By Dr. James Barney  |  02/13/2024

master's in law

Some students ask me, "What can you do with a master's in law?" Although our school does not offer a Juris Doctorate (J.D.), some students think that obtaining a master of legal studies degree (also known as a MLS degree) is a gateway to law school.

Our school's master of arts in legal studies helps students expand their knowledge, providing them with the knowledge to pursue a wide range of law-related career options in the civilian world or in the military. Whether graduates decide to go to law school or opt for the other professions open to them, the MLS degree is versatile and valuable.

While a handful of our graduates do go on to law school, most of those graduates who graduate from our program pursue careers in a law-related profession like human resources or healthcare law. These professions deal with legal issues not handled by lawyers.

For example, a paralegal is not a lawyer, but paralegals might collaborate with a practicing attorney. As a result, those paralegals are considered law-related professionals.

Similarly, human resources managers, compliance officers, real estate agents, and government employees who work at regulatory agencies are all law-related professionals. In some ways, their work touches upon legal issues.

Likewise, there are many active servicemembers whose daily functions are law-related. These people work with complex issues or on completing legal tasks.

A graduate degree in legal studies provides servicemembers with the necessary knowledge and skills to do their military work. Similarly, many servicemembers utilize their legal skills and expertise as they transition to a post-military, law-related profession.

Many career options are open to graduates of a master of arts in legal studies. This degree can help students from various backgrounds to pursue their career goals.


Programs, Jobs, and Salaries

One of the first questions my students often ask is, “How much will I make after obtaining a degree in legal studies?” But generalizing about job prospects and salaries is difficult because graduates pursue many career paths, and they live and work all over the country.

For example, some of our students work in New York City and other students work in rural Alabama; these two places will have vastly different salary ranges. Similarly, graduates of our master of arts in legal studies program often work in other areas, ranging from law firms to active-duty service, which also has an impact on their salary.

Students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in legal studies should conduct independent research into their desired profession. Ideally, their research should be concentrated on specific job markets in order to obtain the most accurate information about prospects and salaries.

For example, if you are interested in working in Atlanta as a paralegal, you would need to research the local job prospects and the average salary for paralegals in that market. That research would involve checking relevant labor statistics.

In addition to researching job prospects and salaries, prospective students should also explore the schools they are interested in attending for their master of arts in legal studies. For instance, students should check the school’s reputation, accreditation, and cost of attendance.

The best program for each student will depend upon that student’s evaluation of each school, academic program, and unique career goals. While some students may often base their choice on their perception of a school’s prestige, the best academic program to choose is the one that aligns with their career path.


Common Career Paths for MLS Graduates

In my opinion, MLS graduates pursue varied career paths. My students typically pursue the MLS degree to follow different career opportunities and professional goals.

For instance, some MLS holders work in law firms as paralegals or as another type of legal professional. Others work in banks as regulatory compliance officers.

Still others work as human resources managers where the legal training and experience obtained in the MLS program helped them understand legal concepts. This type of work involves dealing with employment laws and the laws related to employment benefit programs.

Others work in various roles in the government. For example, some legal studies graduates work in the court system or for government agencies. Their coursework provided them with a good understanding of the legal system, legal research and writing, and a wide range of legal regulations and laws.


The MLS: Who’s It For?

It is complicated to generalize what type of student is best suited for an MLS degree; students come to this degree from different backgrounds and for various reasons. Some students have a bachelor's degree in legal studies and intend to attend law school.

Others have a great deal of legal experience, and some students have little legal training or experience, which is perfectly acceptable. Admission into the program does not hinge on prior legal knowledge or training.

One of the greatest pleasures I have as a legal studies professor at our school is that I get to work with students who are not only geographically diverse but also come from varied backgrounds and experiences. It creates an intellectually rewarding environment for both our legal studies students and our professors.

Over the years, I have instructed a vast array of legal studies students, including military students serving overseas on deployment and international students. They have all been a good fit for the master’s in legal studies.

I have taught legal studies students who have no prior legal experience and who want to transition into a law-related profession. I have taught students who have had years of working in financial compliance or human resources. Some might be paralegals or other legal professionals who want to deepen their knowledge base.

