A new Master of Legal Studies degree will officially be offered at the UCLA School of Law in August 2020.
The MLS program allows non-lawyer professionals the opportunity to obtain an advanced degree that will complement their field of work by taking courses designed specifically for the Legal Studies degree. The program may take between one and four years to complete depending on if students are studying full or part time.
The School of Law helped construct the program in order to meet the growing demand for knowledge of the legal system among non-lawyer professionals, Dean of UCLA School of Law Jennifer Mnookin said in an emailed statement.
“We created the M.L.S. program to better serve professionals, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders,” Mnookin said. “While demand for traditional law degrees has been increasing, we are simultaneously seeing demand for professionals across several industries to acquire greater fluency with the law.”
The degree begins with five core classes designed to provide students with a foundation in legal fluency and a basic understanding of the role of law in the modern world. Upon completion of these courses, students then choose from the more than 300 courses for the Juris Doctor degree – a professional degree in law – that are offered at the School of Law and can specialize in one of eight areas of law or create their own area of specialization.
Russell Korobkin, vice dean for graduate and professional education, said in an emailed statement that he thinks the MLS program will be an attractive option for a wide range of professionals.
“A law school education has long been viewed as incredibly useful training for professionals in the business, non-profit and government sectors who do not actually practice law,” he said. “Lawyers serve in non-legal, senior executive positions across all types of organizations. In fact, 16% of Fortune 100 CEOs have law degrees.”
While he noted the value of a law degree, Korobkin also pointed out that earning a JD requires three years of intense full-time study and can cost between $150,000 and $200,000.
“It is very hard to justify this type of investment unless your goal is to take the bar exam and become a practicing attorney,” Korobkin said.
The UCLA MLS program offers an advanced legal degree for about one-third the cost of a JD and a flexible full-time or part-time pathway, Korobkin said. He said he found that a large number of respondents in a market research study of recent college graduates, who were interested in pursuing an advanced degree, indicated they thought an MLS degree would help them in their careers.
Despite this, the creation of the MLS program at UCLA was controversial among the faculty. Korobkin said that some of the School of Law faculty expressed concerns the MLS program would distract from the school’s focus on training lawyers or that MLS students would be ill-prepared for advanced law school courses. But he added that the way the program was designed alleviated most of those concerns.
Zak Fisher, a law student and the UCLA Graduate Students Association president, said he thinks the MLS program will be beneficial and create a wealth of opportunities for non-lawyer professionals who wish to study at UCLA.
“Generally, I think that it’s a really smart thing to have,” he said. “Something I’ve learned throughout law school is that law and the legal field touches a lot of different aspects of life. … A lawyer isn’t just someone who gives you legal advice; it’s also someone who gives you general advice. … There is a lot of overlap between these skills.”
The benefits of the MLS program are two-fold, Korobkin said. The first half of the program is designed to teach MLS students to “think like a lawyer” – learn how American law works, how lawyers reason through complex issues and how they communicate.
During the second half of the program, students can specialize in their area of professional interest. Korobkin said upon completion of the MLS program, students will have a strong legal analysis and reasoning skills as well as a greater mastery of their chosen specialization.
Other law schools around the country have created similar programs and offer non-lawyer professionals the opportunity to pursue an MLS degree. In 2018, 14% of law-school enrollees were pursuing non-JD programs compared with 8% in 2013, according to a December 2018 article from the Wall Street Journal.
However, Korobkin said that he thinks UCLA’s legal studies degree is unique.
“Our program is designed for professionals who want the skills to be sophisticated problem solvers, not for people who simply want to learn what the law is today in a narrow field,” he said.
Fisher said he thinks the inception of the MLS program is very on-brand for UCLA, one of the top law schools in the country but also one of the more experimental institutions. UCLA School of Law was ranked 15th among US law schools in 2019 according to a U.S. News and World Report.
“I think it’s cutting edge and I think it makes sense,” Fisher said.