Master of Legal Studies and alternative degrees

A Master of Legal Studies (MLS) is a graduate degree that enables individuals to impart legal knowledge and advice without becoming a practicing attorney. MLS programs can give students a deeper understanding of the law, which can open the door to career opportunities in a wide range of private and public industries. 

A master’s in legal studies differs from legal degrees, such as a Juris Doctor (J.D.), which is required to practice law in the U.S., and a Master of Laws (LL.M.), which allows current practicing attorneys to further specialize or gain additional expertise.

Legal studies is an interdisciplinary field that explores legal ideas, practices, systems, and their impact on society. A legal studies program may cover critical reasoning, ethical considerations in law, legal research and writing, and case analysis.

Thinking about earning your MLS? Legal studies can benefit individuals 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. 

During your program, you may have the opportunity to choose a legal degree specialization, such as corporate litigation, healthcare compliance, or criminal law. Keep in mind that a degree in legal studies does not prepare you to become an attorney.

Sponsored online MLS and law programs

The program cards/tables featured on this page were last updated in November 2022. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.   

Pepperdine University

Caruso School of Law


Master of Legal Studies

  • No GRE or LSAT scores required to apply 
  • Complete in as few as 12 months 
  • Dispute resolution concentration available

American University

Washington College of Law


Master of Legal Studies

  • Complete in as few as 12 months 
  • No GRE/LSAT scores required to apply 
  • Four tracks available: General MLS, Business, Health Care Compliance, and Technology 
  • Three certificates available: Business, Health Care Compliance, and Technology


In addition to the MLS degree, there are several other post-graduate degrees for individuals interested in pursuing legal studies:

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

Juris Master (J.M.): This is an advanced degree for non-lawyers who want to advance their legal knowledge. Programs do not qualify students to sit for the bar exam, but may provide opportunities to take courses that align with specific industry needs.

Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.): This is an advanced degree for professionals who want a deeper understanding of legal issues they encounter in their line of work. Programs may require students to participate in a significant research or thesis project.

Master of Laws (LL.M.): This is an advanced degree specifically for lawyers who want to expand their knowledge in a particular area. A J.D. or equivalent is required for these programs, some of which are designed for attorneys who have passed the bar exam outside the U.S.

Master’s in legal studies sample coursework

Below is an example of the coursework you may encounter in a legal studies program. While every MLS curriculum will depend on the university and available specializations, coursework may include foundational classes and electives.

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

Accredited programs go through a voluntary process to prove the quality of their educational offerings and content. Independent organizations provide the criteria and approval for accreditation. A legal studies program may be accredited by way of the university, or granted acquiescence by the American Bar Association (ABA). 

To be accredited by the ABA, law schools must meet various standards set forth by the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools (PDF, 2.5 MB), such as faculty experience, assessments of student learning, legal coursework requirements, administration rules, and regulations on public disclosures about the law school.

Learn more about accredited MLS programs.

As a busy professional, you may be wondering whether an MLS program can offer you the flexibility you need to balance your studies with existing commitments. Part-time options give you the ability to attend classes that fit into your schedule. Keep in mind that these programs may take longer to complete than full-time programs.

Learn more about part-time MLS programs. 

If your schedule allows you to pursue a more rigorous class schedule, you could complete a full-time MLS program in around 12 to 16 months. This format is ideal for students with minimal obligations and strong time management skills who can dedicate a majority of their attention to their studies.

Learn more about full-time MLS programs.

In a synchronous MLS program, students attend live classes at set time, meeting face-to-face with instructors and peers. Asynchronous programs provide students with prerecorded lectures so they can complete coursework on a schedule that works for them. Students with existing personal obligations may be better suited to asynchronous learning.

Learn more about synchronous vs. asynchronous MLS programs.

One final factor to consider when determining the best MLS program for you is the delivery format. Some programs are completely virtual, while others — sometimes referred to as hybrid programs — may require occasional campus visits or in-person immersions.

Learn more about online vs. hybrid MLS programs.

If you want to learn more about earning your legal degree remotely, read our guide to help you weigh the pros and cons of getting a legal degree online.

Sponsored online MLS and law programs

Fordham University

School of Law


Master of Studies in Law

  • GRE, GMAT, and LSAT scores not required to apply 
  • Complete in as few as 12 months 
  • Minimum two years’ compliance-related work experience recommended


Last updated: December 2023