Not everyone wants to be a lawyer, and that’s OK with the 1.3 million other work-hungry attorneys currently out there. The hours are long, the industry is competitive, and it takes a lot of academic heavy lifting just to get the letters “J.D.” after one’s name—not to mention the difficulty of passing a state bar exam.
But much of that legal knowledge is still worth having, especially if a person doesn’t have to put in the full investment of time and money for law school. That’s why several colleges and law schools offer an attractive alternative: a Master’s in Legal Studies (MLS). This graduate degree generally offers the equivalent of the first year of law school, and allows people to head right into the workforce to start earning money, or even to advance in their current job sooner than their law school peers. Many of these foundational programs are also online, which means an MLS graduate doesn’t have to relocate for three years for law school. This field provides a deeper dive into modern jurisprudence than an undergraduate pre-law course or paralegal training, making a graduate more marketable to employers seeking candidates with legal research skills and writing; knowledge of the fundamentals of modern law; and the ability to analyze and discuss legal matters.
Graduates won’t be able to call themselves lawyers or provide qualified legal advice unless they pass a state bar, of course, but this advanced degree can be useful for detail-oriented positions where credibility is essential, including compliance officers, contract managers, patent officers, administrators, or policy specialists for local, state or national-level governments. It also can provide a leg up for other competitive positions within the legal/law enforcement realm including paralegals, investigators, arbitrators, forensic specialists, or legal consultants.
In terms of financial outlook, positions can vary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the arbitrator/mediator/conciliator career path—which works to settle disputes outside of the court system—is expected to grow by 11 percent, adding 900 new jobs between 2016 and 2026. Notably, these professionals have an annual median pay of $59,770. The paralegal/legal assistant track is supposed to grow by 15 percent with 41,800 new jobs added in the same decade and a median wage of $49,500 (BLS Oct. 2017). The financial examiner field, which ensures legal compliance at banks and other financial institutions, is projected to grow ten percent between 2016 and 2026, with 5,100 new jobs and a median salary range of $79,280 (BLS Oct. 2017). Notably, these are all growing more quickly than the average growth expected across all occupations during that time (seven percent).
The following guide details what to expect from an online MLS program, including the coursework, exceptional professors, and admissions requirements.
Master of Legal Studies, ASU Online/Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor Law School
Students admitted to this program follow a ten-class, 30-credit online program that provides an overview of the foundations of U.S. law, along with how the law relates to different disciplines. Five subject tracks are available, including sports law; sustainability law; employment/HR law; intellectual property law; and criminal law. The overall program is designed to give students a general understanding of how modern law intersects with areas such as education, business, engineering and more. Courses are taught by law school faculty.
Master of Legal Studies, Indigenous Peoples Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law
This 33-credit program provides a close look at legal issues facing indigenous people in the U.S., including water use; gaming, relationships with the federal government (e.g., with respect to natural resources and criminal justice); and analysis of various state compacts and contracts. This knowledge could be useful for negotiations with tribal governments or tribal-affiliated businesses. It expands on the American Indian Law certificate available to law school students, but includes additional information for those not seeking to become lawyers, including an examination of modern Indian law. Other available MLS degree programs through OU are available in oil and energy law and healthcare law.
Master of Legal Studies, Pepperdine Law
With a philosophy of “practice over theory,” this 32-unit program focuses on the role of legal concepts in our modern world, especially the workplace. Accurate communication between different parties is stressed, including lawyers, clients, employers, employees and other personnel, with simulations and real-life examples. The program covers topics such as contracts, property law, civil procedure, negotiation and regulatory compliance, and students can customize their coursework with additional classes in education, and health, as well as employment and intellectual property law. The school also offers a dispute resolution concentration, which offers skills in how to help clients settle legal matters outside of the courtroom. The online program includes a multimedia component that allows students to watch lectures or videos on their computers or phones or use virtual classrooms to allow all students to interact in real-time for mock exercises and discussions. Two weekend residencies on campus are required.
Master of Legal Studies, Washington University School of Law
This 24-credit program is designed to help working professionals become experts in complicated legal topics and procedures without needing to become lawyers, and faculty can help prepare people for career options from being regulators to risk management specialists. Students receive training in diverse legal topics such as contracts, intellectual property, business transactions, corporate compliance, property, and negotiations. Proper legal writing, research and familiarity with legal materials are also stressed. Though the program is online, students are invited to an optional in-person opportunity. Students can also dual enroll in the school’s Master of Laws program, which provides 24 credits and has an international law concept.
