More Often, Nonlawyers Try Taste of Law School

Toni M. Fine in the Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2013

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Law schools hunting for students as their enrollment numbers drop are increasingly trying to attract an unexpected group: people who have no intention of practicing law.

Doctors, environmental consultants and even an urban planner have signed up for the programs, which offer master's degrees in law and typically cost about the same as one year of law school.

Pitched at midcareer professionals, the programs tend to draw people who work in heavily regulated fields where compliance with a growing body of rules requires an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the law. Some students also hope to gain a competitive edge.

"I thought it would be smart to learn about health law, not just for my day-to-day practice but to help me perhaps get involved in some administrative role," said Dr. Benjamin Goldman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island. He completed an online degree program in health law through Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and graduated over the weekend.

Law schools are also beefing up existing programs for foreign lawyers looking for a primer in U.S. legal practice, and for attorneys who want to burnish their credentials with additional degrees in intellectual property and other hot practice areas.

Student enrollment in programs that don't offer a juris doctor, or J.D.—the traditional three-year-law degree—has increased 13% since 2010, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of American Bar Association data.

 Last year, Emory University School of Law in Atlanta and Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C., both launched master's-degree programs geared specifically for nonlawyers who want grounding in legal basics.

Fordham University School of Law in New York recently added an LLM, or Master of Laws, program in international dispute resolution and is teeing up another in corporate compliance. About 90% of the school's 190 LLM students are from abroad, said Toni Fine, an assistant dean at the school, and demand from Asian lawyers in particular has spiked.

The ABA doesn't track how many law schools launch new non-J.D. programs each year. But legal educators and ABA officials report anecdotally that such programs have mushroomed in recent years, as more schools introduce new offerings or expand existing programs. They say the trend could partly offset the current enrollment slump among first-year law students.

Law schools are grappling with steep declines in applications and enrollment amid a weak legal-jobs market.

As of May 10, applications to law schools were at their lowest level, year-to-date, since 2001, according to the Law School Admission Council, a nonprofit group that administers the Law School Admission Test and compiles admissions data.

Students have submitted 372,225 applications for the fall 2013 semester so far this year, a 19% drop compared with the same time in 2012 and a 37% decline from that in 2010, during the recession, when students flocked to law schools.

"Adding new degree programs is like a company diversifying its product lines. If demand for one sags, you've still got alternative sources of revenue coming in," said Paul McGreal, dean of the University of Dayton School of Law, which now offers master's degrees for nonlawyers and practicing attorneys alike.

As the supply of would-be lawyers declines, some law schools have trimmed staff. Others have opted to limit the size of incoming classes, a cost-cutting move that can also help schools stay selective on the admissions side, and thus maintain their position in the widely followed U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Barry Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education, said more non-J.D. programs are popping up now for two reasons: They can generate revenue for schools, and they respond to market needs for people with specialized training.

"It preceded the economic downturn," Mr. Currier said, "but it's accelerated as the J.D. enrollments have declined, and it's continuing this year."

Some educators are skeptical about the new crop of offerings. Nan Hunter, a law professor and associate dean for graduate programs at Georgetown University Law Center, which has long offered LLM degrees in tax, national security, health and securities law, said some schools appeared to be "rushing into the business" because of financial concerns.

At Emory, Dean Robert Schapiro played down the role additional revenue might have had in setting up the new program, which he said was a response to "strong" demand for legal education in the broader population and outside the U.S. The 40 or so students in Emory's program include physicians, a dentist, a sports-communications staffer at CNN, an environmental-consulting executive and a South Korean patent judge.

But Chris Meazell, head of Wake Forest's new Master of Studies in Law program, said the program was launched largely to diversify the school's offerings at a time of shrinking enrollment at law schools nationwide.

Tiffany Kallam is set to graduate on Monday from the fledgling Wake Forest program. A 2012 graduate of Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., Ms. Kallam wants to develop educational opportunities for prison inmates, and said the one-year master's program gave her "a better understanding of criminal law and prison culture" without the expense and time of enrolling in a traditional J.D. program.

Technology has also helped drive the growth of programs aimed at students not headed into law careers, as schools roll out online courses that allow distance learning and offer more flexibility for students such as Dr. Goldman, who are juggling legal studies with full-time work.

Loyola University Chicago School of Law began offering online master's degrees in 2008; since then, online enrollment has swelled from 16 to nearly 350 students, according to Kelley Yaccino, director of enrollment management and marketing for the university's Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy.

In January, Washington University School of Law in St. Louis introduced its online LLM program in U.S. law, an offering the school said had been planned before the recent decline in enrollment.

The inaugural class of 10 included foreign attorneys from Brazil, China, India, Japan, Mexico and Pakistan.