Back in the fall of 2012, I suggested that law schools could help students–and attract new applicants–by offering students a master’s degree at the end of the first year. That degree would allow students to try law school, and to gain the significant skills learned during the first year, without committing to a full three years of legal education. Students who decided at the end of the first year that they disliked law, that the benefits of practice were unlikely to outweigh the further costs of law school, or that they could pursue an attractive job with just one year of legal education, would be able to leave law school with appropriate recognition for their work.
I wasn’t the only person to propose this option. A faculty member at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law had a similar idea. And this week, Cleveland-Marshall announced its “risk-free” JD program. The initiative will allow JD students to convert their first-year credits to a Master of Legal Studies degree if they opt to leave school at the end of the first year. Here’s why the program makes sense.
Law school is a risky degree program compared to other graduate degrees: It requires three years of full-time study at high tuition. Potential law students worry that they won’t like legal study, that they won’t do well in law school, and that they won’t find a satisfying job after graduation. The combination of risks has driven students away from law school.
There’s no way to eliminate all of those risks; offering a master’s degree after the first year, however, significantly reduces them. Students who dislike legal study, or who don’t do as well as they hoped, can leave school with a one-year degree instead of a failed investment. That option makes the three-year JD more attractive to students who aren’t certain about their commitment to law.
No one knows whether students who have completed just a year of law school, and who sport a new Master of Legal Studies degree, will be attractive to employers. But no one knows how attractive other MLS programs, offered independently of JD enrollment, will be to employers either. In creating both types of degree tracks, law schools are betting that graduates will be able to apply one year of legal training to JD-advantage work like human resources or compliance. Alternatively, they hope that the critical thinking taught during the 1L year will enhance a college graduate’s workplace appeal.
Even though we lack data on these job prospects, the predictions of employability are plausible. Faculty, students, and alumni have long touted the transformative training of the 1L year. Students make significant progress in learning how to “think like a lawyer” during that first year. If those analytic skills are valuable, then they should enhance employability.
Equally important, degrees like the Cleveland-Marshall one will help us assess the workplace pay-off for one year of legal study. The MLS option does little, if any, harm to students. It may persuade some students to pay for a year of law school, when they might otherwise have pursued other options. The investment, however, is limited–and includes both a year of professional education and a useful option to continue toward the JD. My bet is that employers will value the MLS; as they respond, we will learn more about the value of different types of law-related degrees.