An array of online legal degree programs exist, including legal studies and law degrees. Related programs range from associate-level paralegal studies to graduate studies in specialized areas of the law. The choice of a program depends on a student's training, experience and goals, as well as state professional guidelines.
Aspiring lawyers seeking juris doctor (J.D.) degrees study topics such as constitutional law, contracts, property law and civil procedure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that some schools allow law students to focus on a specialization such as tax, labor or corporate law.
While online law degrees are available, the American Bar Association does not currently approve law programs offered entirely through distance learning. This can limit a student's options because most states require individuals sitting for the bar exam to have earned their law degree from an ABA-accredited law school. Once lawyers are licensed, they may be able to take continuing education courses online, the BLS notes.
Different states have varying requirements for lawyers, as shown in the ABA's Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (found on the FAQ page). For example, California allows students to complete the necessary coursework at unaccredited correspondence or distance learning law schools that are registered with the Committee of Bar Examiners. If these students pursue online law degrees and pass the First-Year Law Students' Examination, they may apply to take the California bar exam.
Graduate degrees in law and legal studies
Online law studies include master's in law, or LL.M., degrees. These programs may be designed for lawyers already practicing in other countries who need expertise in U.S. law, for example, employees of organizations that conduct business in the United States.
Master's degrees in legal specializations are also found online. These programs usually target attorneys who wish to focus on a specific area of law, like taxation, health, information technology and telecommunications, and intellectual property.
Students with an undergraduate education may choose an online master's in legal studies. These programs allow individuals to hone their legal knowledge and may emphasize a particular industry, such as health care, media, education or local government. Programs usually cover the legal system, dispute resolution, legal research and writing, legal reasoning and analysis, ethical decision making, jurisprudence and legal history.
Undergraduate degrees in legal studies or paralegal studies
Online bachelor's degrees in legal studies introduce students to various areas of law and can provide a foundation in legal theory and practice. These programs also explore the relationship between law and society. Classes typically include general education and constitutional law, law and society, legal philosophy and legal ethics.
With the appropriate experience and training, graduates could pursue a range of potential occupations, such as arbitrator, mediator, title examiner, jury consultant, legislative assistant, political office holder, lobbyist, corporate executive, claims examiner, compliance and enforcement inspector, or occupational and safety health inspector. Legal studies could be useful in non-legal fields where organizations must keep track of legislation and regulations, such as human resources or health care.
For those interested in paralegal studies, an associate degree helps to prepare students for work in the legal field. Students can learn about conducting legal research, performing investigative and communications tasks, assisting with litigation preparation and carrying out legal procedures. These programs often cover topics such as legal writing and research, litigation, contracts, torts and legal ethics.
With online bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies, students can further develop paralegal skills such as interviewing, research and writing. The curriculum could encompass general education courses and ones in legal writing, legal ethics, civil litigation and specific types of law. A bachelor's degree holder could explore a career as a legal assistant or paralegal in a specific area of the law, such as:
- Criminal law
- Family law
- Financing, banking or bankruptcy
- Intellectual property
- Patents and trademarks
- Real estate
Certification options for legal studies graduates
With the required education and experience, legal assistants and paralegals can seek credentials from organizations such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations or the National Association of Legal Assistants. Certification may require continuing education, and distance learning courses such as telewebinars and on-demand seminars may be available for CE credits.
Choosing online legal degree programs
With this broad selection of available options, it's important for prospective students to consider their goals and qualifications as well as the requirements to work in their state. Individuals interested in online legal studies should gain as much information as possible about schools, for example, by visiting their websites and contacting admissions counselors.
Sources and further reading:
American Bar Association
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Lawyers, 2012
National Association of Legal Assistants
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
The State Bar of California: Qualifying for Admission to Practice Law in California through Correspondence or Distance Learning Law Study