In March 2020, all traditional law schools found themselves engaging in online learning. Over the next academic year, most law programs remained at least partially online. In the current academic year, nearly all law schools are back in person. But after a year of law schools being online, the question now is, can a law degree be done completely online? The answer is complicated.
Why are there so few online law programs?
Outside of Covid-19 precautions, the options for a JD program that is completely online are limited. While online law schools exist, they are not accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA only allows students at accredited law schools to earn up to one third of their credits online. However, the ABA does provide special permission for some schools to let students take as much as half of their credits online.
Regardless of the merits of an online law degree, the lack of ABA accreditation prevents full online programs from being considered mainstream. Non-ABA accredited schools have a bad reputation in part because they present limited career options. The state bar of California is the only state bar that allows students to attend a non-ABA accredited school and immediately sit for the bar upon graduation. However, in order to sit for the bar, graduates of non-ABA accredited schools need to pass a smaller version of the bar examination after their first year, of which many students fail. In July 2019, only 14.4% of graduates from unaccredited schools passed the California state bar exam.
About 30 states do allow graduates of non-ABA accredited law schools to practice law, but these states require the graduates to practice law in another state for as long as 10 years before having the opportunity to join the state’s bar.
Additionally, since non-ABA accredited schools require lower GPAs and LSAT scores and many have poor reputations, the career prospects of graduates of non-accredited law schools are typically much lower than those of accredited law schools. So, while someone may be attracted to a non-ABA accredited school because it is easier to get into and costs less, it can all be for nothing if the student cannot take the bar or find a job after graduation.
Given the limitation on non-ABA accredited law schools, it is unlikely that many law schools will offer an online program until the ABA fully approves online programs.
What online programs exist?
As noted above, 100 percent online programs are not outright banned; they just are not ABA accredited. In 2020, CA approved three completely online JD programs to be able to take its bar.
However, given the shortcomings of attending a non-ABA accredited school, these three programs are likely a non-starter for most prospective students. However, there are “hybrid” options that are ABA accredited. In 2013, the ABA approved its first hybrid law school program, William Mitchell College of Law, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since then, the program has merged to become the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and it continues to offer hybrid and distance learning options.
As of 2021, there are nine hybrid JD programs. The hybrid models vary. Some, like Seton Hall University, allow for online courses during the week but require students to take in-person classes over eight weekends per semester. Southwestern Law School mandates in-person classes two evenings per week. Syracuse University provides a mix of coursework in person and classes online. All of these programs take between three and four years to complete.
Interestingly, many other law schools are offering some component of online learning. Washington University in St. Louis, which is currently ranked at the 16th best law school in the US, allows for their JD students to receive certifications or even take electives online. The University of Southern California’s law school has an online Master of Laws (LLM) degree program. Even New York University Law School, which is in the T-14, offers a Tax LLM degree program online.
Several reputable law schools provide online programs like “Masters of Legal Studies” and certifications open to non-law students. These programs have attracted controversy. In 2019, a non-ABA accredited school, Concord Law School, offered an “Executive JD” online. This program was three years like a regular JD degree program. Many students enrolled and thought they would be able to take the bar after three years, only to discover that their degree did not make them eligible.
While a master’s degree in Legal Studies is typically more reputable than the “Executive JD.” In general, some have expressed concern about whether a Master of Legal Studies is worth its cost.
Paying for online law school
While the jury may still be out on the actual quality of the hybrid programs, there are some existing lessons in terms of how to pay for these hybrid JD degree programs. Many of the hybrid programs allow people to continue to work while attending law school. If someone can keep working while in law school that can prove to be a great way to pay for law school. On our list of 10 most affordable law schools, three of them were part-time programs.
Additionally, there is no indication that hybrid online law schools will cost more than regular law school, so the strategies employed to pay for regular law school, such as establishing a passive income, scholarships and careful budgeting, should prove just as successful in paying for hybrid law schools.
However, it is unclear whether the legal career prospects are as strong for hybrid programs as they are for in-person programs. One potential issue is that the list of law schools offering hybrid JD programs are not ranked that high. If you are looking for a Biglaw salary to pay off your loans, a hybrid program is even less likely to get you there than a traditional program.
The future of online law school
Some believe that ABA accredited online law schools are inevitable. These people point out that the ABA used to oppose any online courses, but in the last decade has relented.
Given the fact that most law students did classes online for at least part of the 2020-2021 school year, people have been forced to reflect on whether online education could become a bigger part of the law school experience. A Gallup poll found that between Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 alone, about 90 percent of law students had some of their classes online, and nearly 80 percent of students had most or all of their classes online. Among these students polled, only 2 percent said they had an online class before the pandemic.
However, the pandemic experience does show some limitations to online education for now. Gallup found that of the 48 percent of students who had most or all of their classes in person, 73 percent found their program “good” or “excellent.”
Interestingly, 64 percent of the first year law students who took all of their classes online rated their program as “good” or “excellent” (compared with just 43 percent of the second year and third year law students). There are two ways to look at this. One, is that the first year law students did not know any better, since they never had in-person classes. The other is that the first-year law students did not face a disruption in terms of transitioning from in-person to online programs, so future students who do their entire program online might have a better experience.
A fully online program
Despite the fact that the ABA does not allow any fully online JD programs right now, in late August 2021, the ABA revealed that it had approved St. Mary’s University School of Law to have a fully online program for Fall 2022. St. Mary’s says the school is a “five-year pilot program” and will start with a 25-student enrollment.
The program will cost $26,594 per year. It will allow students to take 50 percent of their classes in the form of asynchronous webinars that the students can watch at their convenience, while the other 50 percent will be virtual interactive classes in real time.
St. Mary’s Law Dean Patricia Roberts believes that the pandemic made the ABA more receptive to an online program. Roberts hopes that her school’s program will be a success and lead the way for more law schools to offer fully online enrollment options.
Innovation in education is nothing new. But given the significant amount of time and money that it costs to attend law school, all members of the legal education community should be careful with new developments to ensure that such changes produce the best results for students and the profession.
Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He has also worked in digital media in New York City and Washington D.C. The views in his pieces are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer.