Perhaps more than any other educational undertaking, distance learning programs prompt the question, "is this going to be worth it?"
First of all, the school could be thousands of miles away. And even with accredited law schools, there is still the uncertainty that will deliver anything more than a reading list, library card, and internet connection could.
So enrolling can seem like a leap of faith, particularly when tuition for the over 50 online LL.M. programs offered worldwide is, well, more expensive than a library card – usually somewhere in the range between 10,000 and 45,000 dollars.
And then there's the lingering stigma among lawyers and law firms – one that assumes that a degree earned online is somehow worth less than one gained through a traditional, on-campus experience.
"I think the stigma is one that is completely unjustified at this point, and associated perhaps with people who don't fully understand the technology that we now have at our disposal,” says Aron Mujumdar, who directs the distance learning LL.M. program in US Law at Florida Coastal School of Law.
"They imagine the traditional correspondence courses where the professor mails something to you, and waits for you to mail something back."
In other words, they picture something similar to the experience of the most famous distance learning alumni of all time, Nelson Mandela, who studied law through the University of London External System during his 27-year imprisonment in apartheid South Africa.
The best of today's online programs promise a less-lonely experience. They utilize a range of game-changing technologies like videoconferencing, virtual classrooms, and chats that improve how (and how often) students and teachers connect with each other.
Mujumdar says this new technology has allowed online programs to close the quality gap – real or perceived - with the classroom experience.
Ian Walden, who teaches on the Computer and Communications Law LL.M. Distance Learning program at Queen Mary, University of London, says that when it comes to hallmarks of a good online program, "the big one is interaction."
“I think learning with minimal interaction is incredibly hard, and you can get the wrong end of the stick very easily,” says Walden. "There's no reason why in our Skype-enabled, Facebook-enabled world that interaction can't take place. I think with any program that avoids it, one has to question if is it any better than getting the book?"
This interaction isn't always easy to achieve. Programs with students all over the world must grapple with those pesky time zones. Sometimes classes are taught live. Other times, online programs are asynchronous, meaning that recorded lectures and study materials are available all the time, with instructors and students dipping in and out of discussions and chats.
“I think one concern is missing out on the community aspects of learning and the interaction,” says Walden. But he says that the one-to-one interaction online can be more personal than a classroom of 40 students.
“In an online chat environment, for example, somebody might come in and say, 'Oh, I've just put the kids to bed," says Walden.
Online programs typically appeal to older students with career or family commitments. So flexibility is key. Most online students are seeking way of "skilling up" while staying employed, and acquiring specific knowledge in a formal and structured way. This focused need is also why most distance learning LL.M. programs are not general, but rather specialized in a particular area of law.
The University of Liverpool Law School, for example, offers three online LL.M. programs in International Business Law, International Finance and Banking Law, and Technology and Intellectual Property Law. During the programs' eight-week modules, online students are expected to devote around ten to twenty hours a week to the program, including time spent discussing the week's topic in the "online classroom."
"About a third of the students are qualified lawyers," says Fiona Beveridge, head of the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool. "About another third are managers working in legal-facing areas, or areas where they have contact with international business transactions."
Beveridge says the average student age in the program is the late thirties, whereas on-campus LL.M. students at Liverpool Law School are usually in their twenties. Online LL.M. students tend to be working professionals, many in senior positions.
"They are adding to their background and knowledge for something they are already dealing with," says Beveridge of online LL.M. students. "For some of them, it's clearly the specializations that are attracting them."
There are dozens of other examples of specialized online LL.M. programs, including NYU's Executive Tax LL.M. program, Edinburgh University's Innovation and IT Law LL.M. programs, the University of Dundee's Mineral Law and Natural Resources Law programs, and Oxford's Masters in International Human Rights Law. (A more complete list of law schools offering distance learning options is below.)
So back to the question: is a distance learning LL.M. worth it? If you're looking for an immersive campus experience, then no, though some “blended learning” programs, like the executive-style LL.M. programs offered by Boston University and Northwestern University, mix online learning with blocks of on-campus teaching.
Nor is distance learning necessarily the right option if you're looking for the easiest path to a postgraduate qualification.
“Studying on a part-time basis is always more problematic than studying on a full-time basis because life gets in the way,” says Ian Walden. Indeed, like with part-time programs of any kind, distance learning students will often depend on the flexibility and understanding of employers and families.
But if you have a knowledge gap that you need to fill to do a specific job or advance in your career, then distance learning becomes a possibility. If you cannot leave home for professional or personal reasons, then an online program may well be the only ticket to further your legal training, and lets you pick a law school that is particularly strong in your chosen field of law.
“It's also a question of knowing yourself as a student,” says Aron Mujumdar at Florida Coastal. “What are the uses for this degree, not only in the immediate future, but in terms of things you may want to do ten years from now?”
“We have some people who would want to move to the United States, take a bar exam here, and do something different,” adds Mujumdar. “Whereas there are other students who are happy with their current job, but who just really need the knowledge that we provide to succeed at what they're doing.”