Interview with Eric Menkhus of Arizona State Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Eric Menkhus is the Associate Dean for New Education Initiatives, Clinical Professor of Law, and Faculty Fellow at the Center for Law, Science & Innovation. We’ve interviewed Eric Menkhus in May 2018.

There are currently around 15 or so universities offering a Master of Legal Studies or similar degree online. How long ago did Arizona State University decide to start its Master of Legal Studies program and how is it structured? What led you to start a program there?

ASU Law launched its Master of Legal Studies program in 2006. It’s a 30-credit program, and it typically takes one year. But it’s designed to be flexible. Students can cater the curriculum to their particular fields of interest, and they can take classes in person or online, at the pace that suits them, whether that’s full-time or part-time.

Our site is designed to help people who are researching MLS programs find the right school. Can you outline your program’s values, mission, and goals?

The purpose of our MLS program is to allow students to study and understand legal principles and apply them to their field of interest without actually becoming a lawyer. The course offerings are flexible, with students able to design their own curriculum. They can focus on popular areas of legal study, or pursue the MLS concurrently with other graduate degrees offered within ASU. We not only want to provide an outstanding legal education, but also move careers forward.

For students who have decided to get their Master of Legal Studies degree but haven’t decided whether to get their education on campus or online, can you explain the advantages and disadvantages of both options?

There are great advantages to both our traditional and online programs. The best fit depends on the circumstances and traits of the individual student. The primary tradeoffs are social interaction and structure vs. independence and flexibility.

Taking classes on campus heightens social interaction and helps students build strong relationships with both their classmates and professors. There are opportunities to have a professor’s ear in the moments before and after class, or perhaps in the lobby or on a shared elevator ride. And the structure of a traditional classroom environment helps students stay focused and engaged. Additionally, our MLS students can enroll in the majority of our JD courses, so the course offerings are of unparalleled breadth.

Online classes, on the other hand, offer great flexibility. These traits are particularly important for our online MLS students, who are typically working professionals already in the midst of a career. They tend to be mature and focused, with great discipline and time-management skills, so they do well in an online setting. We offer a wide breadth of online courses, too, so they can tailor the degree to their desired career goals.

Online education can require discipline to stay on track. Can you outline how Arizona State University helps students stay on track with their degree? Do you have any recommendations for students to keep them from falling behind?

Within an individual online course, students have assignments and deadlines that force them to keep pace with the work. As far as completing the 30 credit hours for the degree, we have someone on staff that will help students create their program of study to meet their goals. Additionally, there’s no time limit and students are encouraged to progress through their program of study at their own pace. Many of them are balancing full-time careers and the demands of family life, so it may not be feasible to complete the 30 hours in a single year. We think it’s very important to maintain a lot of flexibility for those students.

For students who’ve decided to apply to your program at Arizona State University, what advice do you have to put together an application? For example, I know your program requires two letters of recommendations–are you looking for mostly academic references, professional references, or a mix of both?

In addition to two letters of recommendation, students must complete the MLS application form and submit a personal statement of up to 1,250 words, a resume, a writing sample, academic transcripts, and answers to any conduct questions. We are looking for detail-oriented applicants with strong writing skills and credentials.

We do not require an entrance exam like the LSAT or GRE, so all of the requested submissions carry weight in our admission decision process.

As for the references, the more current it is, the more relevant we consider it. Academic references are usually important, but if somebody is 10 years removed from their last college course, a current professional reference will likely carry more weight. As much as possible, make sure the letter is from someone that has some sort of connection to the applicant. It is often easy to tell when the recommender is not fully familiar with or comfortable endorsing the applicant.

What do you think sets Arizona State University apart from other online Master of Legal Studies or similar programs?

We are constantly evaluating and evolving the program, adapting to the fast- and ever-changing market needs. We continue to look at jobs and outcomes for students to make sure we are providing the necessary and relevant skills needed to elevate their careers. There’s no bar-passage rate to serve as a hard-and-fast measure of success, but we survey our graduating students and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And I think that’s reflected in the success of our graduates and the rising level of interest in our program. For example, we enrolled about 20 students in our first fall semester offering the MLS in an online format a few years ago and have graduated 80 students from the MLS Online program in our three plus year existence. This academic year, we’ll have well over 150 students in the program, so students are choosing us and we believe it is because we provide quality instruction and outcomes.

Finally, we have a team in place to support our students that is hard to match at other schools. In addition to the great technical and online learning resources of the university’s ASU Online division, who helps us design and deliver courses, students also are assigned a counselor throughout the application process, an academic advisor once admitted, a career services contact, and the vast array of other useful resources (library, student services, financial aid, etc.). That’s what being a student at a well-established state university brings to the table.

While the degrees we’re focused on aren’t designed for students pursuing a law degree, faculty with a solid knowledge of legal matters are important. Can you tell us about the experience levels of faculty at your school? Do they just focus on the MLS program or do they teach law as well?

MLS students, depending on their particular field of interest, take courses ranging across the law school curriculum, so nearly every faculty member has some involvement in the program. We’re a top 25 law school with a highly credentialed staff of full-time faculty and an elite lineup of adjunct professors, including federal judges and justices from the Arizona Supreme Court. Our MLS students are instructed by some of the brightest legal minds in the field. Even our current dean has developed a course and taught in the program.

Special thanks to Eric Menkhus, Associate Dean for New Education Initiatives for his time and insight.