Studying a law degree online is now possible for an increasing number of Australians. If you choose a Juris Doctor online, or an undergraduate course, an online law degree can offer students a very similar experience to traditional universities, just without the commute!
For the people out there who believe online law degrees have no place in Australia, I would point out that almost all traditional universities offer online learning as part of their law programs, and if you speak to any current students, many don’t go to lectures anyway; instead, they opt to listen to recorded lectures that have been uploaded onto their online platforms.
So what do these degrees offer? This post is a starting point for your research into these programs, and will hopefully provide some useful information to help you decide whether an online law degree is for you.
Please note that I completed my Juris Doctor at a traditional university. While this post is written from the perspective of a law student who attended lectures, I also made significant use of the university’s online materials. Now that I have completed my degree, I believe I understand what is important during study, and so I have used this experience to critically analyse other views on the topic. There are some very dramatic claims out there, both for and against online law courses; despite not attending an online law degree, I still think I can offer a balanced (and hopefully valuable) view on this topic.
You will find a list of Australian universities offering online law degrees below.
The benefits of studying law degree online
There are a number of benefits to studying online; here are a handful of them.
Lots of flexibility
Flexibility is one of the greatest benefits of online study, especially when compared to traditional universities. This can be really important to people who are returning to study after spending a few years in the workforce, or anyone who is working part time or full time.
I worked for around six years before returning I returned to study law, and I needed to work two to three days per week to be able to pay my rent and afford other household expenses. I chose my JD based on flexibility – some universities scheduled almost all lectures between 9am to 5pm, and didn’t let you choose the time of your lectures. At my university, I had a choice between three or four lecture times, including after business hours.
For online degrees, flexibility means that you can listen to your lecture on your commute to or from work. You could listen after dinner or early in the morning. You could even listen during your lunch break at work (most lectures only go for around 45 minutes). This simply wouldn’t be possible at a traditional university. It also means that you can listen to half a lecture one day, and the second half the following day.
Overall, the flexibility offered by an online law degree means that you will have a greater say in your own learning experience. I should say that this can also make things difficult; you will need to be disciplined enough to ensure you study regularly.
Choose your own pace
Pace is linked to flexibility, discussed above, but another benefit of online study is that you will have a greater ability to manage how long your degree takes. This is particularly important when your life becomes busy and you don’t have as much time to spend on your academic pursuits.
Many online law schools cater to working students. Because there are no semesters where the university needs to fill lecture halls, it is very easy to speed up and slow down your degree to ensure it fits in around your life. If you find that work is quiet you can take on an extra subject. If work or family are keeping you extra busy, you can take two or three months off to focus on those. The last thing anyone wants to do is become overworked and either burn out, or perform poorly in their subjects.
In effect, you will be able to determine how much you take on at various points throughout the degree.
A better learning environment (for some)
Each person learns differently, and some people just learn better by themselves. If this is you, then online study is the perfect way to study a law degree. While there aren’t many group activities in law school compared to other degrees (such as business or accounting), there will always be a few tasks throughout your degree where a lecturer decides that it will be easier to mark a group assessment rather than an individual one. There is much less chance of this happening online.
There are many other advantages that I haven’t listed here. But just quickly:
- You are not restricted from choosing a university located closely to you, or worrying about how long it will take to travel. One fellow law student I knew of lived in a regional area and needed to organise all of his lectures on one or two days, so that he only needed to get on the four hour train ride once a week. Our university was quite flexible so he had no problems doing this, but he was pretty sick of the train after three years!
- If you live in a remote area, can’t attend a traditional university, or work full time, attending an online law school might be the only option available for you to study towards a law degree in Australia.
Online law schools in Australia
Online legal education is booming in Australia.
It is important to note that online law degrees can be just as expensive as attending a traditional university, so make you you evaluate online courses just as you would a traditional university.
Online Juris Doctor (JD) degrees
The following universities offer the Juris Doctor online:
- Australia National University (ANU)
- Deakin University
- RMIT University
- Macquarie University
- University of Southern Queensland
- Flinders University
Australian National University: ANU is the only G08 university offering a Juris Doctor online. As a highly respected university, this could be the turning point for greater acceptance of online law degrees in Australia. ANU’s first online cohort commenced in 2016, but the on campus JD has been offered since 2008. The undergraduate bachelor or laws has been around since 1960.
Deakin University: Deakin is well regarded in the online education space, and from what I can tell (it has been difficult tracking down actual sources), was the first Australian university to offer a distance education law degree.
RMIT University (in conjunction with Open Universities Australia): RMIT is a Victorian university with an established online Juris Doctor. RMIT has an interesting history regarding legal education, and offered a type of practical articles based course (similar to a traineeship) from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. It recommenced an on campus law degree, being the Juris Doctor, in 2007.
