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Law School Goes Online - JD, LLM, and MLS Programs

The legal practice as a whole just tends to be a little slow when it comes to making changes. You’re already seeing the first couple fully online [JD] programs starting.

Catherine Schenker, JD, Director of Online Learning at the American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL)

In the last decade, many areas of study—including mathematics, computer science, business, language, and a myriad of other disciplines—have been proven teachable online. And it’s not just little-known, outlandish colleges that are incorporating online formats. Johns Hopkins, Northeastern, Oregon State, and dozens more long-established higher learning institutions are adding online programs to their rosters. The study of law, however, has lagged behind.

The key advantage of online education is the flexibility it grants students. Distance learning negates the necessity of living on campus, giving much wider access to quality education. Older students who may already have careers and families can maintain their work and family life schedules while pursuing higher education. Students can enroll in programs they may never have even considered if required to relocate to a university’s main campus.

But the benefits are not just for students. The move towards online learning could also address an issue that has emerged for universities within the past decade: the challenge of attracting students.

Some experts say the struggle that law schools are experiencing was kicked off by the recession. Some schools have even closed their doors due to an insufficient number of entrants, like Cooley’s Ann Arbor branch and the AJMLS (Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School) Savannah branch. Others have announced their closure, such as Indiana Tech, Whittier, Charlotte, and Valparaiso.

Law school enrollment has stabilized over the last few years, says Derek Muller, a professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law, but added that the residual effects of the recession (e.g., reduced class sizes) are still weighing on some universities.

Offering legal studies online could bring enrollment to target levels by attracting more potential students. It sounds like a win-win situation—both students and universities could benefit from online legal studies programs. But there have been some concerns about the implications of offering law school online.

Pushback to the Decline in Law School Enrollment

The tradition of on-campus learning at distinguished law schools like Harvard, Cambridge, and Yale is long and rich. The discipline is still taught based on centuries-old teaching conventions.

Take the Socratic Method: one student is grilled about the facts of a particular case in front of a classroom in order to simulate the stress and adrenaline of arguing a case in a real courtroom. It is hard to imagine this being replicated in an online setting.

That’s one reason why there has been some hesitancy to accept online law programs on the part of the American Bar Association (ABA), which regulates accreditation of law programs in the U.S. The conflict has become a hot topic in the legal education world.

Supporters of the move to digital say that while approaching with caution is a good idea, there are ways to mix the two mediums so that concerns are accommodated.

For certain areas of study within law that aren’t designed to prepare students to take the bar exam (e.g., master of legal studies or MLS programs), the outcome of this debate is less consequential, but for a JD program, gaining accreditation from the ABA is essential. It is necessary for an individual to complete an ABA-accredited program in order to take the bar exam in most jurisdictions.

Juris Doctor (JD) vs. Non-JD Graduate Programs in Law

Both of these paths prepare students to work within law; however, the career outcomes are completely different. The JD track prepares students to sit for the bar exam and proceed to become a practicing attorney, while non-JD programs do not.

Non-JD programs are usually MLS or LLM (master’s in laws) degrees. The latter area is for attorneys that are already practicing and want to boost a particular area of their knowledge.

MLS programs are quite different. They do not qualify students to sit for the bar exam, nor are they designed for already-practicing attorneys. MLS programs are for individuals that don’t intend on practicing law, but wish to know more about it for their own line of work.

Why would a person choose a non-JD over a JD degree? After all, one qualifies you to become a lawyer, while the other is another master’s degree.

That said, the demand for professionals with legal knowledge that MLS degrees offer is real. Spending on legal and regulatory compliance in the banking and finance sector, for instance, is $270 billion a year, according to the Financial Times. And businesses in virtually every industry need legally literate team members to make sure they are operating within legal limits.

Northeastern University, which offers its own on-campus MLS degree, says that in recent years, there has been increased demand in the job market for professionals with some knowledge of law: “Organizations have become increasingly reliant on ‘non-lawyers’—business professionals with knowledge of legal concepts specific to their industry” to help them navigate complex legal issues.

American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL) is one of a handful of schools—including UCLA, which just launched a similar program—that is adding an online MLS degree to its menu. It launched its own program in April of 2019, which one of the newer additions to the many online programs that the university offers, but the first fully-fledged online program in its College of Law.

