It’s no secret that law school applications have been in free fall in recent years. But schools like Hamline University’s School of Law in St. Paul have discovered a new, and growing, pool of potential students: working professionals who have no interest in practicing law.
Last year, Hamline unveiled its first master’s degree in the study of law, which is designed to teach non-lawyers the kind of legal skills that they can use in other fields, such as banking, health care administration or human resources.
Starting in August, it’s going to offer the program online, in hopes of drawing students from around the country or even the world.
“You hear all the time the market for lawyers is shrinking,” said James Coben, a Hamline law professor who’s directing the new master’s program. But there’s a growing recognition, he said, that many people need more than a passing knowledge of the law to do their jobs well.
The master’s program gives them a chance to learn some tricks from the lawyer’s playbook, such as negotiating and conflict resolution, in roughly a third of the time as regular law school, and at a fraction of the cost. A law degree at Hamline takes three years and costs over $100,000; the online master’s program will cost about $24,000.
Now, there are 17 master’s students at Hamline, taking classes side by side with future lawyers. But Coben said the online program will extend its reach far beyond campus.
Coben says he’s convinced that online classes can be just as rigorous as anything in person. “This is not just ‘read some articles and take a few exams’; these are highly interactive courses,” he said. In some ways, he says, he’ll be able to track their progress more closely. “It’s very difficult for an individual professor, standing in front of a classroom, to actually gauge what every individual student is doing,” he said. When they have to post all their work online, it’s far easier.
Is an online law degree next? That depends, he said. “Quite frankly, there’s going to be a lot of experimentation in legal education going forward.”