Getting Your Law Degree Online

If you have always dreamed about becoming a lawyer, or a legal adviser, for your company but have never had the time or money to go to a traditional three-year law school, then you should consider another option, distance education. However, if you are considering investing your time and money in a distance law degree then there are several issues that you will first need to consider. The first thing to consider is what type of legal professional you want to be, as there are two Juris Doctorate education tracks. You can either select the Executive Track or the Bar Track. If you want to practice law as an attorney then you will want to enroll in the Bar Track as it is designed to prepare and qualify you to sit for the California Bar Exam. If you don’t plan on using your legal education to practice as a lawyer, and instead intend on advancing your professional career with your law degree, then you should consider the Executive Track as it is only three years instead of four required by the Bar Track program. The Executive Track will give you the same basic legal background, but it will not qualify you to sit for the Bar exam in any state. For the purpose of this article, only the Bar track program will be examined.

Once you have decided on which track best fits your career goals you will then need to determine if the distance law program you are considering is right for you. To make this decision you will need to evaluate the following program elements: (1) accreditation, (2) cost, (3) financing options, (4) admission requirements, and (5) completeness of coursework. In order to evaluate these criteria this article will provide a traditional law school program example as the baseline for approval of a distance education law program. The goal for you as a prospective law student will be to find the distance education program that fits within you financial and time constraints, and that also closely matches the standards set out by the traditional program. The University of Montana Law Program will be used to establish the baseline for this discussion and will be used to determine the appropriateness and viability of each featured distance law program.

Accreditation
Accreditation for any law program will determine if you will be able to sit for the Bar exam or not. If the school is not accredited or approved by the American Bar Association then you will not be able to sit for the Bar exam in any state except for possibly California, as this state provides alternative methods for qualifying to take their exam. In California distance law programs that are approved by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State of California will allow distance law students to sit for the California Bar examination. In addition to this approval you will also want to look for other credentials and accreditations that will attest to the quality of the education being delivered by the school.

If you want to practice law in a state other than California then there are four options. First, most states will allow California attorneys to sit for their Bar exam after 5 to 7 years of continuous service in California as a practicing lawyer. The second option is to enroll in an apprenticeship program. Some states like Washington and Colorado offer an alternative way to becoming an attorney. You can work with a state-licensed attorney for a state-determined number of years as a legal apprentice. The apprenticeship is designed to act like a law school program with specific subjects that need to be mastered. You don’t even have to take a distance law program to use this career path to become an attorney. However, if you are participating in, or have participated in a distance law program, then you can use the knowledge gained in these programs to challenge modules of the apprenticeship program and graduate from it sooner. The third option is to enroll in an ABA approved Master of Law program. This degree is the next step up from a Juris Doctorate, and usually takes between one and two years to complete. The last option is to sit for the California Bar exam and then practice law in a federal court in the state of your choice. This option may limit the kind of law practice you will have and the type of work you will be able to get, but it is a viable option. And remember after five to seven years you will be eligible to sit for almost any other state’s Bar exam.

Traditional Law Program
The University of Montana School of Law is an ABA and Montana Bar Association approved school. It is also regionally accredited by the Northwest Association of School and Colleges.

Distance Law Programs
William Howard Taft University (WHTU) has been granted a national accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). This particular accreditation does help to guarantee the quality of education that a student will receive. While the school’s website did not mention if it was an approved program by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State of California, it did appear on their list of approved programs, so students who graduate from this program will be able to sit for the California Bar Exam.

Southern California University of Professional Studies (SCUPS) is approved by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State of California, and has degree-granting accreditation for the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education. Like DETC, the Bureau confirms the quality of education being delivered to students and shows that this school is a viable distance law program.

Northwestern California University (NCU) is approved by both the State of California Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, and the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State of California.

Cost
The cost of a legal education can be daunting. Traditional law programs are not only expensive but the American Bar Association also places limitations on how much a student can work while attending law school. Because of these work restrictions law students are required to either borrow money for living expenses or cover them with scholarships, grants, and savings. Distance law programs, on the other hand, are a lot less expensive and they impose no restrictions on when, or how much you can work. These two factors make distance law programs a desirable alternative to a traditional law program.

Traditional Law Program
The U of M law school costs $9,453 for each of the three academic years for Montana residents and $19,017 for non-residents. In addition to these tuition expenses the university states that students will also need to pay about $1,010 per year on law books, $146 per year on parking, and $582.50 per semester for the required health insurance.

Distance Law Programs
WHTU charges $4,950 for years one, two, and three and then $5,400 for the fourth and final year of study. In addition to the tuition fees WHTU also charges a $50.00 accounting fee if you utilize their payment plan, a returned check fee of $25.00, a graduation/diploma fee of $75.00, and an annual book expense of $800. (Note: First year books will cost more than the average $800 because the student will need to purchase a number of legal writing and terminology reference books in addition to the required texts.)

SCUPS charges $3360 per year plus a returned check fee of $15.00, transcript fee of $10.00, graduation audit fee of $100.00, and a Bar audit fee of $100.00 and an application fee of $40.00.

NCU charges $2850 per year in tuition, plus it charges an application fee of $25.00, a graduation fee of $100.00, and an annual book and material cost of between $500.00 and $700.00.

