Can Technology Democratize Access to LL.M. Programs?

Online LL.M. courses lower barriers and improve access to law school, but there are caveats

The barriers to a full-time LL.M. degree, including the tuition fees and opportunity cost of not working, can be high for those from traditionally under-represented groups including those from wider-socioeconomic backgrounds.

But digitally delivered LL.M. degrees can improve access to law school because technology can make LL.M.s cheaper and more readily available to learners across the globe. This is a key reason why the top law schools are launching online and blended versions of their LL.M. programs, with diversity being a rising priority for these schools, not least because it improves learning outcomes and is viewed as necessary for commercial success.

USC Gould School of Law in Southern California runs an Online LL.M. degree that is designed to meet the growing demand for US-based legal education from international lawyers. And, crucially, the quality of students and instructors who participate in the online and on campus courses are similar, ensuring consistent experience and learning outcomes for both groups.

“Online learning provides a new pathway for students to access instruction and connect with other online learners in a more accessible and convenient way,” says Sarah Gruzas, Director of Graduate and International Programs at USC Gould School of Law.

For many students, cost of attendance, potential relocation, and lack of part-time options may mean a traditional full-time LL.M. program is not a viable option. At USC, the online LL.M. is designed to address each of these issues.

“Our online courses were designed specifically to deliver content to maximize student learning and interaction, while offering flexibility through asynchronous activities and real-time discussions,” says Gruzas.

This enables students who may have different scheduling needs an opportunity to access their coursework and complete their degree on a timeline convenient for them. “This supports the development of students who would not have been able to participate in our on campus LL.M.,” she says.

A global playing field

The fully online format enables students to enroll at USC wherever they may be located around the world. Additionally, for those with a first degree of law from overseas, USC offers courses to meet the eligibility requirements of the California bar exam — providing the opportunity to become licensed to practice law in the U.S.

However, the online LL.M. actually attracts more domestic than international students, which came as a surprise to the law school. “We believe this is because many internationals may want to have a year experiencing the LL.M. and the US in person, while domestic students may be fully employed or unable to relocate to Los Angeles for various reasons,” Gruzas says.

​There are certainly both benefits and negatives to online education. “On one hand it can make access to education attainable to non-traditional students who can benefit from both the reduced economic costs and flexibility that online programs allow — but there is nothing quite like an in-person classroom experience,” says Maureen Tracey Leo, Director of the American Law Program at Boston University Law School in Massachusetts.

​Cost is the primary prohibitive factor to a traditional LL.M., especially for overseas lawyers who are looking to break into the US legal market. “Education in other parts of the world can often be had for a lower entry point,” Tracey Leo says.

Much lower opportunity cost of not working

On the other hand, the online LL.M. has a much lower opportunity cost of not working. ​“For some students, it can allow them to gain another credential without having to suffer the lost income and/or opportunity from doing a full-time residential program,” says Tracey Leo.

That does, though, require a great deal of effort to balance a career with a degree. But this can demonstrate qualities that are attractive to legal employers, including discipline and time-management. “It’s a competitive market — standing out among the crowd, growing one’s educational and professional expertise — these are important and significant qualities for candidates to tout in the job market,” Tracey Leo says.

But while online education has made tremendous strides in both quality and accessibility over the years, there are a few important things to keep in mind when comparing and contrasting the online experience and the traditional classroom experience.

“Not every experience is going to be created equal because not every institution of learning does it well yet, and some students will be slower to adopt it than others,” says Tammi Rice, Vice President of Bar Prep Programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

For the online learning experience to be truly successful, it requires modern technology, a strong curriculum and teachers who are trained in online instruction. “Being a successful instructor online requires a somewhat different skill set and approach than teaching in front of a physical classroom,” she says. “Keeping your students engaged is more important than ever.”

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