How do working lawyers manage LL.M. studies?


By Rebecca Larsen

Siobhan Galbraith is governance counsel and contracts team manager for North America for the Schlumberger Technology Co. in Houston. “It’s definitely not a 40-hour-a-week job,” she said.

But she manages to go to school at the same time to earn an advanced law degree, an LL.M. in Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Law at the University of Houston.

She’s originally from Canada and earned her J.D. at the University of Ottawa in 2011. But she decided to get that LL.M. after moving to Houston in 2018 to take her current job.

So how does she put all that studying and a challenging job together successfully?

Well, she’s got some help regarding scheduling. She takes courses in night school and studies on the weekends. “It’s an LL.M. related to my specific practice area and it’s very pedagogical which is good for me because I’m interested in learning,” Galbraith said. “But I have a lot of energy and I love doing it.”

Time management is crucial, she noted. “There are exams as well as papers to write. I spend about five or six hours a week studying,” she said. “The school has done a lot to help me fit the program into my work; they’ve been very flexible.”

To provide evening courses for LL.M. candidates, the school uses adjunct professors who are flexible about working at night. Some also teach special courses during the intersession in January and during spring breaks. Galbraith takes no online courses.

She started the degree in August 2019 but hopes to finish at the end of the fall semester this year.

There are many reasons for getting an LL.M. besides its educational value, including a desire to switch to a new specialty; a chance to network with other law students and professors; and the opportunity to add the name of a prestigious university to a resume.  All that might improve a lawyer’s chances of being hired for a better job or of building a profitable practice.

Attorney Rebekah Reed of Houston has spent most of her professional career in government jobs. Now the LL.M. she’s working on at the University of Houston focuses on health law. “My passion is health policy and bioethics,” she said. “The LL.M was a way to do more focused study in that area.”

Previously, she had earned a Ph.D. at Georgetown University in 1999 as well as a J.D.  (magna cum laude) at the University of Houston Law Center in 2012.

How does she juggle the demands of her job while trying to study as much as possible for that LL.M.?

“It has been a challenge, but it’s manageable,” she said. “I started off with a light course load, but I take summer and intersession classes and don’t have a lot of free time. I take no more than six credits a semester. It’s doable. When you have a demanding job and are working on an advanced degree you learn to waste less time. But after two years I am ready to be finished.”

Reed is a single mother and has a daughter, 15, who goes to class with her most evenings. She does her homework when her mother is in class. “We live about 45 minutes from the law center, so we get some good quality commuting time together to talk about her day,” Reed said.

Night-time classes have been a popular way to serve lawyers who are seeking more education. But some law schools are increasing online programs so that students can spend less time and money commuting to campuses. But in the past, these online, long-distance classes have lacked meaningful interaction between students and their professors and their fellow students.

New solutions are becoming available. For example, The University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia used to hold on-campus classes on Mondays for its popular dispute resolution degree for lawyers. That way, many working attorneys from across the country could travel to the school on weekends to attend the classes on a part-time basis while still maintaining jobs or practices.

Now, however, according to Paul Ladehoff, director of the LL.M. program in dispute resolution, the school has changed its approach and is switching to online classes to better serve more full-time attorneys.

These online classes have a personal touch because they are often done synchronously so everyone watches and participates at the same time. Asynchronous classes are ones in which online students watch a recorded presentation at different times and may have less opportunity to raise questions with a teacher.

“Online classes now can have much more flexibility,” Ladehoff said. “An attorney in Michigan or one in South Korea can work on a degree and have more interaction.”

That’s because the school uses apps like Zoom or Canvas so that a group of students can sign on and listen to a live lecture together and then have discussions or even split up into groups to practice different conflict resolution techniques. Canvas is a prime choice used to deliver online content while Zoom is popular mostly for in-person video conferencing, according ti Ladehoff.

Using these techniques, groups of students doing projects can do simulations, no matter where in the world they are. Video capabilities of the programs mean students can see a professor during his or her presentations, and the professor can see them. “It’s a way of holding all the students more accountable,” Ladehoff said.

He wants students no matter where they are to respond to his questions and to watch simulations done by other students.

Asynchronous communication still continues with some lectures still online so that students can watch a lecture at a time more convenient for them. And of course, students can still communicate with the teacher and other students via email.

In future, Ladehoff sees synchronous learning online becoming more common as well for J.D. students.

One student in Ladehoff’s LL.M. classes who gave rave reviews to synchronous learning was Michael L. Russell, a full-time lawyer, specializing in mediation, who practices in Nashville, Tenn. He’s 46, married and has two children.

“I’m studying online 100 percent part-time for my LL.M. and I’ve never set foot in Columbia, Mo.,” Russell said. “ I had wanted this LL.M. for a long time, but since I had such a busy practice, I didn’t think I could do it.”

Before starting work on the degree, he was concerned that online earning might mean not talking to other students and the teacher. “But since I started the degree, I’ve had robust interaction with the professors and with other students in online meetings and video conferences,” Russell said. “I really have gotten to know my fellow students better than I ever did when I got my J.D. in Memphis.”

Most of his classes have been synchronous. “Every professor handles the situation differently,” Russell said. “For example, last semester I had a class in non-binding negotiation classes with online lectures. Then I’d log on and answer questions and comment online. Or I’d use Zoom to arrange with fellow students for a joint meeting.”

Sometimes the student meetings take place across five different time zones – someone in Africa for example — plus other people from all over the country. “We’re able to chat about our various viewpoints and do simulated negotiations online,” he said.

Russell takes one class per semester which requires several hours of study. He estimated the cost of his studies at $3,000 per class which will add up to about $18,500 for the eight classes needed for the degree. “I should finish up the degree by the end of next year,” he said. “I’m about halfway through.”