The advantage of the specialty online LL.M. degree

More schools are offering online LL.M. programs focused on their signature specialties, and the programs are expected to grow in popularity this year. 

By Sherry Karabin

Growing up in Southern California, attorney Laura Mooney lived through droughts, learning firsthand how water shortages can impact communities.

As a commercial litigator, she found herself interested in water law, reading about the issues and keeping track of the changing ways in which western states are managing and sharing their supply. 

“In the West, water is everything,” said Mooney, a partner at Logan Mooney in San Francisco. “It has been interesting to see how California has made the best of the resources it has and how it continues to work to find creative ways to deal with its ongoing water crisis.”

Mooney will soon be a part of the solution, after becoming one of three students to enroll in the newly launched online Water & Environmental Law LL.M. program at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. 

The school is about 90 miles away from San Francisco, not that it matters. She doesn’t have to make a single drive to get an LL.M. that appeals to her. 

“The program at McGeorge has a long history and it offers many different resources,” Mooney said. 

Switching practice areas is something that’s been on Mooney’s radar for years, but once she learned she could earn her degree online, she decided to act. 

“I am now in the second half of my career,” said Mooney. “I am looking forward to transitioning my practice into water law once I get the degree.” 

McGeorge has offered an in-person LL.M. since 2001. Faculty and administrators began designing the distance-learning version of the program about two years ago. They planned to start it in the fall of 2021, but McGeorge School of Law Assistant Dean for Graduate, Online, and International Programs Clémence Kucera said an increase in inquiries from students like Mooney led the school to make the option available in January 2020. 

The McGeorge School of Law is far from the only school to begin offering its already popular LL.M. programs online. New York University School of Law recently added its Executive LL.M. in Tax to the growing list of distance-learning options. The graduate tax program had been available to on-campus students for more thn 65 years.

In the fall of 2019, Lewis & Clark Law School put its Environmental, Natural Resources, and Energy Law LL.M. online. 

Call it playing to your strengths. These programs enjoy stellar reputations and can now attract students worldwide thanks to online technology. 

“Our environmental program is ranked No. 1 in the country,” said Janice Weis, associate dean and director of the LL.M. program at Lewis & Clark. “Our residential program began in 1988. We had been getting inquiries about whether we would offer an online version for a number of years.”

While the coronavirus hit on-campus instruction hard — forcing schools to offer classes online quickly — these programs didn’t have to sweat that. They were already online. 

“Our first day of class was January 7, before the pandemic became an issue in the United States,” said Kucer, of McGeorge. “Since the crisis began we have received even more interest in the program.”

Jennifer Harder, associate professor of lawyering skills and faculty director for online learning at McGeorge said their online courses use an interactive learning approach modeled after an online water law course developed for the in-person J.D. program’s water and environmental concentration.

The 24-credit online LL.M. program offers two distinct options: A U.S. Law track, which focuses on issues affecting the nation and an international course of study for those interested in pursuing careers in jobs that deal with international water and environmental issues. McGeorge students can also apply credits from their JD and earn the LL.M. on a “fast track,” in one semester. For non-attorneys, McGeorge offers a master’s degree in water and environmental law or government law and policy, either of which can be earned fully online. 

“Most of our students are required to take water resources law and environmental law and we offer many other courses that dive into the lawmaking process,” said Harder. “We have a number of elective courses in government, water, and environment and skills courses which focus on topics like negotiations, leadership and public speaking.”

Students can also opt to work one-on-one with a faculty member on a research project of their choice. 

While there are currently three students in the online program, educators expect higher numbers this fall. 

“The field of water and environmental law is constantly expanding,” said Harder, a former partner at the Sacramento law firm of Downey Brand, which represented clients in water, environmental and public agency issues. “The LL.M. degree provides a richer understanding of the issues for those already in the field and allows others to find jobs in a growing practice area where they can engage in key social issues and play a role in policy changes.” 

