Online Legal Studies

Online Legal Studies

Legal experts are employed in a wide variety of settings, from local government to industry to private practice. These professionals take on roles that range from paralegals to compliance coordinators. As demand for legal professionals increases, some individuals are choosing to enter the field by earning an online master’s in legal studies – also known as an MLS.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal professionals with a master’s degree have a better chance in the job market – and will be paid more – than those holding a bachelor’s degree. In addition to research skills that can be applied in many occupations, MLS online programs provide comprehensive knowledge of the U.S. legal system.

An MLS offers an option for those who choose not to pursue a J.D. degree, and students interested in becoming lawyers should recognize that a master’s in legal studies isn’t really a steppingstone to law school, because credits may not transfer, Alan Meisel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, told U.S. News.

An online legal studies master’s program offers flexibility for students who are also working professionals. Web-based programs typically follow the same rigorous curricula as brick-and-mortar options, leading to similar advancement opportunities for graduates. The online format is also ideal for students who must tackle additional commitments – such as child or family care – on top of their work and class schedules.

How long does it take to earn a master’s in legal studies online?

Many online MLS programs are offered in accelerated formats, which allow students to complete coursework more quickly and conveniently. Students usually need 30 to 40 credits to graduate, and most MLS online programs can be completed in one to two years.

How much does an online master’s in legal studies cost?

The cost of an online legal studies degree depends on several factors. State residency is an important consideration, since many colleges and universities charge higher tuition for out-of-state students. However, some schools charge flat tuition for online students regardless of residency. Technology fees are another key factor; these fees often apply to online students but not their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Per-credit costs for an online legal studies master’s degree typically range from $500 to $945. Students should expect to pay between $15,000 and $38,000 in total tuition.

Online master’s in legal studies admissions requirements

Individuals applying to online MLS programs are usually expected to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Prospective students may need to submit a personal essay or letters of recommendation. Proof of work experience or standardized test scores are not usually required to enter most programs.

Choosing an accredited online legal studies degree program

Accreditation status is one of the most important considerations for prospective students. Colleges and universities in the U.S. receive accreditation from agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education; the accreditation process involves an extensive review of a school’s educational programs and student services.

A school’s accreditation impacts course credit transferability, as well as student eligibility for federal financial aid, so students should ensure the school offering the program has earned national or regional accreditation.

Online Coursework

Example courses

  • Ethics and law
  • Intellectual property
  • Introduction to the legal system
  • Legal research
  • Property law
Because many MLS online programs accept students with bachelor’s degrees in areas other than law, core curriculum often includes an introductory course in legal practices and procedures. Covering basic concepts in legislation, civil and criminal procedure, and judicial processes, this course presents an overview of how the U.S. legal system works, and serves as a foundation for other online coursework.

Another common component of an MLS online curriculum is a course in legal research. In this course, students learn field-specific methods of researching, interpreting and citing legal materials such as periodicals, regulations and government documents. They may be required to compose case briefs or other written assignments on their findings.

Legal studies degree specializations

Some online MLS programs allow students to choose an area of concentration. For example, students concerned with Native American advocacy and autonomy may choose to specialize in indigenous peoples law. Students can also specialize in human resources compliance, which provides an overview of the legal issues surrounding hiring, termination and employee benefits.

Example concentrations
Financial regulatory compliance
Health care law
Human resources compliance
Human rights/social justice
Indigenous peoples law
Sports law

Capstone experience

Some online MLS programs culminate in a capstone course in their final semester. In a capstone, students synthesize the knowledge and research skills gained from the curriculum in the form of a final project. This project is typically research-based. Students may be required to demonstrate their knowledge by examining and assessing a legal case or claim and defending their findings.

Professional Associations in Legal Studies

Joining a professional association can be a source of opportunities and information for students earning an MLS online. Members can connect with other students and professionals through conferences and chapter meetings, explore job openings and more by joining associations like the ones outlined below.

  • American Bar Association: The ABA is dedicated to promoting ethical conduct and professionalism in the legal profession. The association provides benefits, programs and services that promote members’ professional growth. Members have access to online resources, in-depth legal analysis and continuing legal education specialty programming.
  • Academy of Legal Studies in Business: ALSB strives to promote ethical behavior in business through legal research and advocacy. Supporting student members through its mentorship program, ALSB offers resources for those interested in becoming postsecondary teachers, as well as offering special interest sections for those studying and working in various fields.
  • National Lawyers Association: NLA takes a conservative approach to the advancement of legal studies. It broke away from the ABA in 1993 because several members thought it was too liberal. Student membership is free and includes access to exclusive publications and career-building resources, in addition to more than 800 fully online continuing education programs.

Job Outlook and Salaries for Graduates

Graduates who earn an MLS online face a positive job outlook. The BLS estimates that approximately 116,200 new jobs in the legal sector will be created between 2016 and 2026, with demand for all legal occupations growing 9 percent. Demand for arbitrators, mediators and conciliators is also expected to grow, as it becomes increasingly common to settle disputes out of court.

What can you do with a master’s in legal studies?

Many MLS graduates find employment in private companies, while others take positions with government, educational or nonprofit organizations.

  • Arbitrator, mediator or conciliator: While these roles differ slightly in their individual duties, all three require excellent communication skills and a solid understanding of legal procedures. By facilitating dialogue between opposing parties, they assist in settling disputes out of court. Many employers require an advanced degree.
  • Contract administration manager: Contract administration managers are in charge of negotiating contract terms with clients and ensuring that all parties and departments involved remain compliant. Most managers hold advanced degrees.
  • Contract negotiation manager: Working alongside other contract negotiators, these managers analyze terms, bids and areas of risk to draft contracts agreeable to all parties. They must be skilled negotiators with an eye for detail, and many hold advanced degrees or special certifications.
  • Contracts director: Charged with the development and maintenance of commercial contracts and their procedures, contracts directors must be familiar with all legal regulations and ethical standards involved in contract negotiation. Candidates with a master’s degree and significant management experience are typically preferred for this position.
  • Postsecondary teacher: While most college and university teachers hold a doctorate degree, this requirement varies according to the institution and subject taught, and a master’s is often acceptable. Some schools prefer to hire teachers with industry experience – particularly in fields such as law.

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