Getting a LL.M. degree from a top law school used to involve pausing your career, forgoing earnings and decamping to campus for 12 months, usually. No longer. These days a handful of leading law schools are offering “hybrid” LL.M.s.
The courses are a mixture of online and on-campus learning for part-time students who are based all around the globe and study digitally in their spare time or in person during the summer vacation.
Columbia Law School, for instance, has just launched a new hybrid Executive LL.M. in Global Business Law that kicks off in March. Students will study on the school’s New York City campus for 12 weeks over the summer. They will also complete three, four-week online courses.
Although law schools insist the hybrid LL.M.s are not a reaction to falling application volume in the aftermath of the financial crisis, they admit that full-time, brick-and-mortar courses have become a harder sell.
Julie Sculli, director of the new Columbia program, says the idea is to give time-pressed lawyers greater flexibility.
“It’s made for mid-level associates and professionals,” she says. “They cannot take the traditional nine-12 months away from their professional and personal lives to have this university experience. This program meets them where they are.”
The in-person meetups provide valuable networking opportunities, which students expect from an LL.M. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Sculli. “With fewer than 30 students, it’s a tight, intimate group that does relationship building. It’s also nice to have a 12-week break from the day-to-day grind.”
Increased interest in ‘alternative’ LL.M. programs
In 2009-10, 88,000 people applied for American Bar Association law degrees. In 2017-18, there were some 61,000 applicants, according to the Law School Admission Council, which runs the LSAT entry exam for law schools in the US and other countries.
Applications, however, have risen steadily over the past few years on the back of improving US economic conditions and optimism around career prospects.
Anya Grossmann, director of global outreach and professional engagement at the UC Berkeley School of Law, says the school’s hybrid LL.M. is attracting students who would otherwise not consider graduate education, rather than cannibalizing the campus course.
Berkeley Law’s hybrid LL.M. launched in January 2018. It costs the same as the school’s full-time version. An internal survey found that 85 percent of the hybrid cohort applied for the course exclusively.
“We did not create the LL.M. hybrid option due to any decline in application numbers,” says Grossmann.
She maintains that the quality of both the online and on-campus courses at Berkeley Law are equally high. “The courses we offer online are taught in-residence by the same faculty,” she says.
Online students learn via video lectures, quizzes, discussion groups, group assignments and other methods, Grossmann adds. “Online coursework is the wave of the future, and as a school heavily influenced by the innovative atmosphere of Silicon Valley, it was a natural progression to develop a pathway to an LL.M. degree using educational technology.”
Online and hybrid LL.M.s ideal for those with busy schedules
Raymond Ng would likely not have gone to law school without online learning. As a US-based entrepreneur, citizen journalist, author and educator, he could not justify taking significant time off work to get a campus degree.
“A full-time, one-year LL.M. does not make good economic sense,” says the 57-year-old Singaporean. “Why not make use of technology? Learning can take place anywhere today.”
City Law School in London, where Ng studies remotely, is one of the few institutions to run a fully Online LL.M. Many of the digital degrees are in niche subjects, with City Law’s focusing on international business law.
Steven Truxal, the course’s director, says he launched it in 2014 to internationalize the student body. Currently, there are students of about 40-45 different nationalities taking the Online LL.M., which he says is far more diverse than City Law’s other programs, though won’t reveal figures.
He adds that a diverse cohort makes sense for the specialist syllabus: “Students tend to bring real-world examples and that is something we can’t necessarily offer sitting in London. This is important for an international business which has a presence in multiple locations.”
The City Law course helped Ng apply new knowledge in a global environment that is constantly changing. “I have expanded my professional standing and competence, especially when dealing with complex global business issues,” he says, adding that it was challenging to balance study and work commitments across time zones.
Many students will take online and hybrid LL.M.s, which are part-time programs, so they can maintain family and other responsibilities while they learn.
For instance, American University Washington College of Law’s Hybrid LL.M. in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, which was launched in 2015, attracts mid-career professionals who tend to be more senior than those taking the school’s campus LL.M.
“The two programs are complimentary, as they are for different audiences,” says Diego Rodriguez-Pinzon, co-director of the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian law at Washington College.
He says participants are typically CEOs of non-governmental organizations, senior prosecutors, litigators or scholars. Many would most likely not have the time to take a year off to pursue a full-time, in-class LL.M.
The small cohort of 25-30 students means the admissions process is competitive, according to Rodriguez-Pinzon. The law school intentionally keeps student numbers low so as to maintain a high standard of education.
“It allows our faculty and staff to focus institutional resources — research, professional opportunities, etc — to this select group of students,” says Rodriguez-Pinzon.
“Some LL.M. programs may have been created to bring revenue to their institutions” by enrolling large numbers of candidates, he adds.
The Washington College application includes a statement of purpose, the most crucial part.
“We want to see legitimate interest in the field,” Rodriguez-Pinzon says, explaining that this can be spurred by human rights law being constitutionalized in an applicant’s country.