At Lewis & Clark, having the online program helped the school expand such learning to on-campus students once COVID-19 began its rampage. Many other schools did not have that kind of expertise to lean on.  

“Obviously the pandemic made in-person learning impossible, but because we had this program up and running our students who were enrolled did not have to go through a transition and we already had the tools and experience needed to make it easier to shift our in-person students to distance learning,” Weis said. 

The online LL.M. program is available to domestic and international students, who are required to complete 26 and 28 credits respectively. International students take a special prep class that introduces them to the U.S. legal system.

“One of our most innovative classes is an emerging topics in environmental law seminar, in which students discuss case opinions and issues currently in the news.” Weiss said. “Although online, both residential and distance learning LL.M. students participate, allowing the cohorts to mingle and get to know one another. 

Some of the students already work for government and nonprofit organizations that focus on environmental law issues, but most, like former U.S. Army JAG Corps attorney Kelly Hanson, are pursuing the degree to open up new opportunities in the legal field.

“I was born into a military family and I have served as a government attorney for most of my career,” said Hanson, who began taking courses in August 2019. “My husband is on active duty in the military and so we are in the process of transferring back to the East Coast for his new position. 

She has experience in the energy sector and hopes the degree will open up additional avenues.

“The program provides valuable exposure to experts in the field and I am keeping my options open for future possibilities,” she said. 

While some schools only recently put their LL.M. programs online, others like the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln have offered students the option for a while.

Unveiled in 2008 as an in-residence two-semester program, the 24-credit Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law LL.M. degree became available online in 2012. 

“When we originally launched the program in 2008, there was no space law bearing degree available in the U.S.,” said Matthew Schaefer, co-director of the LL.M. program. “We decided to combine cyber and telecom with space law to provide students with the greatest number of opportunities in these ever-changing areas of law.

“Many of our in-resident students are U.S. Air Force and other military service JAG Corps attorneys, who have been sent here to receive specific training in their fields,” said Schaefer. “Our online students are usually those working in related areas of national security or internationally-related jobs or law firm attorneys looking to transition into the cyber realm or get additional expertise to assist an ever-growing number of clients whose issues have a cyber dimension.”

Online students can take up to six semesters to get their degrees. It’s also available as a concentration to J.D. students.

The program is structured to provide specialized knowledge in space, cyber and telecom law, with students required to complete foundational courses, such as international law, that pertain to all three areas. 

“The goal is to build concentric circles of expertise that mutually support one another,” said Schaefer. “For example, if you want to practice in the space realm, you also need general international and national security law knowledge as well as an understanding of cyber and telecom laws.”

A number of the program’s graduates are working in cutting-edge legal jobs at SpaceX, Firefly Aerospace, the FBI, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Cyber Command and U.S. Space Command as well as think tanks and law firms. 

FBI Associate Division Counsel Dennis Kamph completed the online degree program in May 2016.

“At the time I started the program, I was doing criminal and national security cyber investigations and I wanted to gain a better understanding of the laws and how they applied to cyber investigations,” said Kamph, who works out of the Washington, D.C. field office. “I thought the way the program was structured was great since it touched on three fascinating areas.

“Technology is ever-evolving of course, but having a foundational understanding of the concepts and laws has enabled me to come up with new and improved approaches to conducting investigations,” he said. 

While enrollment in Nebraska’s program has remained constant over the years, with no noticeable uptick since the pandemic, University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law Dean Megan Carpenter said she’s seeing an increased interest in the school’s Intellectual Property and International Criminal Law and Justice LL.M. programs, both of which have been available online for at least six years. 

“We were already receiving a lot of inquiries before the pandemic about both our residential and online programs,” said Carpenter.

Now she’s getting even more requests for information about the LL.M. programs from international and domestic students.

“I think some U.S. students are looking at continuing their education instead of trying to enter the job market in the middle of the pandemic,” said Carpenter. “I also think the pandemic has allowed more people to realize the enormous potential to learn through online programs. I expect that even when things return to normal we will continue to see renewed interest in these distance-learning programs.”

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