As a young J.D. in the mid 1970s, Michael Foster decided to pursue a master's of law (LL.M.) in taxation at New York University's School of Law to delve deeper into tax than he'd been able to in law school. "A master's in tax law probably advances you to the point where you'd be five or six years in an actual practice without the master's," says Foster, the managing member of Jackson Kelly PLLC, a national law firm.
Young lawyers who want to get extra law training at NYU, as Foster did, can pursue an online executive tax LL.M. Foster says he'd seriously consider an applicant with an online degree from NYU, because he respects the school. But he says he wouldn't hire someone with an online J.D., and that he'd be cautious about LL.M.'s from less distinguished schools. "If it's the ABC university I've never heard of, I'd probably discount it," he says.
Although the difference between a school such as NYU and one that prospective students may not recognize seems to be pretty clear, sorting through the reputations of online J.D. and LL.M. programs can be more complicated. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, doesn't accredit LL.M. programs, whether online or brick and mortar, although a recent article in Inside Higher Education notes that the ABA offers some form of recognition to the new LL.M. in U.S. law for foreign lawyers at the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.
The ABA also caps the number of credits for "distance education"—which includes online courses that law students at its accredited schools can earn to 12, so none of the schools that offers an online J.D. has ABA accreditation.
[Learn why online law schools have yet to pass the bar.]
The law schools that offer online J.D.'s, such as the Concord Law School at Kaplan University, California Southern University's School of Law, and California's St. Francis School of Law, capitalize on that state being the only one that allows graduates of non-ABA accredited schools to take the bar exam.
Students should view an online J.D. from a non-accredited school as "a waste of money," and it may only be valuable as a "vanity degree or for those who are working," says New York-based executive coach Roy Cohen.
Legal recruiters share that suspicion, says Linda Doyle, the hiring partner at McDermott Will & Emery, an international law firm with more than 1,000 lawyers. No large firm that Doyle is aware of currently hires online J.D. alumni, and she says she has never seen an online J.D. mentioned in the 3,000 law student résumés her firm reviews annually.
[Learn why law schools say students need to job hunt more actively.]
But online J.D. alumni disagree. "When it comes to the quality of the education, the access to professors, and the educational model, I would recommend Concord to everyone," says Joy Nonnweiler, an attorney in Waukesha, Wis., who holds an online J.D. from the Kaplan law school. "There is, however, still a significant stigma attached to online, non-ABA law schools that affects hiring practices."
Chuck Katz, an attorney at Routh Crabtree Olsen, P.S. in Bellevue, Wash., says people care less about his online J.D. from Concord than they do that he passed the California Bar—reportedly one of the hardest—on his first try.
"Virtually every law school utilizes the same books and curriculum, so what makes a difference is how hard a student works towards learning the law," he says. "Becoming an accomplished attorney can be achieved whether one attends Harvard [University], Yale [University], or Concord."
[Read about how LL.M.'s can lead to specialized legal jobs.]
Alumni of online law programs at NYU and Washington University may not have to defend their alma mater's reputation.
An online LL.M. from NYU has helped Brian Page, a tax attorney at Exxon Mobil in Houston, gain a technical understanding the law. "It's practical for any tax attorney," says Page, who also holds an MBA and a J.D. from Tulane University.
The unique benefits of an online LL.M., such as NYU's, include the ability to "rewind" lectures, the flexibility of the schedule, and the superior level of interaction on discussion boards, Page says.