The move by two Indiana law schools to follow a national trend and offer master’s degrees to non-lawyers has many practicing lawyers asking where the graduates of these programs will fit into the legal profession.
Attorneys who know of these degrees are concerned about what specific jobs these graduates will hold and whether these people will overstep by offering legal services. Some fear an influx of new legal professionals will only constrict an already tight job market.
But other attorneys see potential benefits from the programs. Graduates will have a better understanding of the law, making them easier clients to work with, and they could possibly help lawyers by doing the more mundane legal tasks.
Beyond the speculation and questions, the new degree programs have encountered neither broad opposition nor support primarily because most attorneys are unaware of the law schools’ initiatives.
At the Indiana State Bar Association, the degrees have not caught the attention of many members, but association President Jim Dimos expects that to change as the programs start and the publicity around them grows. He anticipates the ISBA’s Legal Education Conclave, which is scheduled to convene in 2015, as well as the Professional Legal Education, Admission & Development Section will take a closer look at these degrees.
“I think it’s very early in the process for the Indiana State Bar Association to take a position,” Dimos said. “I don’t think we truly know what this looks like yet.”
Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Valparaiso University Law School were the first in Indiana to announce they wanted to offer these legal degrees for non-lawyers. Both schools promote their degrees as being geared toward working professionals who could supplement or advance their careers with a greater understanding of the law.
Valparaiso’s Master of Professional Studies in Law program was scheduled to start in January 2014 at the university’s Hyde Park campus in Chicago. However, according to the law school’s interim dean Ivan Bodensteiner, getting accreditation in Illinois took longer than expected so Valparaiso decided to suspend the program indefinitely. The law school plans to revisit the degree to give an opportunity for Andrea Lyon, the new dean who arrived July 1, to be involved in the launch.
IU McKinney is starting its Master of Jurisprudence program July 7 with 15 students, more than the school had anticipated. They come from a variety of fields, said Deborah McGregor, M.J. program director. Some are students continuing their education while others are working professionals in the industries of health care, education and government.
Students at IU McKinney will pick courses from the J.D. curriculum that they believe will give them the legal knowledge they need in their careers. McGregor said the message that graduates will not be able to practice law permeates the program.
“I feel very confident, at least, that we’re doing our part to make students aware,” McGregor said.
Lyle Hardman, a partner in the South Bend office of Hunt Suedhoff Kalamaros LLP, asked the question that many in the legal community may likely be wondering: “You can get a law degree in three years, so what’s the point of going two years and not getting a law degree?”
Hardman noted a key component of legal education is not included in the master’s curriculum – experiential learning. He said he learned how to practice law on the job. These master’s degree graduates, he continued, will not be getting practical knowledge of the law.
Similar programs have been launched amid the tight legal job market at other law schools, including University of Dayton and Emory, Wake Forest and Seton Hall universities.
Declining enrollment at law schools nationally translates into less revenue, which is impacting more than law classrooms, libraries and professors.
Benjamin Barton, professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, explained law schools have traditionally been the cash cows for universities, so the drop in the number of students paying for J.D. degrees can ripple through the budgets of all the other schools and departments on campus.
Case in point, The Catholic University of America announced in 2013 it would be slashing operational expenditures by 20 percent as a result of the decline in law school applications.
These master’s degree programs are one piece of a broader effort by law schools to attract more students, Barton said. Other countermeasures include the expansion of the curriculum to teach prelaw courses to undergraduates and the growth of LLM programs for attorneys and, in particular, foreign students.
For some law schools, Barton speculated, the shrinking revenue has been so dramatic that these non-J.D. programs may be the difference between staying open and closing.
Fitting into the profession
After some members of the Indianapolis Bar Association ran across a newspaper ad for the IU McKinney master’s program, the association’s leadership scheduled a meeting with the law school’s then-dean, Gary Roberts.
In particular, the attorneys were apprehensive the individuals with these master’s degrees would either perform more or be asked to do more legal work than they are authorized to do, according to Jeff Abrams, association president.
