Online Master's Programs at Law Schools: Why Online Learning?

by Roger Pao, Georgetown University | November 15, 2017

Estimated time to read: minutes


The growth and acceptance of online learning over the last decade have been mostly in undergraduate, business, and technical education. Despite the report that the American Bar Association (ABA) rejected Syracuse College of Law's initial application to develop a partially online hybrid Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, I believe the next area of growth and acceptance will be with legal education.

While the ABA has yet to approve any 100% online J.D. programs, one fascinating but not often discussed aspect of online legal education is the recent growth in the number of 100% online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degrees and post J.D. Master of Laws (LL.M.) degrees offered by ABA-approved law schools. These graduate degrees may appeal to a variety of working professionals, including but not limited to compliance specialists, risk management professionals, professionals in the tax industry, or other business professionals who would like or need to learn more about the law.

For example, 100% online Master of Legal Studies degrees, which require only a Bachelor's degree, are now offered at ASU, Northeastern, Wake Forest, and Seton Hall. 100% online Master of Laws degrees, which generally require a J.D., are available at the University of Southern California and Washington University in St. Louis, who both also offer online Master of Legal Studies degrees. Even more popular are relatively more specialized 100% online Master of Legal Studies and Master of Laws degrees that focus on a specific discipline within the law, such as Georgetown University School of Law's Executive LL.M. in Taxation and Master of Studies in Law in Taxation, Boston University School of Law's LL.M. in Taxation, NYU's Executive LL.M. and Master of Studies in Law Taxation, the University of Miami School of Law's LL.M. in Real Property Development, and Albany Law School's Master of Science in Legal Studies with a Concentration in Cybersecurity and Data Privacy.

Despite the successful development and launch of these fully online programs, only a minority of the 205 ABA-approved law schools offer a fully online MLS or LL.M. degree program at this time. Here are several reasons why I think more law schools will, and should, offer online Master's programs in the near future.

1. Increasing enrollment at law schools

As has been extensively documented, enrollment in J.D. programs at law schools across the United States has dropped precipitously since 2010. While J.D. enrollment appears to have flatlined over the past couple years, meaning that these historically low levels of J.D. enrollment do not appear to be going much lower in general at this time, the stark decline in enrollment has shaken administration and faculty at many law schools across the country, causing unprecedented layoffs at law schools and even law school closures.

The launch of online programs may help some law schools survive and thrive. By diversifying their program offerings, and offering relatively less capital intensive online Master's programs, law schools can at least partially make up for lost revenue from declining J.D. enrollment. Even law schools that are relatively financially well-off and/or have relatively steady J.D. enrollment numbers could boost their bottom line by generating additional revenue from online Master's programs.

2. Reaching a new, diverse audience

At the same time, the development and launch of online Master's programs may also allow law schools to reach an audience that they have never been able to reach before at such scale: individuals who are not in a position to travel to campus and attend classes in person. While on-ground part-time J.D. and LL.M. programs have long existed, such programs have essentially been inaccessible to individuals who cannot attend classes in person on specific days and times, whether due to family and work responsibilities, geographical limitations (such as being located a couple or more hours away from the nearest law school), or disability. Online Master's programs offered by law schools open the door to these individuals to get the legal education that they have long desired but could not have achieved at an earlier time.

3. Expansion of specialties into flagship programs

As discussed above, many law schools have chosen to turn the areas of expertise for which their faculty are renowned into online Master's programs. By doing so, they help enhance the national — and in some cases, international — reputation of their faculty and the law school as a whole, allowing and encouraging a more geographically diverse group of students to access and benefit from their curriculum.

4. Use of online technology in a global economy

Whether one works in litigation or transactional fields, the practice of using online technology is increasingly important in law-related fields. Professionals in law-related fields use online tools in a variety of ways, including but not limited to communication, negotiation, project management, organizational management, and time management. Online programs may allow students to enhance their skills through the use of such tools, better preparing them for the modern-day global workforce, whether they choose to work at law firms, in compliance departments, or for government agencies. 

5. Online does not have to be just video and text 

Lastly, the advances in online education in the past few years have been extraordinary. Courses no longer need to consist solely of videos of faculty member lectures with text and auto-graded assessments. With modern online programs, students can work in teams, communicate in real-time, go through simulations, focus on competencies they lack, and learn by doing. An example of this is Harvard Business School’s HBX platform and its Negotiations Mastery course. It features a dozen real world negotiators, peer evaluations, and real time negotiations online. The tools and technology available today allow educators to provide an immersive and engaging experience that prepare students to go into practice.

In sum, law schools should definitely seek to develop online Master's programs at this time. There have been successful early entrants into this market already, and the time is right for more law schools to innovate and play a greater role in this exciting domain.

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Roger Pao, J.D., is an attorney and educator with extensive experience in online education and an interest in dynamic, innovative pedagogies. He is currently Assistant Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the New England College of Business and Finance. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, magna cum laude, and Duke University, summa cum laude.

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