What's the deal with the MSL degree?
September 27, 2013 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Goes by several names: Master of Studies in Law, Master of Legal Studies, Master of Science in Law. Wikipedia says: "a master's degree offered by some law schools to students who wish to study the law but do not want to become attorneys." I'd never heard of such a degree until recently -- is it present in the public consciousness? I read MBA or MFA and I have intuition for what those involve, but not so much MSL.

There are several reasons I don't want to pursue a J.D. (expense, length, opportunity cost, having no wish to practice), but I do think it'd be useful to have some grounding in the law, if only to put a bound on what I don't know about it. And if I'm going to seek that grounding, then a credential to prove that I have it would make sense. But! If holding the credential is evidence that I'm a doofus, then that's a bad deal. Almost all the information I can find about the degree is on the websites of law schools trying to sell it to me.

A name-brand law school near me is offering an MSL program, and I have the opportunity to study part-time through my employer for reduced tuition. It isn't cheap, but I can easily afford it. The education isn't relevant to my work; for me this would just be a step toward a liberal education. There may be some ancillary career benefit from the law smarts, but I'm not counting on that.

1. Do people know what this degree is?
2. Is there a perception that it is a waste of money / pointless?
3. Should I apply to this program?
posted by mf_ss to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have considered this kind of program in the past, because I work in a law library and just finished my MI (Master of Information). Law librarians used to typically be qualified lawyers as well as librarians, but in my jurisdiction this is now less often the case due, in part, to the rising cost of legal education... if you don't plan to practice, the full degree is not cost-effective. A degree like *this* one may make it possible to theoretically out-compete law librarians with no such formal legal education without investing quite as much as a full JD (or local equivalent) in cases where credentials are valued.

I decided against following up on it, though, since the degree doesn't seem well-known. I might look into it again if I ever find myself working at a university law library where having a second graduate degree is key to advancement, or where tuition is cheap for staff. If you anticipate something like this may become a factor for you, it could be worth considering.

Otherwise, I suspect it may only be something to pursue for personal enrichment or as something that would be on par with any random masters-level degree on your resume. You would likely always (as I do with MI, which is equivalent to the profession's standard MLS/MLIS) need to spell out the meaning of the degree's acronym, and perhaps also list the faculty as well as the name of the degree-granting institution on your resume for context.

You don't mention what field you work in, other than to say that this "isn't relevant" to your work. In that case, I would think that something relevant would be a better choice. However, if you "can easily afford it", then I guess there's no harm in it. I love the law and would gladly study it if money were no object.
posted by onshi at 9:42 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a lawyer, I have never heard of this degree. It seems like a way for the school to just make more money. If there is no career (i.e. financial) benefit to this, I don't think it's worth it (unless the reduced tuition is extremely reduced). Are there specific areas of law that you're interested in learning about? There is likely a more effective way to go about learning this information, like attending CLE classes. Or even just buying a Barbri class.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I saw an ad for it and just figured it was another new cash cow master's degree program.
posted by discopolo at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2013

Best answer: The MSL is indeed a total waste of time, and there's really no reason to do it other than personal enrichment, but I don't think you'll find it particularly enriching. It's generally just, essentially, a first-year JD curriculum of torts and contracts and con law, etc. While these courses are, broadly speaking, foundational, they don't have much real application to the real world. Yes, you might leave a property class with some understanding of saucy intruders or the rule against perpetuities, but that's not going to help you understand anything going on in your HOA or local legislature. The law in the real world has essentially zero bearing on what you'll likely cover in these classes. It's like an intro to legal philosophy program, and, I assure you, lawyers are not philosophers.

In all seriousness, you will get virtually the exact same benefit by going to the local law school, buying used copies of any textbooks that interest you and buying the "hornbook" (Cliff Notes, essentially) that is written to go along with the text. Read a case, then read the hornbook. Alternatively, there are books called the "nutshells" that have all the most important concepts in them.

I was a good boy and went to all my classes (literally, never missed a class in law school!), but a good number of my top-five school classmates lived on those books and went on to be federal clerks.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:46 AM on September 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I tend to agree with my fellow attorneys on the overall value of this degree, but I do see a niche where it wouldn't be useless: established professionals who could use some formal training in the law but are not and do not need to be attorneys.