This diversity is what is great about our program. Our students can interact with each other and learn from each other in ways that were not possible a generation ago.

It’s important to note that a lack of prior legal experience or academic background should not discourage an applicant. Our program reflects deliberate choices to provide students with the knowledge to pursue job opportunities or expand their knowledge without any previous legal training or education.


American Public University and the Master's Degree in Legal Studies: A Strong Choice

There are many MLS options available to prospective students after they earn their undergraduate degree (such as a bachelor's degree). However, our program meets the needs of a wide range of students, both civilian and military. For example, the courses and programs of the legal studies degree reflect deliberate choices in course creation and program goals to address the interests and needs of our students.

I have taught many active-duty servicemembers nearing military retirement. Typically, they want to transition to one of the many law-related professions – our degree provides them with the knowledge to make that transition. I have had active-duty students who serve as paralegals or military police.

It is hard to generalize what our students seek from our master's degree program. However, they will have the opportunities to take a wide array of courses and fulfill their individual goals.

In recent years, many schools have rolled out MLS programs, and these legal studies programs offer students some excellent options. However, when deciding on an MLS, our school remains a strong choice that prospective students should pay attention to as we offer students a strong program for several reasons. As always, students should do their research into MLS programs before deciding to enroll.

There are five reasons APU should be on your shortlist if you want to pursue a master's degree in legal studies.

First, our legal studies students come from diverse backgrounds that include military and non-military students. These students bring valuable experience and knowledge into the classroom due to their diversity.

Second, we have professors who have not only varied legal expertise but are also experts in online education. Many of our faculty members have more than a decade of teaching experience in the online format and understand the unique needs of our diverse student body.

Third, our program offers students a wide range of choices regarding their coursework. The available courses enable students to deepen their legal knowledge and explore their interests.

Fourth, our program is fully aligned with the school's mission of providing affordable, accessible, and relevant education. This philosophy is reflected in our embrace of an organizing principle: providing equal access to justice in the legal profession.

Fifth, many of our school's legal studies graduates have pursued many different job opportunities in both the military and the civilian worlds.

These five factors make our school an extraordinary place to study and distinguish us from our competitors.


The MLS versus the Juris Doctor

A significant difference exists between the MLS and the JD degree. A JD is a degree that enables students to sit for a bar exam and eventually practice law in a particular state or jurisdiction.

While students pursue many legal occupations after obtaining an MLS degree, it’s essential to remember that the MLS is not a law degree.

Instead, the MLS degree meets the needs of a different student population. For example, our program caters more to students who are already in law-related professions or want to transition into law-related professions, whether that’s in the military or in the civilian world.

While some students may opt to go to law school after completing our program because it has sparked an interest in becoming a practicing attorney, the program shouldn't be viewed as a pathway to law school. Therefore, students who intend to practice law should pursue a Juris Doctor degree rather than an MLS degree.


Can An MLS Help Me If I Am in the Military?

The MLS degree strongly emphasizes problem-solving and critical thinking. Developing these skills is essential for students who intend to pursue leadership roles.

For example, I teach a course in homeland security law. In this course, my students not only do legal-based research and writing but also engage in role-playing, case study analysis, and debates. All of these activities help them to develop problem-solving skills.

Also, our classes embrace an interdisciplinary approach. This approach exposes students to how legal problems and legal issues involve the intersection of various subjects, including:

  • The law
  • Politics
  • History
  • International relations
  • Business
  • Ethics

This interdisciplinary perspective provides active servicemembers with a holistic view essential for leadership roles.

The courses that I teach all explore how the law touches upon ethical issues. An exploration of the ethical problems in law is useful for military servicemembers looking to pursue leadership roles, because such positions involve the ability to navigate complex moral issues.


Is a Legal Studies Degree Needed in the Military?

Many active servicemembers regularly confront legal problems and issues. The skills and experience obtained through our program’s coursework provides them with a firm foundation to deal with complex legal and ethical issues and legal procedures they may confront.

Getting both my military and civilian students to understand the intersection between the law and ethics can help lead them to make more informed decisions in their daily work. For example, a military paralegal who obtains a more profound understanding of how the law is an interdisciplinary field can provide attorneys with a broader perspective, which is valuable.