Master of Science in Legal Administration, University of Denver
Blending law and business, this 30-credit program can be ideal for someone who wants to maintain, maybe even own, a legal office. It teaches skills of modern management plus an overview of modern law, including how law firms, the court system, and other legal organizations work in the U.S. and other countries. Students can choose concentrations in areas such as law firm administration, court administration, and international court administration. The program is online, but students are also encouraged to complete a creative project or an externship. These relationships sometimes lead to job placement. There is also a separate Master of Legal Studies program that specializes in environmental and natural resources law and policy. Current or past law school students can also pursue an advanced standing MSLA for 27 credits by waiving research and writing, introduction to U.S. judicial system, and the capstone/externship.
Master of Legal Studies, University of Illinois Springfield
The program covers modern legal theory and provides a general overview of the role of the American legal system and how it interrelates with social and public policy topics. Online courses are partially delivered on a student’s schedule, and partially delivered at a certain time in a virtual classroom with other students and a live lecture from the instructor. The 40-credit program includes 16 hours of electives and the selection of a specialty such as public sector labor relations; law and public policy; human rights/social justice; and regulatory compliance. The program also requires completing a thesis and earning up to four credits in a clinical education capacity, such as working at a government agency or public interest group.
Master of Legal Studies, West Virginia University/UVA
The 36-credit program provides a solid understanding of the legal system, especially for regulatory or supervisory positions, including those in social work and human services. Students follow 21 required credits covering the basics of law, and then can take 15 elective credits in different interest areas, including media, commerce, military, and border security. A research paper is required at the end of the course.
Master of Studies in Law, University of Southern California/USC Online
The 10-credit program through the Gould School of Law provides an overview of modern regulatory and legal processes, which will assist students not in the lawyer track to become familiar with compliance for their particular employer or agency. Emphasis is placed on the business of entertainment and the arts, including trademark enforcement, business practices, and contract creation. The online environment includes weekly live discussions with the fellow students and instructor, plus self-paced modules.
Master of Legal Studies, Northeastern University School of Law
Students receive an overview of modern law and can choose among concentrations, including health, business, intellectual property, and human resources. This program has an experiential focus, and includes a variety of case studies. Students are also partnered with a career coach, who helps them find a real-life project from an employer they can assist with. This provides networking as well as hands-on experience.
Related graduate certificates are available from:
Requirements for MLS programs vary by institution, but some of the common items requested for admission include:
Students aspiring to enroll in online MLS programs are encouraged to make sure their program follows current educational standards along with proper training for various industries and career paths. In general, reputable schools are recognized by agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), including these six regional accreditation bodies:
Some MLS programs are coordinated through a university’s law school, many of which are accredited and receive approval from the American Bar Association. However, while the ABA will look at factors such as a school’s curriculum, faculty, and student attrition rate, it doesn’t recognize or evaluate distance learning programs.
Finally, students interested in out-of-state online programs must ensure that they’re eligible to enroll. This is referred to as “state authorization” status, and the information is usually listed on a school’s website (e.g., West Virginia University). For those which don’t, aspiring students should contact admissions offices to ensure eligibility.
Amy B. Levin attended UCLA’s Department of Social Welfare’s program in public interest law and policy, in conjunction with the UCLA’s School of Law. As an associate professor at Pepperdine, she teaches legal research, writing, and appellate advocacy, and is also the co-director of the school’s Byrne Judicial Clerkship Institute. Her professional background includes clerking for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, and working as an associate at Arnold & Porter, specializing in civil commercial and trademark litigation.
Students seeking international law perspectives can learn much from Michael H. Koby, the school’s associate dean of international and graduate programs. The professor of practice also runs the school’s trial and advocacy program. He currently teaches U.S. law and methods but specializes in comparative law, constitutional law, and religion and the law. His professional international experience includes being the former special counsel for the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as serving as a Fulbright Scholar to Spain. He’s spoken and taught at conferences in the U.S., Japan, Portugal, and previously was part of the faculty at Catholic University of America.