Two Illinois law schools are pioneers in the rapidly expanding field of LL.M. distance-learning programs.
In 2008, if a person wanted to study at the John Marshall Law School, she'd have to navigate her way to downtown Chicago, lugging heavy books and wearing something a little more formal than pajamas, to attend live lectures in a classroom setting.
Five years later, JMLS offers more online LL.M. degrees than any other accredited U.S. law school, allowing lawyers anywhere in the world to expand their legal educations from the comfort of their own homes, day or night, wearing whatever clothing feels best.
"What we offer with our online LL.M. degrees someone in Kansas can get, someone in Florida, or even overseas," said JMLS public relations coordinator Ciara Shook. "It's designed for accessibility, particularly for our students who don't live in the Chicago area and who work as full-time lawyers."
Shook said the school launched its first online juris doctor courses in 2009. The American Bar Association does not allow accredited schools to provide fully online JD degrees, but some of those credits can be earned via the Internet.
Shortly thereafter, the school established ABA-accredited LL.M. degrees that are available fully online for lawyers seeking advanced education in intellectual-property law, employee benefits, and estate planning.
"As far as our JD efforts go, we are limited by the ABA on what we can do online with that - we do offer some of the classes online, but we cannot offer the full degree," Shook said. "But with three online LL.M. degrees and two M.S. degrees, we have more quantity than anyone else.…We've had our eyes on this for a while, and suddenly this is just huge news in the legal community - we're over here waving the John Marshall flag saying, 'Hi, we've been doing this for a while!'"
Marshall, Loyola help lead the way
The National Jurist, a self-described "magazine for law students," published an article this March titled "The future is now," focusing on online programs for advanced law degrees that "are growing at a record pace and changing legal education in the process."
According to the magazine, 23 law schools in the United States currently offer online LL.M. programs, and John Marshall is the only school offering three such degrees. It is also the only school in the country with any kind of LL.M. in employee-benefits law - a popular class that now can be offered to any lawyer in the world with a computer and an Internet connection.
JMLS Professor Kathryn J. Kennedy, who is the school's associate dean of advanced studies and research chair for its tax law and employee benefits programs, said that due to the uniqueness of the in-person employee-benefits LL.M. degree, it was one of the school's most popular programs.
Kennedy said she frequently received inquiries from lawyers around the country who wanted to enroll in the program but could not because of the impracticality of attending weekly classes in Chicago for a potential student who lives and works in, say, New York City.
"Our LL.M. and M.S. graduate degrees in employee benefits still remain the only degrees of their kind in the nation," Kennedy said. "Thus, three years ago we made the decision to offer the required courses online, as well as in-class, in hopes of increasing enrollment. …Given the responses from students who did enroll in the online courses, we decided to expand and offer elective courses so that the students could attain the 24 required [credit] hours solely online."
Of the nine law schools in Illinois, Loyola University Chicago School of Law is the only one other than John Marshall offering an online LL.M. degree and, according to National Jurist, Loyola is the only school in the country with an online degree in health law.
Megan Bess, the assistant director of Loyola's Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy, said the school's online health law program was originally offered only as an M.S. degree, but its popularity and its success at drawing in students from across the country prompted the school in 2010 to start offering the online LL.M. degree.
"For our health-law degrees, there's a campus-based option or the online degree.…It's the same curriculum, we just offer the conveniences of the online experience," Bess said.
So far, only lawyers who live and practice law near Chicago have earned the LL.M. on campus, but Bess said the online program has substantially expanded Loyola's pool of potential students, which has helped raise the quality of students who have enrolled in the program.
"Those attorneys with a robust practice who want to expand their practice or enhance their background in health law are now able to do that without sacrificing their jobs - people from across the country are in the program, where before they'd have to move to Chicago to get the degree," Bess said.
Accessibility and flexibility are the hallmarks of online education, but Bess said that some extra life experience is necessary to ensure that a student will succeed in an online program. She said Loyola requires its online LL.M. students to have a minimal level of professional experience before they enroll, and the curriculum includes weekly assignments that serve as a status report to professors so they can make sure no students fall behind.
"We do have an admission requirement that in order to do [the LL.M. program] solely online, you have to have some kind of practice experience, or at least have worked in the health care industry before law school," Bess said. "We feel that some of the students who want to take the LL.M. online right out of law school really could still use some more of the on-campus experiences - the younger students could still use the extra mentoring of being on campus."
However, for seasoned attorneys looking to increase their knowledge and bolster their academic credentials, Bess said the program has already proven to be a success.
"There's a time factor and there's a geographic factor the program helps because the students can do a bunch of the work on the weekends, or a little bit every night, or whatever works best for them, and they can do it at their offices or at home," Bess said. "It has allowed us to draw in attorneys with more practice experience, and that improves the program for everyone."
Bess said online advance degrees for lawyers "is really a growing trend" and Loyola is actively pursuing other practice areas for development of new M.S. and LL.M. degrees.
Similarly, Kennedy said that the advantages the online programs bring both to the students and to the law schools are worth the extra effort that goes into creating online curriculum in practice areas traditionally taught only in the classroom.
"I believe the LL.M. and M.S. degrees are uniquely situated for online delivery, as we need not teach legal reasoning - the students interested in these degrees are interested in knowledge and application of that knowledge to real-world fact patterns," Kennedy said. "We're presently in the process of putting more courses online to meet that objective."