If you’re considering earning a Master of Legal Studies (MLS), then you undoubtedly have certain career goals in mind that you’re hoping the degree will help you achieve.
Perhaps you regularly interact with lawyers as part of your job and would like to engage with them more effectively. Maybe you want to move up the ranks at your current company, and know that having a deeper understanding of how the law influences your industry is the key to getting there. Or perhaps you’ve always had an interest in the law, and you view earning an MLS as a way of cultivating that interest without committing to earning a Juris Doctor (JD).
But you may also find yourself wondering: What exactly can I do with a legal studies degree? What kind of jobs do MLS graduates typically hold? Is a Master of Legal Studies the degree I should earn to reach those goals?
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To help you better understand whether or not earning a Master of Legal Studies is worth it, we’ve taken a closer look at what exactly an MLS is, how it differs from a JD, and some of the most common career paths that MLS graduates pursue after earning their degree.
What Is a Master of Legal Studies (MLS)?
Before diving into the specifics of what you can do with a Master of Legal Studies degree, it’s important to understand what, exactly, it is and how the program differs from other law-related degrees.
“The Master of Legal Studies is a relatively new type of degree that was created for individuals who need working knowledge of the law, but don’t intend on becoming practicing lawyers,” says Dan Urman, director of Northeastern School of Law’s online and hybrid programs.
As a newer degree, it goes by a number of different names depending on the university offering it, including:
- Master of Legal Studies (MLS)
- Master of Science of Law (MSL)
- Juris Master (JM)
- Master of Jurisprudence (MJ)
Though the names differ, these programs are all built around the same basic curriculum, which is designed to impart working knowledge of the law without going into the level of technicality typically required to become an attorney.
Master of Legal Studies (MLS) vs. Juris Doctor (JD)
If an individual is considering going to “law school,” the degree they’re typically referring to is the Juris Doctor, or JD. Though a JD shares some similarities with an MLS, they are unique degrees—each of which sets graduates up for very different career paths.
“The main difference between a JD and MLS boils down to the student’s motivation in earning the degree,” Urman says. “Master of Legal Studies programs are designed to grant students a working knowledge of the law that they can put to use in an industry or career that interacts with the law, but without going into the training required to become a practicing attorney.”
There are several factors to take into consideration when deciding between an MLS and a JD, as each degree tends to serve a different purpose.
Individuals who regularly need to communicate with lawyers or navigate through the complicated world of legal regulations, but are not concerned with representing a client, are ideal MLS candidates.
Individuals working in healthcare, startups, universities, nonprofits, financial services companies, like banks and lenders, the media, and large corporations are some of those most likely to benefit from an MLS, as are those in other heavily regulated industries.
Master of Legal Studies programs are most often pursued by individuals who are currently in the workforce. As such, many MLS programs are designed to be earned part-time. Despite this fact, the degree can often be earned in one to two years, offering a relatively quick return on investment and pathway for career development.
The JD, on the other hand, is designed to train an individual to become a practicing attorney who will represent clients, whether those clients are individuals, businesses, or institutions. Often, those who pursue a JD will do so directly after earning an undergraduate degree in a related field. Typically, these degrees will be earned in three years of full-time study.
(Dan Urman describes the benefits of Northeastern’s MLS program.)
Common Career Paths for MLS Graduates
By earning a Master of Legal Studies, you’re setting yourself up to be effective and successful in any number of jobs that directly and indirectly interact with lawyers and the law. Below, we list some of the most common job titles held by MLS graduates, though the exact title may vary depending on the industry or organization:
1. HR Manager or Director
Human resources (HR) managers and directors work within their capacity to plan and coordinate the administrative functions of a business or organization. Their responsibilities can be wide-ranging, but some of the most crucial are:
- Ensuring the proper allocation of employee talent
- Serving as a link between employees and management
- Administering employee benefit programs
- Handling disputes and disciplinary procedures
- Advising on other HR issues, including sexual harassment claims and equal employment opportunities.
