This is hard question because there isn’t a clear ranking system — US News doesn’t rank online degree programs — and actual first-hand information is scarce for online law schools. There isn’t much accountability at online law schools.
Let’s take a step back.
No juris doctor program at an online law school, at the moment, is going to give you the kind of career you would have if you attended a national top-tier law school like Harvard, or even a regional powerhouse (like University of Alabama if you live in Alabama).
Indeed, there are not that many online law schools, actually, that permit you to sit any state’s bar exam. None are, at the moment, ABA-accredited (this is important because if you graduate from a law school with ABA accreditation, you can take the bar exam in any of the 50 states of the U.S.).
There are a lot more programs that offer a masters of law online if you already have a juris doctor.
So, with all of that as a warning, let me pick a couple of the best online law schools if you are dead set on getting an online law degree. Again, below, I consider juris doctor and LLM programs separately.
Best Online Law Schools – Juris Doctor Programs
If I were looking for the best online law schools for the purpose of getting a juris doctor and practicing law in the United States, I would look mainly at two schools: (1) St. Francis and (2) Concord.
1. St. Francis Law School
Here is what I can say about St. Francis School of Law. (Warning: I had some talks with administrators at St. Francis about teaching for them, so I may be somewhat biased in their favor. They struck me as earnest, sincere people who were clear about what they were doing. But please, do your own independent research as well. Don’t just count on my word.).
St. Francis appears to have the most selective and accomplished student body of any online law school. They list their student body here. Most students have advanced degrees (masters or PhDs), many come from competitive undergraduate schools (Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, etc.), and many work in Silicon Valley in high-level positions.
St. Francis appears to be a good value. They charge $6,500 per year for tuition for four years of school (a little more if you pay in installments). That’s $26,000 — much less than one semester’s tuition at a normal brick-and-mortar law school.
However St. Francis doesn’t pretend to make it easy for you to get a job as a lawyer. In fact — to its credit, unlike other online law schools — St. Francis appears to be frank about this. The law degree looks like it is mainly for currently-working non-legal professionals who use or need to know the law in some aspect of their non-legal work. St. Francis does not pretend to be minting new lawyers. Indeed, one page says that “Many of our students hold executive-track positions with their employers and are seeking a JD in order to expand their capacity to solve problems” (See the quote here in full context.)
2. Concord Law School.
Concord — owned by Kaplan University, one of the 800 pound gorillas of online education — is by far the most well-established and well-funded online law school out there. I am not sure if it was the first online law school to prepare students for the California bar exam, but it’s the most famous. Here are my thoughts on Concord:
Good technology. I have tutored one student from Concord and have seen some of the software. It is impressive, and much of it makes the experience of doing law school online almost like being in person at a brick-and-mortar school.
Non-selective admissions. Concord does not appear to be as selective as St. Francis law — there is no page where Concord brags about how its students all have advanced degrees or attended prestigious undergraduate schools. The students I know personally tell me that they could not get into a “normal” law school.
Potentially high drop-out rate. I have not seen figures, but I have tutored one student who was kicked out of Concord (twice) and have another friend of mine who was also asked to leave Concord. Basically, the problem is that Concord has a technology that tracks if you keep up with the readings. There are also weekly multiple choice or written quizzes or tests (there is usually no such thing at a brick-and-mortar law school, just final exams), and you have to maintain a minimum score just to stay in the program. Fall too far behind in too many classes, and Concord will ask you to leave.
There may be a good reason for this (and here I am just speculating) — Concord want to maintain a high bar-passage rate, and one way to do that is to eliminate students who seem unlikely to pass. Just keep in mind that while Concord advertises its convenience, you have to make absolutely sure you can keep up with the work for four years. (I am not sure Concord refunds your tuition if you drop out — I am guessing they do not.)
Best Online Law Schools – LLM Programs
Now, if you already have a juris doctor and are already a practicing lawyer, and you want to add a masters of law (LLM) to your resume, there are many more programs out there.
Review those programs with a careful and open eye. Even though these programs below are online, many of them are not cheaper than actual, in-person LLM programs.
Also note: one if the benefits of attending a real, in-person LLM program is networking. For instance, LLM students at Harvard and NYU meet large numbers of other foreign students. Most return to their home countries and keep their classmates around the world as potential referrals and networking contacts.
In any case, if you want to get an LLM from one of the best online law schools, these are the programs I recommend. Indeed, these are degrees offered by very prestigious schools.
Note: These programs are all “mostly” online — that is, there are some things that you have to appear in person for, and you will need to fly to New York or Oxford, England to do some weeks or coursework or take exams.
NYU Law Tax Program LLM – Many lawyers and executives drop their careers and show up in person for this famous LLM degree from probably the best tax degree program in the United States.
Oxford University Human Rights Law Program – This is a hybrid program that is mostly online. Don’t do this to make more money, because it is after all a human rights LLM, not a commercial degree that will help you get rich. And it is an expensive program for anyone from outside of Europe. But the program looks very interesting.
Do you have any thoughts on these online programs? Add your two cents below or send a tweet with the hashtag #lawschoolhacker.
Mansfield J. Park, a pseudonym, is a tutor and consultant to law students and recent graduates alike. Manny went to a top 10 college and top 10 law school, graduating in the top 10 percent but not in the (real) top 10. He clerked a couple of times, never on the 10th Circuit, and worked at a top 10 law firm (by the AmLaw A-List, not Vault) for many years, but not 10. His recent tutoring students have done awesomely, like in the top 10 at top 10 schools. Seriously. Of his favorite numbers, 10 is not even in the top 10. Manny hates numerologists. You can email him at mansfield.j.park[AT]gmail[dot]com or visit his site on doing well in law school, Law School Hacker.
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