What’s a Distance Learning LL.M. Really Like?

Online learning caters to a unique cross-section of students, but requires different approaches than in-class programs

Celia Whitaker, who’s an energy consultant working primarily in Kosovo, never had any legal training. But, in the past few years, as competition for contracts became more competitive, she decided that she needed an LL.M.

“It has been really borne out in the past two years, when for the first time ever in a 30-year career, I have found myself not qualified for jobs that I am perfectly experienced in doing, because I don't have an LL.M.,” says Whitaker.

The problem was, as it is for many working professionals, she didn’t have the time to do a traditional, in-class program. 

“For me it's just not practical,” to do an in-class program, says Whitaker. “I'm a sole breadwinner, I have to work, and I can't afford just to take a year off.”

So she decided to pursue an LL.M. in International Commercial Law and Practice, which is offered as a distance learning program from Edinburgh Law School. She began in the fall of 2013 and is just wrapping up now, and has generally been happy with the experience.

“I've found the academic work challenging and very interesting,” she says.

Whitaker is like many prospective LL.M. students in the middle of their careers. For both lawyers and non-lawyers alike, taking a year off of work and family life is simply not feasible.

That’s a good representation of many of the students in the distance learning LL.M. program offered by the University of London’s International Programmes division. The program “is really geared for those people who are working or who have other commitments and so can't attend full-time education,” says Jenny Hamilton, the program’s director.

“Most people on our program are working,” she continues, with “at least 50 percent in their mid-30s or older.”

Some adjustments

For students accustomed to in-class learning, the flexible nature of online programs might take a bit of an adjustment.

Indeed, even the basics can be different: many online programs don’t actually have ‘classes,’ so to speak; instead, in many programs students watch videotaped lectures and participate in discussion forums whenever their schedule allows. (Although in some online programs, such as the online LL.M. in Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law offered by the University of Nebraska, students can choose to virtually attend live classes along with on-campus students.)

For those who don’t have the option of attending live classes—virtually or not—different approaches to interaction might be necessary. “You can't just raise your hand if you have a question,” says Rebekah Ward-Palmerton, who’s just finishing up her online LL.M in Taxation from Boston University’s School of Law.

“You have to save all those questions up and make sure that you get them all answered at the appropriate time.”

Although most online LL.M. programs do not require students to come to campus at all, some have special on-site requirements for examinations. For instance, students pursuing the distance learning LL.M. from London International Programmes must take exams in either London or one of many examination centers all over the world.

Finding the time

For many working professionals, a main challenge of doing an online LL.M. program is finding the time to study during their busy schedules. “I've worked pretty much seven days a week for the two years,” says Celia Whitaker, who has been juggling full-time work while putting aside time on nights and weekends for coursework.

“And that's hard to keep up, it's quite exhausting.”

Likewise, Graham Rhodes, a dental surgeon who did the online LL.M. from the University of Edinburgh, carved out some time each week for his studies. “I cut one day a week out of my clinical work,” says Rhodes, “and there was a lot of weekend work as well.”

Rhodes finished his LL.M. in August 2013, and says that the legal exposure it provided him has opened up new opportunities. “It's opened up a whole new world, it's a different way of thinking, which I really appreciated.”

Specifically, he’s been able to do more expert testimony, where he weighs in on cases of people who have been denied service by the NHS.

It’s also set him down a path for more academia: Rhodes is now current studying a medical-legal PhD at King’s College London. 

Rebekah Ward-Palmerton, who’s worked at a county prosecutor’s office in the US for twelve years, is hoping that her online LL.M. in Taxation will help open more professional doors as well.

Already, she says, she’s been able to put her new skills to use, within the context of a family member’s business. “After the first semester I was really able to meaningfully engage in conversations with the tax attorneys,” she says.

“I feel pretty confident that I have that foundation at this point.”

Practical matters to consider when choosing a distance learning LL.M. program:

  • Make sure your computer meets the technical requirements of the program you are interested in.
  • Contact school tech support to see if you need any additional equipment, such as a microphone or a webcam.
  • Some programs, especially those featuring live videoconferencing, require a high-speed internet connection.
  • Some schools are beginning to introduce smartphone, iPad, and other tablet functionality and apps to help students engage with class materials.

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