Like all organizations, the military is looking for employees who possess adaptability, which our program provides. Our students complete varied, complex projects and assignments within relatively tight schedules. These tasks build skills such as adaptability, resilience, and persistence that are useful in the military.


MLS Degree Requirements

In our program, students take a combination of core, major, and elective courses. This combination of courses provides students with a good overview of many legal concepts and an opportunity to personalize their education. Students must take required courses such as:

  • Criminal law
  • Criminal justice process
  • Legal research and writing
  • Property law
  • Contract law
  • Tort law
  • Constitutional law

In addition, students can choose from a list of primary and elective courses. For example, some students may want to explore business law or employment law. Others may be interested in space law, homeland security law, or sports law.


Providing Equal Access to Justice

Our program focuses on issues related to access to justice. It exposes our service-minded students to topics that are critically important in both the military and non-military worlds.

Focusing on access to justice also exposes students to ideas regarding how they can play a critically significant role in solving the problems of many communities in various capacities. Our courses not only expose military and civilian students to the issues associated with access to justice, but also provide them with the tools to create positive changes. Our program’s intent is to instill a sense of responsibility in our students to uphold justice for everyone.


The Online Advantage to Gaining Legal Knowledge

Our program reflects a deliberate, purposeful choice to meet the needs of students without requiring a fixed classroom time.

For example, some other online schools attempt to recreate the brick-and-mortar classroom using fixed schedules and lectures at set times. By contrast, our students participate in classes constructed with the understanding that our students are geographically diverse, with some of our students serving overseas. Our courses are asynchronous but highly interactive, providing a robust learning environment based on the best online learning practices.

To spark interactivity, the heart of any learning environment, our instructors create assignments intended to create valuable learning opportunities. Our faculty members encourage the development of relationships between students and between students and instructors.

For example, I teach a homeland security law class. This course requires students to engage in debates and discussions asynchronously and pair up with other students to discuss relevant legal material.

Similarly, I teach a class on torts where students work on the type of legal matters they would confront if they worked as paralegals in litigation. Along the way, they also complete varied assignments like creating presentations and participating in discussions dealing with issues ripped from the headlines. These issues include legal matters such as health care compliance and sexual harassment.

We have successfully created such robust asynchronous courses because our professors are experts in online education who possess diverse legal backgrounds and an advanced degree (or several degrees). They are also encouraged to experiment with various teaching and learning methods. This strategy provides our students with classes that prepare them for the changing job landscape and the legal profession.

Also, students have access to all of the resources that are just what they would expect from a brick-and-mortar university. Those resources include a wide range of student organizations and access to career services and advising staff. Another resource is a well-stocked University library that includes access to varied legal sources and materials to help students developed a specialized knowledge of legal information and business operations.


Factors Involved in Choosing a Program

While prospective students can find many lists that rank online law studies programs, it is essential to consider various factors when evaluating each program. The program's cost and student outcomes are significant factors that any applicant should consider when making their decision.

Also, students should consider whether the school has experience in online education. For example, our school is a leader in online education, and our classes are constructed with the needs of online students in mind during the course creation process. Also, the diversity of the student body is a significant factor in a student's decision-making.

In evaluating these factors, our school's program is a good choice. But each student will have to assess their options based on their unique goals and aspirations.

I encourage interested students who want to be MLS degree holders to consult with one of the many talented professors in our program before making a decision. Our admissions and advising staff can also serve as consultants.

The first step is to reach out to our school and express interest so that we can start a dialogue about the legal studies program. Such a dialogue will help students decide whether the program is a good fit for them and their needs.

Students also need to explore our program's curriculum and the pros and cons of completing this degree. This research is only possible if students make use of the many available resources.

The most important thing is that students pick the program that aligns with their professional goals and ensuring the program is the right fit for them.

NOTE: Although some states do not require a Juris Doctor for bar entry, this program does not prepare you for the practice of law or admission to the bar of any state based solely on completion of this program. Completion of American Public University’s master of legal studies online program does not qualify an individual to sit for the bar exam in any state.

About the Author
Dr. James Barney

Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. James teaches numerous law classes, including constitutional law. In addition to possessing a J.D., James has several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He recently obtained a Ph.D. in history from The University of Memphis. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University.

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