Betsy Hames isn’t a lawyer, but the law permeates nearly every aspect of her job overseeing employee relations in Emory University’s human resources department. “We’re dealing with labor law, employment discrimination and all these other legal things that come into play,” she said. “I’ve never had a desire to go to law school, but a foundation in the law would be very useful.”
Hames therefore was intrigued when she learned that Emory University School of Law was launching a Juris Master program. It won’t prepare her to practice — it’s only 24 credits, and she won’t qualify to sit for the bar exam. But she hopes an abbreviated version of law school will help her master the legal implications of her work.
“Law school helps you to look at things from a different side,” said Hames, among the program’s first crop of 40 students. “It’s not easy. But already I’ve noticed that conversations with the university’s general counsel about contracts make so much more sense.”
Emory is among nearly 30 law schools that have or soon will offer a master’s degree for nonlawyers, up from just a handful two years ago, according to the school’s director of graduate programs, Lynn Labuda. The programs differ slightly in name, structure and cost, but they generally are marketed to working professionals. While the movement remains in its early stages, to administrators across the country it represents a promising counterpoint to waning interest in the traditional three-year J.D. degree.
DECLINING ECONOMY THE SPUR
“The catalyst has been economic,” said Douglas Sylvester, dean of Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which next year will expand its eight-year-old Master of Legal Studies (MLS) program to include a track for nonlawyers who want to work with patents. “I would expect that we will see more of this in the future, unless the legal economy improves.”
First-year enrollment at law schools was down by 15 percent nationally this fall, compared with two years ago, according to the American Bar Association, and it’s unlikely that decline will taper off anytime soon. The number of people applying to ABA-accredited law schools is down by 16 percent. University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerry Organ has estimated that declining J.D. enrollment cost law schools a cumulative $200 million in lost tuition revenue during the past academic year.
Whether master’s candidates will fill much of that revenue gap remains to be seen. The programs typically cost about the same as one year of J.D. tuition, with some priced slightly less. For example, the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s master’s costs just under $20,000 for in-state students and slightly more than $30,000 for nonresidents. The University of San Diego School of Law charges $33,000 and Emory’s program costs $45,900.
“It’s a little hard to set the price because we don’t yet know what the market is for a degree like this,” said Janice Weis, associate dean and director of the environmental and natural resources program at Lewis & Clark Law School, which will launch its first master’s program for nonlawyers in the fall. (It will focus on environmental and natural resources law and cost slightly less than the nearly $40,000 annual J.D. tuition.)
Limiting the potential of master’s students to produce a significant amount of revenue for law schools is that they pay about a third as much as J.D. students given their shorter stints on campus.LL.M. programs — particularly those for foreign-trained lawyers — remain a robust source of growth, but some academics believe that the pool of international lawyers willing and able to pay for an LL.M. may soon max out. “This is about finding a different pool of potential students,” said Gerard Magliocca, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law associate dean for research. “It’s probably partly driven by the issue of limits on the number of international students.”
Master’s programs for nonlawyers, including LL.M.s, are largely unregulated — law schools must demonstrate to the ABA only that they would not interfere with their J.D. programs, said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director for accreditation and legal education.
The motivation to add master’s programs isn’t entirely financial, said Frank Wu, dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. It’s also an effort to move legal education away from a one-size-fits-all J.D. model and toward a system that more closely mirrors medicine, he said, which trains doctors but also nurses and technicians.
“Many lawyers work in human resources, but you don’t have to have a J.D.,” Wu said. “It’s the same thing with compliance officers in banks and hospitals. There are all these jobs in law — criminal justice jobs, law firm management jobs, consultants — where a J.D. makes no sense but some legal training is useful.”
A one-year master’s degree in law also might make sense for, say, a teacher who aspires to become a high school principal but lacks the mandatory advanced degree. “If it doesn’t matter what the master’s degree is in, then why not law?” Wu said. “I’d put a master’s in law up against a master’s in history any day.”
Hastings launched a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) for health and science professionals last fall with 12 students. The school plans to expand the program to include business and technology professionals next year.
The concept of a law degree for nonlawyers is not entirely new. Some for decades have offered master’s degrees to nonlegal academics who want to incorporate law into their research. Yale Law School has offered an MSL to midcareer journalists since at least 1975, said assistant dean for graduate programs Gordon Silverstein, although the size of that program has declined in recent years.
Today, these programs tend to be much larger in scale and less academic in focus than their predecessors. Many are geared toward highly specific practice areas, including real estate law, education law, conflict and dispute resolution, energy law and health law.
The programs go by many different names: MSL; Juris Master (J.M.); Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.); and Master of Science in Legal Studies (M.S.) just to name a few. That hodgepodge may make it harder for students and the marketplace to figure out what the credential is worth, Currier said. Still, they tend to follow a similar structure: Students take one or two foundational law courses that cover the basic 1L core curriculum, although not in the same detail as J.D. students. After that, master’s students take whatever meets their interests, attending class alongside J.D. students. Since the students are filling seats that otherwise would go unoccupied, there is little need to hire additional faculty.
Most programs range from 24 to 30 credits — the same course load as one year in a J.D. program. The degree typically can be completed in one year, although most students tend to be working professionals who attend part-time and require two years or more. The future of these programs may well depend upon whether employers will pick up their tab. A number of administrators expressed hope that companies and agencies will see the value of subsidizing their employees’ training in the law. “It only really makes sense for people if they work for companies that are willing to pay for the degree to upgrade their employees’ skills and credentials,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and author of the book Failing Law Schools.
Of the 40 students in Emory’s master’s program, about half are financed by their employers, Labuda said. Their number includes Hames and Amy Mansfield, a legal analyst at Atlanta law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. Mansfield spent 15 years as a paralegal before she felt the itch to take on a larger role. “This has been a good next step for me,” she said, noting that leaving her job to attend law school for three years wasn’t in the cards because she is supporting a child and a mortgage.
Emory hopes to expand its program to as many as 125 students, Labuda said.
The University of Oklahoma College of Law’s decision to launch two new master’s programs — one in indigenous peoples’ law and the other in natural resources law — came in response to demand from nonlawyers attending LL.M. recruiting events, dean Joseph Harroz said.
“They would say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in these areas of expertise but we don’t want a J.D. — and we’d love to do it in a year or part-time over a couple of years,’ ” Harroz said. “ It finally sank in that it might be a good idea to offer this. I see lots of opportunities that are outside the traditional three-year experience.”
So does Hamline University School of Law dean Donald Lewis, who has made education for nonlawyers a priority. Hamline already offers certificate programs for nonlawyers and will start a master’s program with concentrations in health care and conflict resolution next fall. “There is an increased need for professionals who have some level of legal education that informs them in day-to-day business,” he said. “Isn’t there a role for law school to provide some level of education for them?”
Whether law schools continue to add master’s degrees for nonlawyers likely will depend on how these existing programs fare, said Indiana’s Magliocca. His own school is considering offering a master’s program. “A few students won’t have much of an impact in terms of generating revenue,” he said. “So the question of whether we see more depends on what the market response is. If schools find that they are getting applicants and they are able to reap benefits, then I expect that other schools will follow.”