Data shows that these kinds of degrees are an increasingly popular option among students. In fact, growth in non-JD online enrollment has more than tripled between 2013 and 2018, according to reports from the ABA.

We spoke to Catherine Schenker, director of online learning at AUWCL to learn more about who the program is right for and what the future of online legal studies will look like.

Meet the Expert: Catherine Schenker, JD, AUWCL’s Director of Online Learning

Catherine Schenker, JD

Catherine Schenker is the director of online learning at AUWCL in Washington D.C. Prior to assuming her current role, she was the associate director of its international legal studies program for almost 12 years. Schenker has her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and her JD from New York University School of Law. After graduating from law school, Schenker worked as an associate at Hogan & Hartson for two years before joining AUWCL.

“The MLS is really for people who don’t want to become lawyers, but find that it would be useful to know certain aspects of law for their jobs,” Schenker explained.

To allow students to narrow their scope of study, the online MLS program at AUWCL offers four concentrations: business, healthcare compliance, technology and a general MLS degree.

“We’ve had social workers, healthcare professionals, a police officer, entrepreneurs, also some government contracting people [enroll],” Schenker said. “Sometimes they want to learn more about compliance or business law. Some people in IT want to learn more about cyber law.”

There are many job titles that can benefit from legal knowledge. “For the MLS, compliance is huge, being healthcare, financial services—any type of compliance,” Schenker said.

Compliance workers collaborate with organizations to help ensure they are observing relevant laws and give general legal advice. They can operate as independent contractors or within large corporations and make in the ballpark of $60,000 to $160,000 per year.

In the public sector, federal regulatory agents govern the activities of companies in areas such as finance, environment and media to make sure they are complying to regulations and that citizens are safe from hazardous products, criminals and terrorists, as well as monitoring the activities of citizens. These professionals also can earn upward of $100,000 per year.

These are just a few examples, but the degree can be applied in many other contexts, like consulting, working at a start-up, or owning your own business.

“There are some coming straight from undergrad, but the [average] age of students in the MLS is a bit older,” Schenker said. “There’s no ‘one right path’ to get here. You don’t need pre-law to be doing this.”

How are Institutions Addressing Concerns about the Online Format?

As far as worries about how these programs can engage students without meeting in a classroom, AUWCL addressed them in a couple of ways. First, it incorporated weekly live online classes, rather than just making the curriculum a static list of PowerPoint presentations and case study PDFs. It also implemented a weekend immersion at the university’s campus in Washington D.C. to quell the aforementioned concern about including in-person debates as part of the course’s curriculum.

“The experience of negotiating is always going to be different when you’re face to face,” Schenker said. “In immersion, which we had this past weekend, we do a big negotiation exercise in-person.”

However, this is the only on-campus meeting students are required to attend for the duration of the program, so students don’t necessarily have to live near campus to apply. Schenker adds that just like traditional on-campus programs, the ultimate responsibility for what students get out of the program comes down to their own time management. This principle rings true for online education.

“Law works just as well as anything else online…but when you’re not physically going to class, if you don’t have good time management skills, it can be difficult,” she said.

If you’re someone that needs to have the physical obligation of attending classes to ensure success, an online format may not be for you. However, if you’re able to hold yourself accountable, the program and the flexibility it affords can be an advantage.

What About Online JD Programs?

Schenker said limitations from the ABA did slow things down initially, but that the future of online education in legal studies looks bright. “The legal practice as a whole just tends to be a little slow when it comes to making changes,” she said. “You’re already seeing the first couple fully online [JD] programs starting.”

After a long push, University of Dayton recently gained approval to offer one almost entirely online, which launched in August of 2019. And the Syracuse University College of Law announced the launch of what it says is the “nation’s first” online joint JD/MBA degree program, which will open to its first class of students in 2020.

These are huge milestones in the online legal education world that likely represent the start of a new trend in the U.S., and perhaps around the world. The first classes of students to graduate from these programs and pass the Bar exam will become the first lawyers that attended gained their JD degrees almost entirely online in the world.

There will always be a place for on-campus learning, but individuals, employers, and most importantly, regulatory bodies are finally recognizing the benefits and legitimacy of online learning.

“Within law it’s still on the newer edge, but I think in education as a whole, online is becoming more and more mainstream,” Schenker said. “I really think there is a place for online education in the future.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at www.ninachamlou.com.