Correction: The original version of this story misreported the online credential the University of Oklahoma College of Law offers in indigenous people’s law. The degree is master of legal studies. The law school offers an LL.M. in that field on campus only.
Law school administrators increasingly are looking online for an efficient avenue to deliver master’s degrees. These programs generally aren’t subject to the American Bar Association’s limit on distance education; they allow schools to teach students across the county and globe; and they are relatively inexpensive to deliver.
The University of Oklahoma College of Law will offer its planned Master of Legal Studies in indigenous peoples’ law online; Vermont Law School already offers an online master’s in environmental law and policy; and the University of Tulsa College of Law next year will add an online master’s in energy law to its two-year-old online master’s degree in Indian law.
Perhaps no one in legal academia has more experience with online master’s degrees than William Byrnes, associate dean for graduate and distance education programs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Byrnes first began teaching online master’s-level courses for students in the accounting and banking industries in 1998. Thomas Jefferson now has about 210 online students, nearly half of them nonlawyers seeking master’s degrees and about a third of them living outside the United States.
Classes comprise a combination of live video conferencing and taped lectures. Byrnes pitches the online program directly to employers, who in most cases pick up the tuition for workers.
“I see nonlawyers as the real growth area — not so much the lawyers,” he said. “The audit firms and the banks are very focused on compliance training. They have the budgets for tuition reimbursements and the law firms do not.”
Employers are attracted to Thomas Jefferson’s program in part because it qualifies students for certain industry credentials — chartered wealth manager or certified financial planner, for example, he said.
An online master’s degree costs $33,600 — less than the $42,000 annual J.D. tuition at Thomas Jefferson — and the masters and LL.M. programs together generate between $3 million and $4 million a year, Byrnes said. The program produces between 40 and 50 cents on every dollar of cost, making it more profitable than the traditional J.D., he said.