Is a Master of Legal Studies Worth It?

The law is many things, but simple isn’t one of them. The majority of the population is beholden to attorneys to unravel, decipher, analyze, and effectively decode the law. Unless you’re a practicing attorney, most jobs don’t require a deep knowledge of the law outside of specific topics relevant to your career, whether that’s plagiarism or worker’s safety rights. But in many professions where routine work frequently intersects with state and federal regulations, a lack of robust legal knowledge can stand in the way of your job performance and career advancement.

In these cases, a greater mastery of relevant legal code and processes is exactly the specialized knowledge you need to perform your job with greater independence and finesse. Pursuing a master’s degree in legal studies can bridge this knowledge gap and help reorient your role with a more specialized legal focus.

What is a Master’s of Legal Studies? The MLS is a graduate course of legal study for non-lawyers who want to achieve a practical, working knowledge of the law. Also known as a Master of Science in Law (MSL), Master of Studies in Law, or Master in the Study of Law, an MLS lets you concentrate in virtually any area of law, making it the degree of choice for mid-career professionals serious about developing knowledge deeply relevant to their field.

This begs the question—is a Master of Legal Studies a law degree? The MLS is unique from the JD, which is the degree that aspiring attorneys must obtain to be able to practice the law and give legal advice to clients. The MLS is also not a precursor to practicing the law, but instead a primer in U.S. law and an in-depth examination of the ways law and industry intersect.

Let’s review the benefits of pursuing an MLS degree, including the careers it’s most effective for, the potential salary you can make, and the educational requirements for earning a master’s degree in legal studies.

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What Are the Benefits of Earning a Master’s Degree in Legal Studies?

In terms of the benefits you will reap compared to the time and cost it takes to earn, is the Master of Legal Studies worth it? Indeed, earning an MLS brings plenty of advantages, particularly if your profession relies upon legal processes, such as positions in human resources, social work, or law enforcement.

The MLS allows students to become familiar with contemporary legal issues in the U.S. and abroad and get a deeper understanding of the practical implications of the law and the legal process in their respective industry or profession. Professionals with this deeper knowledge of the legal system can enhance their credibility with colleagues, clients, employers, and partners; navigate the nation’s heavily regulated professional environment; and propel their careers in a positive—and sometimes completely new—direction. The MLS makes you highly marketable within your industry, as it establishes your expertise in your field beyond that of most of your peers, and it also increases your earning potential—a Master’s in Legal Studies salary is typically higher than that of a professional with a bachelor’s degree.

But since an MLS isn’t technically a law degree, you may still be wondering, is a Master of Legal Studies degree worth it? For many professionals, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Unless you plan to actively practice the law as an attorney, a JD isn’t worth the time (or expense!) when an MLS can offer a similar knowledge of the legal system that’s relevant to your specific profession. From college professors to healthcare professionals to business executives, the MLS is an excellent choice for professionals looking to either enhance their career, reorient their career with their current employer, or even pursue a new career in an entirely different field.

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Legal Studies?

From public policy to healthcare compliance, from risk management to foreign trade, countless types of organizations need specialists, managers, and leaders that understand how the legal system shapes and impacts their business and industry. But more specifically, what jobs do legal studies lead to?

Master’s in legal studies jobs can include everything from police officer to paralegal and plenty of other professions in between. A few examples include:

  • Business analysts
  • Human Resources managers or directors
  • Social workers
  • Contract negotiators or arbitrators
  • Health services managers
  • Compliance officers
  • Law enforcement agents or detectives

Though based in incredibly different fields, all of these master’s degree in legal studies careers share a foundation in various legal practices, whether it’s criminal law, business law, healthcare law, or employment law. Having expertise in relevant areas can help you increase your career trajectory as well as open doors to other opportunities in adjacent industries.

MLS Education Requirements

MLS Program Admission Requirements

While most students who complete a master’s degree in legal studies are mid-career professionals, a background in the law isn’t required. In fact, for many students, this is their first foray into anything legal.

The minimum educational requirement for admission into an MLS is a bachelor’s degree in any field. It’s even quite common for students of MLS programs to already hold a graduate degree. This means that the schools offering MLS programs often accept a certain number of graduate transfer credits from qualified candidates.

Depending on your chosen program and its admissions committee, you may need to sit for a face-to-face or video interview and/or submit a personal essay or statement of purpose detailing the reasons you wish to earn an MLS and how it will enhance your career.

Many programs also require references from former professors, academic advisors, mentors, and employers who can provide a meaningful assessment of your character and ability to complete graduate-level studies.

While most programs don’t request standardized test scores (LSAT, GRE, etc.) they do require current resumes or curriculum vitae. This allows the admissions committee to view all of your professional and academic experiences, including volunteer work and honors and awards.