In performing these duties, it is essential that HR managers and directors have a firm understanding of the laws and regulations governing their actions.
2. Senior Compliance Officer or Director
Compliance officers and directors are largely responsible for ensuring that a company or organization maintains its legal and ethical integrity. They do this by staying on top of the ever-changing laws and regulations that govern industry and putting in place a program of policy enforcement.
Though the list of industries subject to regulations is a long one, some of those most likely to employ a compliance officer include:
- Financial services
- Medicine, biotech, and pharmaceuticals
- Food preparation and delivery
- Welfare services
- Governmental agencies
3. Senior Contract Negotiator
Contract negotiators perform the very specific duties associated with preparing and negotiating the specifics of a contract. Due to the ever-increasing reliance on contractors and freelance workers in today’s economy, the ability to negotiate the terms of a contract has become a valuable skill set in countless professions.
4. Senior Business Analyst
Business analysts perform a number of duties with the goal of understanding the key challenges and goals of a business and then make recommendations to achieve key priorities.
Business analysts are often employed by a single company, or may work for a number of clients. In either case, a firm understanding of the laws and regulations that impact those is critical to ensuring that the recommendations made are appropriate and actionable.
5. Associate Operations Director
Operations directors are responsible for coordinating the internal structure of a business or organization. In addition to ensuring the proper allocation of talent throughout a company, they work to ensure that the organization’s structure is based on its unique challenges, goals, and internal policies.
As such, operations directors interact closely with both management—including HR and executives—and rank-and-file employees. Just as with other management positions, understanding how the law and various regulations impacts their job and company will lead to a more successful tenure.
No Clear-Cut Path
While the titles above are some of the most common titles held by Master of Legal Studies graduates, it’s important to keep in mind that MLS programs are not designed to train students to perform a specific job. Whereas a JD trains a student to be an attorney, and a Doctor of Medicine (MD) trains students to become doctors, an MLS can be put to use in a variety of ways.
“The individuals most likely to seek out an MLS are those who currently work in a middle or upper management role,” Urman says, “and who would like to take the next logical step toward more authority and responsibility within their industry or organization, whatever that step may be.”
As such, the degree is often used as a career booster for individuals whose job performance would benefit from a more thorough understanding of the law and regulations that apply to their organization.
Beyond career advancement, some students pursue an MLS in order to test the waters of law school without committing to earning their JD. These are often individuals who are unsure whether or not they have the passion for law required to become an effective attorney. If, in the end, the student decides that they do want to pursue their JD, the lessons learned while earning their MLS will prove invaluable; if they decide that they do not wish to further their study of law, they still walk away with a valuable degree that will help them advance their career.
Average Salary for MLS Graduates
Those who choose to pursue an MLS degree often do so to build the skills and expertise needed to advance their careers. As they advance after graduation, they frequently see higher salaries as a result. In general, regardless of industry or profession, an individual who holds a master’s degree will earn an average salary of $68,000, as compared to $50,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree.
For those specifically with an MLS, data from PayScale shows that graduates earn an average of $57,000 per year; however, certain job titles see higher levels of compensation. For example, according to the 2019 Legal Salary Guide compiled by Robert Half, compliance directors can earn as much as $186,000 annually.
Of course, salaries vary based on position, years of experience, industry, and location. Aside from litigation, some of the most popular industries for professionals with a law-focused background include general business, real estate, and regulatory compliance.
The Bottom Line
Before pursuing any post-graduate degree, it’s important for you to understand how that degree will help you to reach your personal and professional goals. Understanding what you hope to gain and what you’re willing to do to achieve your aspirations plays a large role in determining whether earning a degree is worth it for you.
Earning a Master of Legal Studies may be just what you need to learn the language of the law and take your career to the next level, especially if you work in a highly regulated industry or regularly interact with lawyers and the law.
Though the job titles listed above are some of those most commonly sought by MLS graduates, the truth is that the knowledge learned through earning the degree can be applied to a wide range of careers in any number of fields.