3 Tips for Choosing an Online J.D. Program

In September, the American Bar Association, the professional organization that sets legal education standards, approved a fully online J.D. program for the first time.

The new four-year program, at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, will begin next year with a class of 25. Advocates of more flexible legal education options will be carefully watching the pilot program as a potential breakthrough.

The move to remote teaching in response to the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends toward online education, but the ABA relaxed limits on remote legal education even before campuses shut down. In 2018, the ABA decided to allow one-third of a law school’s required credits to be taught online, effectively doubling the number of credits that J.D. students may take online.

The ABA has also granted exemptions to many programs, allowing a range of experimentation. In 2015, Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, introduced a “hybrid” J.D. program that blends online and in-person classes. In 2018, Syracuse University College of Law in New York began offering a “JDinteractive” flexible online J.D. program with brief residential periods.

[Read: What Is a J.D. Degree?]

At least 10 law schools offer partly online J.D. programs. Vermont Law School offers a “Reduced-Residency” J.D. program with in-person classes required only the first 12 months. Loyola University Chicago School of Law offers a part-time hybrid J.D. program with in-person classes every other weekend. Others with partially online J.D. programs include the University of Dayton School of Law and the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.

On a side note, law schools in colder climates seem to have taken the lead on distance learning. Perhaps their students dislike trudging through the snow?

Many law students may balk at the idea of paying full tuition for online law school classes. Some worry that law schools see online education as a cash cow, allowing them to accept more students at lower cost. Law schools insist that online law programs present a flexible option rather than a replacement for in-person programs, but that may change in time.

[Read: Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D.]

Undeniably, some law students are drawn to the convenience of joining class from their couch. Older law students may particularly appreciate part-time online law programs that don’t require them to move or leave their jobs. Online options may also appeal to law applicants with disabilities or weakened immune systems, as well as those who live in remote areas.

As the list of partly and fully online J.D. programs grows, applicants interested in pursuing an online law program should consider the following advice:

— Know that reputation still matters.

— Note focus areas.

— Prioritize hands-on experience.

Know That Reputation Still Matters

The quality of instruction may be even more relevant to online law programs than in-person ones. While there are good and bad teachers at every law school, higher-ranked law schools tend to attract superior professors.

Furthermore, since the value of an online law degree in job markets is still untested, participants may want to stick with more well-known and well-regarded programs with strong alumni networks.

Note Focus Areas

Many online law programs focus on specific areas, like business law, intellectual property or cyber law. Be sure to choose a program that fits your career interests.

[Read: How to Choose a Law School Specialization]

Applicants who already have a J.D. or a foreign equivalent might instead consider an LL.M., which is a master’s degree in law. Many schools offer fully online one-year LL.M. programs focused on legal specialties like tax or international law.

Prioritize Hands-On Experience

Perhaps the aspect of legal education that graduates most value is the practical experience gained from working in small groups, clinics and volunteer activities on campus.

Without real-life interaction, it can be hard for online students to get this taste of life as an attorney. Before applying to an online program, make sure that it will offer experiential learning opportunities in some capacity.

Even if the benefits of in-person classes cannot be fully replicated online, the expansion of degree options may help serve law school applicants with different needs and interests. But applicants should consider such programs carefully to ensure they are worth the investment of time and money.

More from U.S. News

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3 Tips for Choosing an Online J.D. Program originally appeared on usnews.com

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