Required MLS Program Courses

MLS programs are unique in that they allow you to design your master’s degree in legal studies to fit your professional goals and interests. However, you must also complete several required courses, such as:

  • Introduction to U.S. Law and the Legal System: This course explores how law is found, made, and changed in the U.S., touching on various sources, statutes, and regulations, including common law, constitutional law, case law, and interpreting enacted laws.
  • Legal Research and Writing for Non-Lawyers: This course covers writing styles and formats for effective communication with government regulatory bodies, lawyers, and other legal professionals.
  • Introduction to Legal Reasoning: This course helps you understand how to think like a lawyer by reading and analyzing cases and statutes. The goal is to understand how the law is used to predict answers to legal questions.
  • Procedure: In this course, you’ll study the way legal rights are enforced in civil, criminal, and administrative law. You’ll also learn the American common law system (torts, contracts, property) and constitutional law.
  • Ethics/Professional Responsibility: A must-have for understanding the nuances of the legal system and the many ethical dilemmas that exist, this course familiarizes you with everything from attorney-client relationships to conflicts of interest to confidentiality to the duties of courts.

After covering the basics of U.S. law, you can then choose a specialization if you wish to (though this is not a requirement of most programs). Most students choose to focus their master’s degree in legal studies on an area that relates to their profession or the industry.

While most MLS programs offer several concentrations from which to choose, some allow students to design their own specialization, which involves working with an academic advisor and customizing their degree so that it best fits their professional and personal goals.

Some examples of MLS specializations include:

  • Compliance and Legal Risk Management
  • Criminal Law and Policy
  • Family and Juvenile Law
  • Tax Law and Policy
  • Human Rights
  • Regulatory law
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Business Law
  • Civil Litigation
  • Intellectual Property
  • International Trade
  • International Law and Human Rights
  • Immigration

How Long Does It take to Complete an MLS?

Most full-time MLS programs take between 12-16 months to complete, with a maximum completion window around four years. Expect your programs to consist of 24-34 credits, 12-15 of which are focused on your desired concentration.

How Much Does an MLS Cost?

The one limiting factor when asking, “Is a master of legal studies worth it,” is often the pretty penny it costs. You can expect to pay around $2,000 per credit for a quality campus-based or online MLS program. With most programs consisting of about 24 credits, you should expect it to run about $50,000 for the entire program.

That said, an advanced degree in any subject is an investment, plain and simple, and should be looked at in terms of the return it can offer. These programs aren’t cheap because they offer an appreciable return through career advancement and real dollars. The real question is, how much can you make with a master’s in legal studies?

According to 2020 median salary data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are some of the top-earning professions that benefit from earning a master’s degree in legal studies:

  • Paralegals: $52,920
  • Arbitrators/mediators: $66,130
  • Claims adjusters/appraisers: $68,130
  • Social and community services managers: $69,600
  • Labor relations specialists: $73,240
  • Medical and health services managers: $104,280
  • Human Resources managers: $121,220

As these numbers are based on the most common education level held by those in the median brackets, consider this the floor of your potential earning potential. As soon as you earn your master’s in legal studies, salary options expand by leaps and bounds. Paralegal salaries, for example, go all the way up to $85,160 per year for the top 10 percent of the profession who have earned advanced degrees and have years of experience under their belts.

The value of MLS programs isn’t lost on employers either, and many are willing to invest in employees who will bring that legal knowledge back in-house to make the company smarter, nimbler, and more capable of achieving market dominance.

Can I Complete an MLS Program Online?

Because the MLS is largely directed at working professionals, these programs tend to offer highly flexible formats, including distance-based study.

Many times, online MLS programs feature interactive, virtual classrooms consisting of live courses, dedicated students support services, and plenty of opportunities for students to interact and connect with their peers and professors.

How to Decide Whether an MLS Is Right for You

To understand whether a Master of Legal Studies is worth it for your unique career path, take an objective look at how frequently your role intersects with the legal system. You may be surprised at just how much of your day-to-day tasks are influenced by legal compliance.

For example, if you work in any sort of executive business capacity, it’s critical to understand business licenses, tax registration, incorporation, and employer-employee relationship laws—from employment contracts and discrimination to health and safety regulations. If you’re a healthcare manager or administrator, you’ll need to navigate legal concerns including contracting issues, labor and employment laws, medical network contract negotiations, Medicare and Medicaid compliance and billing, clinical research operations and compliance, and HIPAA compliance, training, and litigation.

You may also find that an MLS is a good choice if you’re on the cusp of career advancement. Earning a master’s degree in legal studies can be that extra nudge to your employer that pushes you into that well-deserved promotion and higher salary. Paralegals with an MLS degree, for example, can earn tens of thousands more per year and move into senior positions at very well-respected law firms or on corporate legal teams.

Explore MLS Degree Programs

Whether you’re just beginning a paralegal career or you’re already well established in your field, anyone who interacts with the law could benefit from a firmer grasp of its intricacies and implications. Earning a master’s degree in legal studies provides the additional expertise you need to soar above your peers and set yourself up for a lifetime of respect and success.

Find an MLS program online today.