Master of Legal Studies and Alternative Degrees

A Master of Legal Studies (MLS) is a graduate degree for people who are interested in working in law but do not want to become a licensed attorney. A master’s in legal studies may open the door to a competitive but rewarding career in a wide range of private and public industries. The MLS degree is also one of several legal degrees, including a Juris Doctor (J.D.) and a Master of Laws (LL.M.)

Legal studies is the study of legal ideas, practices and institutions. It’s an interdisciplinary academic field that covers all aspects of the legal system. Some of the main learnings covered in legal studies include critical reasoning, legal principles and clear, persuasive writing. Some schools offer specific legal degree specializations, such as corporate litigation, health care compliance or criminal law. Legal studies can benefit students interested in:

  • Gaining a deeper understanding of law’s influence on society. 
  • Developing compliance know-how to apply to their careers. 
  • Learning the ins and outs of the U.S. legal system including the criminal justice process and economic regulation. 
  • Developing skills to conduct legal research, analysis and other law-related tasks to better serve organizations and businesses. 

Legal studies does not prepare students to become an attorney. 

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There are several post-graduate degrees in legal studies. They share some overlaps in curriculum, but they may target applicants with different professional and academic aims. Here’s a guide to the alphabet soup of advanced degrees in legal studies:

Master of Studies in Law or Master of Science in Law (M.S.L.): This is an advanced degree for non-lawyers who want an alternative to three-year law schools. It’s typically a one-year program aimed at mid-career professionals who want a rigorous grounding in legal theories and principles. 

Juris Master (J.M.): This is another one-year advanced degree for non-lawyers. Similar to an M.S.L. degree, a Juris Master is for people who want to advance their legal knowledge but aren’t interested in taking the bar exam. 

Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.): As with a Juris Master (J.M.) or a Master of Studies in Law (M.S.L.), a Master of Jurisprudence is a 30-credit program for professionals who want a deeper understanding of legal issues they encounter in their line of work. An M.J. degree takes about 12-18 months to complete. Even practicing attorneys can earn a Master of Jurisprudence to sharpen their expertise in a particular legal field.

Master of Laws (LL.M.): Different from all the degrees above, this is a degree for lawyers who want to expand their knowledge in specialty areas. You need a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree or equivalent law degree to apply. An LL.M. is one of two main degrees, along with a Master of Comparative Law (M.C.L.), for attorneys who want to expand their legal expertise. At some law schools, the LL.M. degree is designed primarily for attorneys who passed the bar outside the United States.

Coursework Example of Master’s in Legal Studies

Coursework for a master’s in legal studies program depends on the university and specializations students can choose from. Below is an example of the types of coursework a legal studies student could choose in their first year. Typical coursework includes introductory classes and electives.

Semester 1Semester 2
Introduction to Regulation and ComplianceNegotiation and Communication 
Introduction to U.S. Law and Legal Systems Contracts
Legal Research and Writing for Non-Lawyers Elective Course 
Semester 3Semester 4
Elective CourseElective Course
Elective CourseElective Course

Accreditation is a voluntary, rigorous process schools go through to prove the quality of the content of their education programs. Picking a school that has been accredited may provide some independent assurance that your education and the value of your degree will be worthwhile.

There are multiple types of accrediting agencies. A legal studies program may be accredited by way of university accreditation and others can be granted acquiescence by the American Bar Association (ABA), but it is not accreditation.

Learn more about accredited MLS programs.

Many people who pursue a Master of Legal Studies degree have already launched their careers. A part-time MLS program might give you the flexibility to juggle your studies, perhaps without giving up your job. Attending classes only part time will mean it’ll take longer to complete the program, usually two to three years but possibly longer. 

Learn more about part-time MLS programs. 

A full-time MLS program typically takes 12-16 months to complete, which may be faster than other legal degree programs. Enrolling in a full-time program enables you to learn a wealth of information about the fundamentals of law and the influential role it has on social and economic institutions in a shorter amount of time. 

Learn more about full-time MLS programs.

Synchronous learning means live classes at set times. They can be two-way learning, meaning you may ask questions and interact with your professor and classmates.

Asynchronous learning happens on your timetable. Classes are recorded so you can log in whenever it’s best for you, including nights and weekends. This can be a good option for self-starters who can work with limited feedback from instructors. 

Learn more about synchronous vs. asynchronous MLS programs.

Some MLS programs are 100% via digital platforms while other MLS programs blend virtual courses with campus visits or immersions. Those are sometimes referred to as hybrid programs. The campus portions can be as limited as one trip to the school at the beginning of the program or as expansive as weeks-long research visits to the campus. 

Learn more about online vs. hybrid MLS programs.


Information on this page was last retrieved in July 2021.