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How to Choose an Online Law School and Become a Practicing Lawyer

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Becoming an attorney through an online law program is possible, but it's also complicated.

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Would you like to earn an online law degree from the comfort of your own home? It’s not easy, but it is possible. Earning an online law degree poses several unique challenges. No online law school is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA); however, forty-nine states require that law school graduates earn a degree accredited by the ABA in order to take the bar exam needed to practice law.

California is the one state that allows graduates from distance learning law schools to sit for their bar, assuming the examinees meet certain requirements. If you live in California, or if you’re willing to relocate, you may be able to become a practicing lawyer with an online law degree. After you work as a lawyer for a few years, it may be possible to practice law in some other states. Here’s what you need to know:

Earning an Online Law Degree and Practicing Law in California

In order to take the California Bar, students must meet certain requirements set by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California. There are seven basic steps to becoming a full-fledged lawyer.

Step 1: Complete your pre-legal education. Most law students have already completed a bachelor’s degree. However, California’s minimum requirement is that students complete at least two years of college-level work (60 semester credits) with a GPA equal to or above that required for graduation. Alternatively, you may prove that you have intellectual ability equal to a college student in his second year by passing subject matter examinations with scores accepted by the Committee.

Step 2: Complete your legal education. Online law students may sit for the California Bar if they receive 864 hours of study for each year through a correspondence program that is registered with the committee). (off-site link).” The Committee does not accredit online law schools; instead, they allow distance learning schools to register with them if the online schools meet requirements. Because the Committee won’t vouch for the quality of these programs, it is essential to thoroughly investigate any online law school before enrolling. Here are the online law schools currently registered with the Committee:

Abraham Lincoln University School of Law
American Heritage University School of Law
California School of Law
Concord School of Law
Esquire College
MD Kirk School of Law
Newport University
Northwestern California University
Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy
Southern California University for Professional Studies
University of Honolulu
West Coast School of Law, Inc.
West Haven University
William Howard Taft University

Step 3: Register as a law student. Before taking any examinations, online law students must register with the State Bar of California. This may be done through the online office of admissions (off-site link).

Step 4: Pass the First-Year Law Student’s Examination. Students must pass a four hour test covering basic contracts, criminal law, and torts (concepts that are taught in during a law student’s first year of study). The exam is administered in June and October of each year (off-site link).

Step 5: Receive a positive moral character determination. All California lawyers must first prove that they have “good moral character” by undergoing an evaluation from the Committee. You will be asked to provide information, fingerprints, and references. The Committee will talk to your former employers, your online law school, and will check for driving and criminal records. The entire process may take four to six months, so get an early start (off-site link).

Step 6: Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. This two hour and five minute exam will test your understanding of appropriate lawyer conduct. You will answer sixty multiple choice questions regarding representation, privilege, contempt, and related issues. The exam is offered three times a year (off-site link).

Step 7: Pass the Bar Exam. Finally, after completing your online law degree and fulfilling the other requirements, you may take the California Bar Exam. The bar exam is offered in February and July of each year and features three days of essay questions, multi-state components, and practical exercises. If you pass the bar, you are eligible to practice law in California.

How to Practice Law in Other States with an Online Law Degree

Once you’ve used your online law degree to practice law in California for a few years, you may be able to work as a lawyer in additional states. Many states will permit California lawyers to take their bar exams after five to seven years of practicing law. Alternatively, you could enroll in a Master of Law program accredited by the American Bar Association. Such programs take only one or two years and will help you qualify to take the bar exam in other states. You may also practice law in federal courts located in any state.

Student Beware: The Drawbacks of Earning an Online Law Degree

Earning an online law degree can be an appealing option for professionals with work and family responsibilities. But, be aware that there are several drawbacks to studying law online. If you want to practice law, you will probably be limited to a single state for several years. Additionally, law firms will know that your online law degree is not accredited by the American Bar Association. So, don’t expect to be a contender for the most prestigious, highest paying jobs.

If you choose to pursue an online law degree, go into the experience with realistic expectations. Studying law online is not for everyone, but for the right person it can be a worthwhile experience.

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