Tuesday, November 5, 2013

In Defense of New LL.M. Programs

Even if we do not like what they have to say, the bloggers and journalists critical of legal education have helped to foster some necessary reforms. For example, ABA Standard 509 requires greater transparency in the consumer information provided by law schools, and websites such as Law School Transparency had a role in exposing questionable reporting of employment data, and conditional scholarships.

There are times, on the other hand, that the critics reflexively say negative things about new programs or innovations, without really knowing anything about them. That is not surprising, since most of the critics of legal education seem to assume that they know everything there is to know about legal education, simply because they went to law school for three years. One area of reflexive criticism has come in response to the creation of new LL.M. programs.

The assumption the critics make is that law schools need to replace revenues lost by declining enrollments. Accordingly, law schools have created a costly new degree that will sucker unsuspecting students into more debt, without really enhancing their employment prospects. If that assumption is true, then the LL.M. programs should be scoffed at.

A close examination and understanding of many of the new LL.M. programs, on the other hand, will show that they are exactly the type of innovative programs critics have been calling for. For example, the Air and Space Law LL.M.[1] http://law.olemiss.edu/prospective-students/llm-applications/ at the Ole Miss draws on the existing expertise and resources of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law housed at the law school. That center has offered a certificate program for over a decade, and has built a strong pipeline for employment of its students in a rapidly growing air and space industry.  The director of the program has an international reputation, and has helped to write the aviation laws of many nations. For years, lawyers in the United States and abroad have been asking for the creation of an LL.M. degree. Those lawyers already work in the industry, and want to enhance their credentials. In fact, some of the students who attend the program will have their costs paid for by their governments, and will continue their employment while they pursue the degree. Because the LL.M. programs require ABA acquiescence, rather than ABA approval, schools can make extensive use of distance technology, which is not available for a JD degree. Of the six students in the program’s initial year, five are taking classes through distance education, meaning that they have no additional living expenses.

The Ole Miss LL.M. is obviously not alone in offering a degree for practicing lawyers on a distance basis. For example, Stetson Law School was an innovator in this field, with their LL.M. in Elderlaw http://www.stetson.edu/law/academics/elder/llm/. Stetson has been a leader in Elderlaw since the 1980’s. The LL.M. program was one of the first to offer a distance option for practicing attorneys who want the degree to enhance their existing practices, in a growing area of the law. Employment statistics are truly meaningless for these programs, because most of the students are already employed.

If we are providing a degree for lawyers who are already employed, and who have asked us to offer that degree, and we make full use of available technologies, and existing resources to keep their costs of attendance down, isn’t that a good thing?

[1] I know some will laugh at Air and Space Law, and I would have, too, 20 years ago. I also laughed at Intellectual Property when I was in law school. Air and space is a growing field, and firms like Jones Day have even developed space law departments.  The military in the United States and other countries have expressed an interest in establishing a partnership with the LL.M. program.


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