Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg
Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The Juris Masters Program: Natural Evolution or Stop-Gap for Struggling Law Schools?

It’s not a secret anymore: an increasingly popular way for law schools to boost revenues amid falling JD application numbers is to get students in the door for a masters program.

But while the master of laws degree, or LLM, has long been popular for tax experts or foreign students, a more recent innovation — a single-year, non-JD degree frequently known as a “juris master” or “master’s of jurisprudence” is stirring up a controversy.

Law school leaders say these one-year programs, often aimed at mid-career professionals in red-tape heavy industries like finance and healthcare, are of value in an increasingly complex world. Critics say the schools have just invented a new overpriced degree.

A sharp uptick in these programs was first widely reported in 2013, igniting the debate, but because there is little to no data on how the market is pricing these degrees, and their impact in the real world, it’s still unclear who’s right.

“There’s a lot of skepticism among critics of masters programs generally,” said Derek Muller, a law professor at Pepperdine University. “But at the same time we don’t know very much about these programs because they do occupy a different space.”

Muller has written about the uptick in non-JD enrollment, including programs aimed at foreign students, like LLMs. He added, “We focus almost obsessively on employment outcomes on the JD side, but there is almost no data that talks about the outcome on [the non-JD] side.”

It’s also still unclear just how many of these single-year programs are out there. Robert Ahdieh, a vice dean at Emory University law school, which has a substantial juris master program, estimated the total number of graduates may still be “in the hundreds” nationally.

Barry Currier, managing director of the ABA’s legal education section, said growth has continued from the first flurry of programs a few years ago: “We probably approved, or ‘acquiesced in’ as we call it, maybe as many as 25 to 30 of them last year,” he said.

By “acquiesce,” Currier meant that, unlike JD degrees, the ABA doesn’t issue accreditation for the programs, but does still review them, to make sure they don’t interfere with JD curriculums.

Source: Excess of Democracy

Total non-JD enrollment, including LLM and other programs, has spiked sharply as a percentage of law school enrollment. Source: Derek Muller (based on ABA statistics).

Emory is perhaps the highest ranked law school to invest substantially in a one-year non-JD program. The school’s juris master degree, launched in 2011 and aimed at helping professionals bone up on regulatory compliance, now admits 40-45 new students each year, after early classes in the single digits.

According to Ahdieh, the argument for the program is straightforward: medical schools and business schools are already offering higher numbers of law-related classes, trying to meet a need more naturally met by law schools.

“Even if there’s a law school that’s rolling in money, a law school that’s using money as wallpaper, they should still be offering these programs,” Ahdieh said.

An early adopter and vocal proponent of one-year programs, Ahdieh is also aware of the criticisms. He made it a point on Tuesday to emphasize that Emory had begun warming up to the juris master idea several years before the launch date: “Our thinking about doing this pre-dates decline in JD applications,” he said.

In an email on Tuesday, University of Tennessee professor Ben Barton, who’s written for Big Law Business, said, right now, single-year degrees aren’t usually a good bet.

“Is the program as expensive as a regular year in law school?” Barton wrote. “If so, I doubt that right now they would be very cost effective, since there are many unemployed law grads and lawyers who are hungry for exactly the jobs these masters recipients would be competing for (compliance, health care law, etc.).”

Not surprisingly, Ahdieh disagreed, arguing three-year law graduates are often overqualified, and demand higher compensation. “It’s not an apples to apples comparison,” he said.

Ahdieh added that the type of students applying are typically older and well-informed, evidence of sustainable demand: “Among mid-career professionals, we’re seeing substantial interest in the program,” he said.

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