Is a master’s degree for you?

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A master’s in law for non-lawyers is a relatively new degree. It doesn’t have nearly the history of the J.D., which was first awarded in the U.S. in 1902 by the University of Chicago Law School. (Great trivia night question, FYI …)

Yale Law School is believed to have offered one of the first non-lawyer degrees in the 1970s. Today, the degree — known by several names, such as Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or Master of Jurisprudence (MJ)— is growing in popularity and offered by more schools. The goal of the degree is to help professionals in fields where law comes into play often.

Human resource and health care professions are prime examples. Compliance officers can also see considerable benefit, given how they are tasked to make sure their companies are not running afoul of new laws and regulations. Contract negotiators and business analysts are also good candidates.

So is it right for you? 

The first big question: Do you want to become a lawyer? If so, this is not necessarily the degree for you.

“The main difference between a J.D. and MLS boils down to the student’s motivation in earning the degree,” said Dan Urman, director of Northeastern University School of Law’s online and hybrid programs. “Master of Legal Studies programs are designed to grant students a working knowledge of the law that they can put to use in an industry or career that interacts with the law, but without going into the training required to become a practicing attorney.”

Individuals who regularly need to communicate with lawyers or navigate through the complicated world of legal regulations, but are not concerned with representing a client, are ideal MLS candidates, he said.

The degree has a couple benefits over the J.D. It is less expensive and doesn’t take as long to earn. (You can finish it part-time in under two years.) And one of the major factors for its growth is that many schools offer it online. Working professionals make up the bulk of students, and they are pressed for time. This gives them the flexibility to earn the degree at their convenience. 

Northeastern, which is in Boston, has five concentrations, all online: Business Law, Health Law, Human Resources Law, Intellectual Property Law and Public Law and Policy. 

One of the big reasons people are drawn to it is because it has the potential to boost one’s career.

“The individuals most likely to seek out an MLS are those who currently work in a middle or upper management role, and who would like to take the next logical step toward more authority and responsibility within their industry or organization, whatever that step may be,” Urman said.

But it can also help other people who feel they need more legal knowledge, given how complicated navigating our world can be. Take a chef who wants to open his own restaurant, as an example. He won’t just be a chef anymore. He’ll be running a business, which will have to abide by a host of laws and regulations, from minimum wage to ADA compliance.

“Since law is the foundation of society, this includes business, non-profits, government, personal conflicts with neighbors and relatives, and more,” Urman said. “Many of our students have told me that they feel much more comfortable working with lawyers, and knowing when questions don’t require the services of a licensed attorney. The chef would know the right questions to ask a lawyer, and would probably know what questions require a lawyer and which don’t.  I liken it to someone in the medical field knowing when to call a doctor and what to ask them.”

You will have to work at it. This is not elementary stuff. Law schools are known for being academically focused.  

“Our degree is challenging,” Urman said. “I always say that learning law is like learning a new language. Since our students are working, they have to manage their time carefully. We built our curriculum with this in mind, and have students take one course at a time so they are not overwhelmed by the courses. They can still complete the degree in fewer than two years.”

And just know that if you haven’t picked up a book for a while, getting back in the saddle is not necessarily an easy thing.

“For students who have been out of school for a while or have not studied law, the first course or two can be very difficult,” he said.

With more and more offerings, how does one choose a school? Remember, geography is not necessarily a factor anymore. Online programs exist throughout the nation.

“I think the main factors relate to faculty, curriculum/course offerings, reputation and strength of the alumni population,” Urman said. “Last but not least, students care about cost.”

And this degree may take you down unexpected paths. Some people who take it discover the law may indeed be their calling.

“Several of our students finished the MLS so passionate about the law, they went on to earn a J.D. after their MLS,” he said.