Online LL.M.'s: A New Way to Rob Peter to Pay Paul?

Two weeks ago, faculty at Seton Hall’s School of Law were informed their pay would be cut by 10 percent during the upcoming term. All junior (untenured) faculty were told they could be fired after the 2013-2014 school year. Seton Hall joined Florida Coastal, (where 10 percent of staff were fired) and Vermont Law School (one-fifth of tenure-track faculty positions were removed), in delivering a message professors not at elite schools have long feared was coming. As the legal job market remains in shambles and law school applications continue their historic free-fall, schools will be forced to take a variety of drastic measures to remain solvent until the millions in disappearing tuition dollars return. Firing faculty and downsizing staff—perhaps even closing whole schools—will likely soon be common; so will the appearance of the LL.M., a degree whose strange history may be emblematic of the most serious problems in legal education.

The LL.M., awarded after the first degree in law, was once almost exclusively pursued by foreign students and lawyers seeking expertise in technical fields like tax law. Very few lawyers could say they were LL.M-holders. Now, as I reported in early May, the degree is being awarded to more and more Americans, often by schools with low employment rates (two-thirds of the law programs with the 50 worst full-time legal employment rates offer LL.M.’s to American students). Since my article appeared, the degree has become even more common, and there may soon be a dramatic expansion of LL.M.’s offered online.

Rebecca Purdom, chair of the Working Group for Distance Learning in Legal Education and a professor at Vermont Law School, says discussions to expand online LL.M.’s upped their intensity in the last nine months: “The number of folks who call me—several calls a week—from a law school whose dean has told them, ‘You are going to head up a distance learning program … and you’re going to make us a bunch of money to shore up our finances because we’re losing J.D.’s—it’s a weekly occurrence right now.”

Critics are skeptical that the expansion of LL.M.’s will save either schools or students. “It does not surprise me that there is a proliferation of new LL.M. programs, especially at lower-ranked schools,” writes Pepperdine law professor Paul Caron in an email. Along with other critics, Caron argues that LL.M. degrees do not significantly improve a job candidate’s résumé; certainly not enough to justify the costs, which are usually the same as those of J.D. courses (online LL.M. courses often cost the same as in-person courses). “With cavernous shortfalls in their budgets, law schools trying to avoid the fate of Seton Hall, Vermont, etc. will do all they can to rob Peter (students) to pay Paul (faculty).”

The jury is out on that matter. The ABA does not require law schools to report employment figures for LL.M.’s, and, Purdom argues, that data might not be meaningful anyway, since many LL.M. candidates are adults attempting to switch careers or being paid by their employer to take classes.

When I showed then-private employment data for LL.M. graduates of American University’s Washington College of Law specializing in "law and government" to Kyle McEntee, the founder of the watchdog organization Law School Transparency, he remarked that they looked “pretty good” and “a lot better than American’s outcomes look for their J.D. students.” Purdom says that at Vermont Law the employment rate for its online LL.M. program, which graduated its first class this year, is close to 100 percent. And although the bar was pretty low at American, where only 39 percent of the school’s 2012 graduates secured full-time legal employment—in large part because of the school’s location in D.C., the most competitive legal market in the country—the school does enjoy a stronger reputation than many colleges with comparable employment figures, like California Western or Phoenix School of Law.

That helps explains why many students with a legal degree from schools with lower U.S. News rankings go to American: for “the credential boost,” as Washington University in St. Louis professor Brian Tamanaha puts it.

But that credential boost seems less likely from a program like Thomas M. Cooley’s master’s of law in homeland and national security. For the class of 2012, only nine schools listed by Law School Transparency had worse full-time legal employment rates than Cooley (24.7), and, because of its high enrollment and expensive tuition relative to job outcomes, the school is regularly cited by critics as an example of what’s wrong with legal education.

Yet, Cooley and schools with employment rates like Cooley's—Golden Gate University (with a 21 percent full-time legal employment rate), Thomas Jefferson (24 percent), and Western New England (33 percent)—already offer LL.M. programs aimed at U.S.-trained lawyers, and some may be planning to open new LL.M. programs in the future or expand enrollments in existing ones, increasingly online.

They’re not alone—or soon won’t be. Purdom says that what was once a group of 14 or 15 “misfit schools” and “weirdos” looking to start or expand online LL.M. programs as part of the Working Group for Distance Learning two years ago, now has “200 schools on the listserv and coming to the various meetings in one capacity or another,” including “a lot of mainstream schools.” The working group is now lobbying the ABA to change its regulations to allow regular law students to take more courses online, and to create best-practice rules to avoid what Purdom says is "a huge fear ... that all these programs are going to go online with a camera in the back of the class with some really, really, really bad stuff—that would be really bad for the profession."

As for concern over employment outcomes, Purdom adds that deans are often surprised, likely because of the reputation the degree had when they were in school, that LL.M. programs are enrolling so many U.S.-trained lawyers but that “we shouldn’t be surprised they’re Americans.”

"The rhetoric, whether it's true or not, is that the marketplace is so incredibly competitive right now that you have to get extra, extra training to be able to get an interview. So [you see some students saying], 'I'm $200,000 in debt and I need the extra degree so I'll be special enough to get a job.'"

Purdom is unsure whether new, more urgent pressure to increase revenues will actually lead to more LL.M. programs. But given the size of the working group’s mailing list—which includes Widener (39 percent full-time legal employment rate), Touro College (50 percent), Suffolk (39 percent), and the University of California—Hastings (46 percent)—that seems possible.

“I can't predict what's going to happen,” says Purdom. “It's going to be fun to watch. Or sad.”


Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Golden Gate University has recently started or is planning to start a new LL.M. program. Gold Gate University has not started a new LL.M. program since 2002 and has no plans to start a new one.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Vermont Law School graduated its first LL.M. class this year. It has offered an LL.M. for over a decade and graduated its first online LL.M. class this year.

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