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3 Tips for Choosing an Online Law Program

IN RECENT YEARS, THE popularity of online degrees has grown; from health care and business to science, remote degrees are widely available in almost every discipline – except law.

Traditionally, the American Bar Association limited the number of distance education credits applied toward earning a J.D. to 15. Given that law schools typically require 85-90 credits to graduate, one could not obtain a J.D. from an ABA-accredited institution entirely online.

Practically speaking, online law programs were left open to students in the few states – most notably California – whose bar associations did not require graduation from an accredited school.

Last year, however, the ABA relaxed its standards for online education. The number of online credits allowed to be taken remotely has increased to a third of the graduation requirement, including 10 in the first year of the program.

In February 2018, the ABA approved Syracuse University’s College of Law JDinteractive program, a hybrid online and in-person program uniquely structured to include fully interactive online sessions – some which students log into live at a scheduled time, and some which students can complete at their convenience.

Beginning with the January 2019 semester, Syracuse became the first law school to launch an ABA-accredited program featuring these live online classes. Students must still complete 12 credits in-person on Syracuse’s campus – through short, skills-focused intensive residencies held during the first week of the student’s law school education, a second week during the second semester and four long weekends scheduled at the student’s convenience over the remainder of his or her time in law school.

With these recent changes, it’s likely other schools will follow suit in the near future and launch ABA-accredited hybrid online law programs. Here are three things an applicant interested in pursuing an online law program should consider.

Be aware that reputation matters. Yes, online learning offers flexibility at the expense of some live interaction with the instructor, putting a dent in one of the lynchpins of legal education – the Socratic method. Nevertheless, the quality of the teaching is still largely correlated to the quality of the instructors, and higher-ranked law schools are more likely to have the better professors.

Not only will the student get a better experience, employers typically equivocate a better, more reputable school with better education, enhancing the students’ job prospects.

Pay attention to the focus areas. Already, schools offer online programs in specific areas, from business law to environmental law.

A law student targeting a career in a specific field would therefore want to pick a program tailor-made to his or her career goals rather than a more general one, signaling to potential employers he or she has extensive academic experience in that area.

In this context, it’s important to distinguish between a full master’s degree – an LL.M. – and a selection of courses taken as part of your J.D. degree. The former enables students to obtain the entire degree online, earning them a diploma displaying the specific concentration. It does not need ABA accreditation, but typically requires the student to already have a J.D., or a foreign equivalent.

Conversely, the latter does not earn the taker of the classes a diploma or any formal recognition by itself, but rather involves a heavy course load in a specific area. Therefore, a prospective student should research which concentrations the online portion of the school’s curriculum offers, as not all classes are offered online, and strategize his or her school selection accordingly.

Seek hands-on experience. One of the recent points of emphasis in many law schools is working in small groups and clinics, aimed at giving students a better sense of what life as an attorney would be like.

Because of the lack of real-life interaction, it’s especially important for an online student to seek programs offering such opportunities, whether as part of a live seminar with fellow online learners or through working in clinics and on externships. Doing so would help alleviate concerns a prospective employer might have regarding that student’s practical experience.

The primary emphasis is the marketability of the student after graduation. Online law programs are still very new, and as expected in a more traditional profession, employers may be more suspicious of the schools and the quality of teaching. Therefore, it is in the online student’s best interest to take every advantage possible to better compete with alumni of traditional law programs.

With more hybrid and mostly remote programs expected to pop up in the next few years, the prevalence – and acceptance – of alumni is sure to follow. But choosing the right programs is still of the utmost importance, just as with traditional law schools.

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