No matter what distance program you decide on, if you want to sit for the California Bar Examination it is your responsibility to register with the Committee of Bar Examiners as a law school applicant, and after the completion of your first year of law school you will need to register for, pay for, and pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination. All testing and application costs for fulfilling these Bar requirements are in addition to the tuition and costs mentioned above.

Financing Options
Affordability of an educational program doesn’t just mean a lower overall price. It also means there are payment options available that help reduce the financial impact on the students while they are in school. Payment options include: federal financial aid, private loans, grants, scholarships, tuition reimbursement programs, and school sponsored payment plans.

Traditional Law Program
68% of U of M students use some form of financial assistance. The U of M School of Law utilizes federal financial aid, scholarships, grants, loans and work-study programs, and special financing through local lenders.

Distance Law Programs
WHTU offers several financing options. First if you have a graduate degree, a CPA’s license, or if you are in the field of law enforcement, then the university will offer you a grant equal to about 10% of your total tuition, around $500 per year. They also offer a Partners in Professional Education Program that offers tuition grants of 5-20% of your yearly tuition expense. If your employer does not belong to WHTU’s PIPE program, then the university will work with you to fill out employee tuition reimbursement forms if available. Tuition can also be financed through three different options. Option #1 is short-term in-house financing. This option requires a 30% deposit and 5 to 12 monthly installments to cover the remaining balance. Option #2 spreads the payment out over 10 years and covers up to 100% of the cost of your education. This option is financed through Wells Fargo Bank. Finally WHTU is an approved Sallie Mae lender participant. Again 100% of your tuition and books can be financed through SLM Financial Company with a repayment schedule of 15 years.

SCUPS has three payment plans. Payment Plan #1 is simply payment in full prior to the beginning of the semester. You should check with the school to see if this option offers a discount. Payment Plan #2 is an in-house monthly payment plan. Students who select this option will need to make a $500 down payment and then make 11 consecutive monthly payments of $260. If these options don’t work for you then Sallie Mae may be able to offer you an educational loan with a 15 year repayment period with interest rates of Prime + 1.0%.

NCU only offers one financing option in lieu of payment in full, and that is tuition paid in 10 equal monthly installments.

Admission Requirements
Normally admission into a traditional law program is very competitive and requires good grades, participation in extracurricular activities, work experiences, and minimal scores on the LSAT. However, distance law programs are not as difficult to enter and usually don’t require taking the LSAT.

Tradition Law Program
The U of M looks at many things when selecting their 80 incoming law students: (1) general undergraduate academic record, (2) LSAT score, (3) writing ability, (4) trend in undergraduate grades, (4) quality of work in difficult courses, (5) ability to overcome obstacles, and (6) your life experience.

Distance Law Programs
WHTU requires that incoming students have: (1) a full-time job, and (2) an Associates or Bachelors degree from an accredited educational institution.

SCUPS requires that its incoming students to have an Associates or Bachelors degree from an accredited educational institution, and have a minimum g.p.a. of 2.7.

NCU entering law students must have at least 60 undergraduate credits from an accredited educational institution or have passed CLEP exams approved by the California Committee of Bar Examiners that matches this credit requirement.

Coursework
In order to make sure that the distance law program that you have selected will provide you with the legal education background you need to successfully pass the Bar exam and to successfully transition from a law student to a legal professional. To do this you should compare the coursework required in a traditional law program with those outlined in your distance law program.

Traditional Law Program

U of M:�¯�¿�½
(1) Civil Procedures
(2) Criminal Law and Procedures
(3) Pretrial Advocacy
(4) Contracts
(5) Legal Research
(6) Legal Analysis
(7) Business Transactions
(8) Business Organization
(9) Constitutional Law
(10) Evidence
(11) Property
(12) Federal Taxation
(13) Professional Responsibilities
(14) Advanced Writing
(15) Clinical Training
(16) Electives

Distance Law Programs

WHTU:�¯�¿�½
(1) Introduction to Law
(2) Contracts
(3) Torts
(4) Criminal Law
(5) Criminal Procedures
(6) Evidence
(7) Professional Responsibilities
(8) Uniform Commercial Code
(9) Wills and Trusts
(10) Civil Procedures
(11) Constitutional Law
(12) Property Law
(13) Business Organizations
(14) Community Property
(15) Remedies
(16) Advanced Legal Reasoning

SCUPS:
(1) Contracts
(2) Constitutional Law
(3) Criminal Law
(4) Property
(5) Torts
(6) Civil Procedures
(7) Legal Writing
(8) Wills, Trusts, and Estates
(9) Uniform Commercial Code
(10) Remedies
(11) Professional Responsibilities
(12) Electives

NCU:�¯�¿�½
(1) Introduction to Law and Legal Writing
(2) Criminal Law
(3) Contracts
(4) Torts
(5) Real Property
(6) Remedies
(7) Criminal Procedures
(8) Agency and Partnership
(9) Corporations
(10) Constitutional Law
(11) Evidence
(12) Civil Procedures
(13) Professional Responsibilities (Ethics)
(14) Community Property
(15) Administrative Law
(16) Wills
(17) Trusts
(18) Electives

After reviewing the information contained in this article you should have an idea of what to look for in a distance law program. If you are interested in pursuing a distance law program but are not interested in any of the featured schools, then you can go to the State Bar of California’s website for a list of California State Bar approved distance programs.

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