get it." In other words: In democracies with a rule of law, there's simply no more democratic way of learning the rules.

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