The law is connected to every aspect of human society. There are many more professionals in the field of law beyond the courtroom, each using their understanding of human society and its laws to help clients navigate conflicts, personal decisions, and binding contracts. And while society needs many law professionals, choosing an online law degree needs to be undertaken carefully. The American Bar Association (ABA) has yet to accredit any 100% online law school or JD degree program. A JD (Juris Doctorate) degree with ABA accreditation will be critical if your goal is to take the Bar Exam and practice as a licensed attorney. Lack of ABA accreditation prevents students who earn an online JD degree from practicing as attorneys in 49 out of 50 states—California is an exception as they do not require students to attend an ABA approved law program to sit for the Bar exam. The JD is not, however, the only law degree that can be earned online. A new type of legal degree, the master's in law is being offered by some top ABA law schools online.
THE CAREER PATH
If you are passionate about the law and the idea of justice or advocacy, then there is likely a legal career path that’s perfect for your needs and lifestyle. Each career in law can be tailored to suit the unique interests and strengths of individual professionals, whether its in particular types of laws, cultures, or proceedings. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) describes different types of careers in law:
- Lawyer – Also known as attorneys, these professionals are responsible for advising and representing individuals, businesses, organizations, and government agencies on legal issues and disputes. They may be known by many different titles and act as both advocates and advisors. Many lawyers choose to become experts in a particular area. In order to practice law, professionals must get their Juris Doctorate (J.D.) and obtain their license to practice through admission to their state bar. All of the schooling pays off for lawyers who make an average annual income of nearly $120,000. Although it is a competitive career path, jobs for lawyers are anticipated to grow by 8% in the next few years.
- Arbitrator, Mediator, or Conciliator – These professionals are impartial third parties that seek to use their knowledge and skills in the practice of law to facilitate negotiations between opposing parties and resolve conflicts outside of the court system. Careers in legal negotiations can get started with a bachelor’s degree, although some employers will prefer applicants that have a J.D. Licenses are not always required for these professionals and certification standards will vary by state. Since negotiating outside of court is often much quicker and less expensive for everyone involved, there’s an increase in demand for these qualified legal professions. Jobs are anticipated to grow by at least 10% in the coming decade, and the average professional makes nearly $60,000 each year.
- Paralegal or Legal Assistant – Paralegals make the work of lawyers possible by supporting them in a variety of legal and administrative tasks from maintaining documents to conducting research. Like lawyers, paralegals may choose to specialize in a particular field like criminal law or taxes. Becoming a paralegal is one of the quickest ways to gain experience in law. Professionals can qualify for positions as paralegals with an associate degree, although some employers may prefer a bachelor’s. Certifications in paralegal studies are not required, but they are often preferred and can help give professionals a competitive edge on their application. Paralegals make an average salary of nearly $50,000 each year, and it is a great time to look into this accessible career. The demand for paralegals is expected to grow by 15% in the next few years, as organizations and individuals look for cheaper alternatives to solve their legal needs and resolve their disputes.
- Judge or Hearing Officer – With years of experience in the field of law, professionals may choose to step into more of an oversight role. They may oversee trials or hearings related to anything from traffic violations to the rights of massive corporations. Most judges and hearing officers are either elected or appointed into their positions, and only usually once they have acquired years of experience in the practice of law with a J.D. and professional license. They make just over $90,000 on average each year.
WHO IS THE IDEAL CANDIDATE?
The law is connected to every aspect of human society: the economy, environment, human rights, international relations, and so on. There are many more professionals in the field of law beyond the courtroom, that use their understanding of human society and its laws to help clients navigate conflicts, personal decisions, binding contracts, and more.
Regardless of your professional role in the field of law, clear communication is a key to success across the board. Legal professionals are often presenting complicated information and complex cases to clients, other professionals, judges, juries, supervisors, and even courtrooms. They must be able to present their information effectively whether speaking, writing, interviewing, or negotiating. Legal professionals of all types must be able to research and analyze large amounts of information, apply laws, and weigh facts without preconceived judgements or personal biases. They must be able to critically problem solve in order to objectively evaluate information.
Perhaps most importantly, legal careers are not for introverts. Professionals must have the interpersonal skills to build trusting relationships that win the trust and respect of clients and other professionals.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR?
If your goal is to complete a bachelor's degree in preparation for admission to an ABA-accredited law program in the future, explore an online legal studies degree. Legal studies is sometimes known as a pre-law major. If your goal is to work in a court setting as a legal support person, or to undertake legal research inside an established law firm, an online paralegal degree or certificate is another great possibility.
While there are no 100% online law program has yet earned ABA approval, a number of ABA-accredited residential law schools have begun experimenting with a new type of law degree online for mid-career professionals – a distance masters in law, also known as a LLM degree. The American Bar Association (ABA) does not oversee legal degrees at the master's level, only at the doctorate, or JD degree level. Schools don’t need ABA approval to offer an online master's in law, so expect to see more ABA law schools supporting online legal education at the master's level in the coming years.
Online law master's, while not valid for taking the bar exam, are providing solid benefits to mid-career managers. Executives in healthcare management, technology, and the environmental industry are enrolling in online law programs in record numbers. Their goal is not to take the bar exam or to practice as a licensed attorney, but to better understand the complex legal issues that daily impact their business enterprises.
The cost of higher education can be tens of thousands of dollars each year. Since law degrees can take many years to complete, it’s important to consider which programs will work best with the needs of your lifestyle and get you on the path to your professional goals. The average cost of an online bachelor's in law is between $30,000 and $50,000. Often, the price of tuition does not include additional expenses related to school supplies, certifications, and other fees. It’s important to consider programs that give you the most bang for your buck and a high quality educational experience.