Much in the news the last few days are reports of a growing number of law schools offering one-year full-time or two-year part-time pre-JD master’s degrees in law. Apparently nearly 30 institutions offer or soon will offer a degree of this kind. Coverage in the National Law Journal can be found here; Wall St. Journal (subscr. req’d) here; Above the Law here. The degree is variously denominated a “Master in Legal Studies” (MLS), “Master of Studies in Law” (MSL), “Juris Master” (JM), “Master of Jurisprudence” (MJ) or “Master of Science in Legal Studies” (MS).
So many acronyms. Is this just another case of More Universities that Like to Collect Tuition (MULCT)? Let’s look at the early evidence.
The NLJ quotes the view of one senior faculty member at Indiana University at Indianapolis that “[t]his is about finding a different pool of potential students.” While this is a refreshingly candid reflection on why the program might be good for law schools, particularly those with rapidly diminishing JD enrollments, it does raise certain questions about the degree’s utility for potential students.
On this question, the NLJ quotes Frank Wu, dean at UC Hastings, and in my own opinion one of the genuinely thoughtful, constructive and creative law-school administrators navigating these difficult times:
“Many lawyers work in human resources, but you don't have to have a J.D. It’s the same thing with compliance officers in banks and hospitals. There are all these jobs in law — criminal justice jobs, law firm management jobs, consultants — where a J.D. makes no sense but some legal training is useful.”
Fair enough. But wait a second. Those familiar with the dreary tidings that the ABA and NALP employment outcome figures have borne in recent years know that these days law graduates’ reportable employment successes come in two principal categories—positions that require a law license; and “JD Advantage” positions that do not require a law license but for which the law degree provides “a demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing the job.” The ABA Section on Legal Education defines “JD Advantage” positions in part like this:
“A position in this category is one for which . . . the JD provided a demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing the job, but itself does not require bar passage, an active law license, or involve practicing law. Examples of positions for which a JD is an advantage include a corporate contracts administrator, alternative dispute resolution specialist, government regulatory analyst, FBI agent, and accountant. Also included might be jobs in personnel or human resources, jobs with investment banks, jobs with consulting firms, jobs doing compliance work in business and industry, jobs in law firm professional development, and jobs in law school career services offices, admissions offices, or other law school administrative offices. Doctors or nurses who plan to work in a litigation, insurance, or risk management setting, or as expert witnesses, would fall into this category, as would journalists and teachers (in a higher education setting) of law and law related topics.”
These “JD Advantage” jobs are counted (at least in part) as employment successes by US News in determining the employment component of its rankings, and are touted by various Panglosses (like this one) and Polyannas (e.g., the second comment to this post) in the legal academy as a consummation devoutly to be wished and an independently sufficient justification to seek a JD. But the very positions offered to justify a one-year master’s “where a J.D. makes no sense”—“human resources,” “compliance officers,” ”criminal justice jobs,” “consultants”—are specifically enumerated examples of “JD Advantage” positions in the ABA definition. Oops.
Of course, this doesn’t prove that there is no position not requiring a law license for which a JD provides advantages so irreplaceably substantial that it justifies three years’ time and tuition. Undoubtedly some such positions exist. But what it strongly suggests is that many of the jobs conventionally offered as examples of such positions really aren’t, and that overall there are vastly fewer genuinely JD-Advantaged positions than some law schools’ self-reporting or a sensible definition of the category might imply. Put slightly differently, the broader the population for which a one-year master’s degree makes sense, the narrower the range of “JD Advantaged” positions for which pursuit of a JD provides any cost-justified advantage. This also suggests that this novel marketing tactic may prove self-defeating, as the wider availability of one-year masters’ programs persuades larger numbers of potential JD seekers that there is a shorter, cheaper path to a range of law-related work.
Those of you who are kind enough to follow my posts on this site will recall my repeated insistence that What Matters Most right now is that there are substantially more seats in law schools than there are law jobs for graduates. (E.g., here, here and here.) How many of you seriously believe that the solution to this problem is to find more butts—that “[t]his is about finding a different pool of potential students”?
If you think that the solution to the legal academy’s excess supply is to develop “products” that can be “marketed” to a broader range of “consumers,” then the law-school scam brigade is right that you should be regarded, and treated, like a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. If, on the other hand, you view the master’s degree as an innovation designed to regulate the proportionality of the cost and extent of legal education to its utility in particular circumstances (and from his comments I would put Dean Wu in this camp), you may be on to the beginning of something interesting.