This is similar to the ISBA’s concern that the graduates of the master’s programs will hold themselves out as providers of legal advice, confusing consumers and getting very close to the unauthorized practice of law. Dimos wondered what entity would oversee these graduates since they will not be regulated by the courts as lawyers are.
“Where, if anywhere, do holders of this degree fit into the profession?” Dimos asked.
Roberts allied the IndyBar members’ fears, Abrams said, by predicting the IU McKinney program would attract only a small number of students, possibly 10 to 20 annually. Also, the former dean assured the attorneys the program was to further educate people who already handle legal issues as a part of their jobs and was not intended to create some kind of hybrid practicing lawyer.
“I think we concluded the program should not be a problem for the Indianapolis Bar Association,” he said.
Abrams also contacted colleagues in Columbus, Ohio, and inquired about a similar degree program at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. Their response echoed Roberts in that they have not seen much impact on their practices despite the program being several years old.
Business and estate attorney Carol Adinamis does not foresee these master’s degree holders as posing any kind of problem for attorneys. Clients seek out lawyers specifically because of the skills and expertise that only practitioners have, she said. In her practice at Adinamis Michael & Saunders, although she has experience as a CPA, she does not tell the accountants she works with how to do their jobs. Rather, she said, she and the accountants work together for the benefit of the clients.
And, she does not believe having more professionals who hold a deeper knowledge of legal matters will harm the profession.
“I think anytime somebody has a better understand of the law,” Adinamis said, “it’s a good thing.”
Both Abrams and Dimos said their respective associations have concerns some of the legal jobs available will start going to individuals with these master’s degrees rather than to holders of J.D. degrees.
However, Ted Waggoner, chair of the ISBA’s Legal Education Conclave, sees the potential for the degree program to actually help attorneys do their jobs better.
He pointed to his practice at Peterson Waggoner & Perkins LLP in Rochester and how some clients ask their attorneys to do work, such as filling out insurance forms, that they could do themselves. Waggoner believes the individuals with the legal master’s degrees could do the routine, mundane business thus freeing the lawyers to do the substantive legal work.
Paul Chadha, adjunct professor for the master of jurisprudence program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, agreed that these degree holders would fill the role envisioned by Waggoner.
“I could not imagine a single one of my students hanging out a shingle,” Chadha said. “They’re not taught to do that.”
Loyola is a forerunner in the legal degree movement, first offering its M.J. degree in health law in the 1980s. It followed up with concentrations in business law and children’s law in the early 1990s.
Students in the program are typically business professionals who are mid-career and looking to either get into management or make a career change, according to Lindsay Dunbar, program coordinator for the business law online programs and Shelley Dunck, co-director of the business law center. The program, they said, is not for individuals who view the program as a shortcut to practicing law.
Chadha said the M.J. graduates fill jobs that are already available and are better suited to their skills rather than those of an attorney.
As corporate counsel for Accenture in Chicago, he pointed to his company’s jobs postings that included several openings for contract managers. He conceded these positions could be filled by lawyers but, because the managers usually monitor only one contract at a time, he described the work as “routine” and “mind numbing” and being one notch below what a lawyer would want to do.
He also asserted that having a job like a contract manager could be detrimental to a lawyer’s career. Since the responsibilities are so limited, other companies and firms looking for new hires would likely want attorneys who did higher-level work.
Despite the rise of these master’s degrees and the promotion from law schools, Barton, the Tennessee law professor, has doubts the programs will be very successful.
He, too, questioned where the demand is for this type of education and who will benefit from having such knowledge of the law. In addition, he said, these degrees are not cheap. Although some corporations do cover tuition costs for employees who pursue an MBA, Barton is unsure businesses will be willing to pay for M.J. degrees.
Most significant, law schools are entering a very competitive market without a clear message.
“In this segment of the market, law schools will be competing against a lot of other opportunities and law schools are not used to doing that,” Barton said.•