Online master of legal studies: Know the law

By Shannon Lee

Aspiring graduate students can find a variety of legal studies programs, which often lead to professional degrees and careers as attorneys. In addition to programs for prospective lawyers, some studies are designed for non-lawyers who need legal training. Master degree studies might also prepare graduates for work in a related field such as arbitration, where conflicts are resolved outside the court system.

Some master of legal studies programs target internationally trained and licensed attorneys who need U.S. experience. Other advanced law degrees are intended for professionals who plan to specialize, conduct research or teach. Joint degree programs may combine law school with studies in fields such as public administration.

Master's degrees in law and legal studies

The traditional law degree may be the most common form of legal studies, but attending law school is not the only option for graduate studies.

A Master of Legal Studies or Master of Science in Legal Studies is typically a non-professional degree for advanced graduate students who need knowledge of the judicial system and legal reasoning.

A Master of the Science of Law is often designed for business professionals and may offer specializations such as taxation or financial services. This program could be useful in careers such as teaching, research, the judiciary, public policy, and government or nongovernmental organizations.

The Master of Laws program is generally intended for students who already hold a law degree. This option is often designed for lawyers who trained outside the U.S. and who need to become familiar with U.S. laws.

A Master of Studies in Law degree usually teaches non-lawyers about the law and the legal process. Courses may focus on law as it relates to management, human resources, health care or intellectual property. For example, administrators in the field of health care must be conversant with Federal and state regulations and privacy laws.

On-campus and online law school programs

Those seeking a lawyer's license must attend law school. A bachelor's degree, plus a passing grade on the Law School Admission Test, are typically required for law school admission. Admission, which is fiercely competitive, can include a review of transcripts and the LSAT, the quality of the undergraduate school attended, relevant work experience, and a personal interview and/or statements. Pre-law is often recommended as a way to make sure that a student takes the necessary courses to enter law school, but other undergraduate degree paths, such as business, may also be suitable.

Law school takes approximately three years to complete. After graduation, aspiring attorneys must pass the bar exam to become licensed in the state in which they intend to practice. Law school generally leads to the professional degree of Juris Doctor, or J.D., while dual-degree programs may combine a J.D. with another degree such as an MBA.

Law school students find a variety of courses that can be helpful throughout their careers, such as the following:

  • Constitutional law
  • Property law
  • Torts
  • Civil procedure
  • Legal writing
  • Contracts

Other courses may include aspects of law such as employment and labor, environment, international, public interest, family, business and commercial, and more.

Some law schools offer school-sponsored legal clinics and supervised practice trials that further prepare future attorneys. Many schools offer online courses. Students who want experience in working with clients or colleagues might choose a hybrid approach, where some courses are taken online while others are taken in a traditional classroom setting. Once an attorney is licensed, popular routes of employment include private practice, public interest organizations, government agencies, corporations or in-house counsel positions, and legal aid.

Master of legal studies: salary and job options

The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that a master's degree in law might be a good background for occupations such as arbitrators and mediators. These jobs are projected to grow by 14 percent, which is a bit faster than average, between 2008 and 2018. The BLS estimated a mean annual wage of $66,460 in 2010 for arbitrators, mediators and conciliators who resolve conflicts outside the court system.

Competition is likely for those who study to become lawyers. The BLS expects employment of attorneys to grow by 13 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is about the average growth rate for U.S. occupations. In 2010, the BLS reported a mean annual wage of $129,440 for attorneys; the lowest 10 percent earned $54,130, while the top 10 percent made $165,470.

Potential graduate school offerings in legal studies vary widely, depending on the institution and the students' goals. Whether a student is pursuing a law license or a degree that offers extensive knowledge of the law, the master of legal studies can offer information and skills to begin navigating the potentially confusing waters of the legal system.

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