Macquarie University: Macquarie’s law school was established in 1972, and its Juris Doctor course commenced in 2014. I’m not too sure how long online Juris Doctor has been around.
University of Southern Queensland: A relative newcomer to the law school scene, the USQ law faculty was established in 2005, but I’m not too sure when the on campus and online JD degrees commenced.
Flinders University: The interesting thing about Flinders is that international students can apply, study, and graduate from the Juris Doctor as online students learning from their home countries. For example, if you are from Singapore, Hing Kong or France, you can study from home and graduate with an accredited Australian legal education. Flinders has operated a law school from 1992, and the Juris Doctor online from 2016.
Online bachelors degrees (undergraduate degrees)
Deakin University – Bachelor of Laws: Deakin University is a Victorian university and runs an online law degree at the “Cloud” campus. It runs on a trimester model. The on campus law school was established in 1992.
Charles Darwin University: CDU is a university in the Northern Territory and runs many online courses. The information page for the law degree unfortunately doesn’t contain too much information, but it can be safe to assume that it covers the same material as the Undergraduate Degree, so take a look at that page to see what subjects are on offer.
University of New England: UNE is a university in New South Wales and offers an online undergraduate law degree.
Southern Cross University: SCU offers an undergraduate law degree by “distance education”.
Edith Cowan University: ECU is a West Australian university. The four year bachelors of law degree can be completed online either full time or part time.
The disadvantages of studying an online law degree
There are clearly many options available to study online in Australia, but these are not without their disadvantages.
I want to stress that it is important not to gloss over these. Many people have a tendency to believe in the best case scenario while thinking any disadvantages won’t apply to them. You should seriously consider whether each of these disadvantages will affect you, and if so, what you can do to limit that effect. If you don’t think you can do anything to minimise these effects, then you need to decide whether you should be pursuing a law degree at this stage in your life.
I think people can ultimately overcome most things, but I do encourage you to be realistic in your decision making.
The first thing to consider is that studying a law degree online means that you will spend most of your time working alone. Some people will see this as a positive, but there are definitely negatives to this. For example, like many things in life, it is sometimes sharing an experience with people is just as important as the experience itself; it might be that you have no (or fewer) people sharing the experience of studying law with you, during the lows of mid-semester coursework and essays, and the highs of finishing a subject.
A second point issue is that it will be difficult forming study groups. I have written a post here about how useful study groups can be in law, and being an online student will make it very difficult to overcome this. Some universities might have online study group options (make sure you ask about this), but I don’t think this would be a very good replacement for an in-person study group.
The perception of online law degrees
People can be very superficial, and there is a still a perception in the legal industry that an online law school is not up to scratch. This concern stems from the fact that most online law degrees have lower entrance requirements than traditional universities, which means that the student cohorts are generally less academic. Does this mean that there are no intelligent, hardworking students in these programs? Absolutely not. But it does mean that you could face some barriers trying to convince future employers that you are a great candidate.
One day these barriers will probably break down, especially with world renown universities such as Harvard and Cambridge now offering online courses.
The law student glut
The oversupply of law graduates in Australia is well publicised, and of course, this makes it difficult for all students to find employment, regardless of what university they attend. However, when you combine the law student glut with the perception of online law schools being less rigorous, it may make finding graduate jobs even more difficult.
And lastly, one of the hardest things about studying for an online law degree is being able to maintain discipline throughout the course. While it is fine to tell yourself that an online course will mean you can listen to lectures at night after work, what this means is that you will actually have to listen to lectures at night after work.
This can be very difficult when you have had a long day and just want to sit down and relax in front of the TV. I spent around two years working at night and on the weekends, and looking back, sometimes I wonder how I did it. It is a big sacrifice to make, so you need to be sure that you can persevere.
Can you overcome the challenges?
Only you will know whether you can put in place actions to overcome the challenges of online study (and whether you can use the many advantages to succeed in your degree). I tend to believe that most challenges can be overcome in life, but this will be a personal decision that you need to make after careful consideration.
Just for a few ideas, if you are worried about the perception of your degree and its affect on future employment, then try to figure out what sort of job you want as soon as possible, and start working towards achieving that, by either volunteering (see my post here on volunteering) or networking. Make sure you can display commercial awareness in your interviews. Do you think a study group would help you prepare for exams? Then reach out to other students and organise a weekend meet up at the closest city.
Starting study for the first time, or returning to study as a mature aged student, is a big decision to make. Make sure you speak to your family and friends about it before you make the jump.
This has been a really long post, so I don’t want to go on for much longer.
My final words are to approach studying as if you are making a big life decision, because at the end of the day, this is exactly what you are doing. Read widely. Do lots of research. Speak to staff from the different universities offering online law degrees and try to get a feel for whether they are helpful or not. Speak to friends, family and lawyers (if you know any).
If you decide that studying online is right for you, take the plunge and work hard – good luck!If you found this helpful, please share it around!