As it turns out, there are a lot of people who read things like regulations and the court cases interpreting them that aren't lawyers. I've worked with quite a few in the past. They were mostly in the R&D department of an insurance company, but there have been others. They tended to be experts on the subject-matter content, but occasionally had some difficulty understanding how the various species of law (1) come to be, (2) are changed, and (3) interact with each other. Understanding the distinctions between regulations, statutes, and case law is very useful if you deal with administrative law every day, but a surprising number of people who do that have only the vaguest sense of how that all works.

Similarly, there are a lot of people who deal with contracts on a very regular basis who aren't lawyers, and I've noticed a distinct tendency among such persons to latch on to boilerplate legalese in an almost talismanic fashion, when in most instances the language they were insisting upon/objecting to was either completely irrelevant or simply didn't do what they thought it did. A little primer on contract law would have served the people I'm thinking of very well indeed.

But all of the people I'm thinking of have concrete, identifiable needs for formal legal training which would have immediate practical implications for the work they are already doing. If you're thinking of getting this degree simply for the sake of getting it, I think it's safe to say that would be an utter waste of time and money. It's very unlikely to get you a job you did not already have, nor is it likely to impart the kinds of information which contribute to a "liberal education", at least not in a way that couldn't be far more easily and cheaply done by reading a few books on your own time.
posted by valkyryn at 9:58 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't see the value of this degree. You should not use it to replace legal advice and I'm sure its not cheap.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:17 AM on September 27, 2013

I don't know if having this degree will make you seem like a doofus, but it certainly won't impress lawyers.

I also doubt what you get educationally from such a program would be worth the time, effort, and tuition. You could learn the same material for free using nutshells, casebooks, and examples and explanations books, which is what many law students do.
posted by Area Man at 10:48 AM on September 27, 2013

I'm a lawyer who's been doing the law thing for over ten years and I had to use Google to find out what an MSL is. Now that I know what it is, I will have thought you had wasted time and money if I learned you had this degree.

"I do think it'd be useful to have some grounding in the law, if only to put a bound on what I don't know about it." is a bad reason for legal education. When you need a legal issue address, hire a lawyer. That will be a lot quicker and cheaper.

If you just want to do some learning for its own sake, just take BarBri or read some hornbooks. It's like what Will Hunting said to the grad student in the bar. FWIW, I know people say, "I love the law", but I never really believe that. People love trying to figure out typicality for a Rule 23 certification? People love the doctrine of equivalents and the economic loss rule?
posted by Tanizaki at 10:52 AM on September 27, 2013

Best answer: At my university there is an LLM and LLD (Canadian designation for a Masters and Doctoral degree in Law). It tends to be a small cohort of academically inclined students with a interest in law, perhaps similar to doing an MA in Political science. Because of the focus of the institution, they tend to have an interest in either Indigenous Law or environmental law.

Masters students i know may, for example, study traditional law making processes in an indigenous culture, and how it is being adopted in extra-legal dispute resolution. Or they might look at how water rights are expressed in law in different jurisdictions. They may do original field research, including interviews, transcribing, and all that, just like in Sociology.

This is a far cry from learning how to prepare a criminal case or negotiate and draft a contract for a company, yet it is still a study in legal processes. It is not useful if what you want to be is a lawyer, as many lawyers here attest, however it may well be interesting in the same way higher level scholarship is always interesting--it is a chance for deeper learning on a subject of interest, and to learn about current research in a field of interest.

(BTW, the cash grab argument can equally apply these days to the LLM (or JD in the US) which from what I can see are currently allowing a far higher enrollment than can find articling placements).

I think talking to people with graduate degrees might be more relevant that talking to people with undergraduate degrees or reading wikipedia when considering a masters. A better test would be to read through the course calendar to see what they are teaching--and then checking to see how many of these courses are actually being offered in any given term.

Finally, as someone who works with graduate students, my rule for discovering whether a graduate degree (especially a doctorate) is "practical" is: "Will they pay you to study"? If not, it is not likely to be "practical" in the sense that it is leading you to further work in the academic field. However, it may be valuable as a way to challenge yourself intellectually, expand your thinking, and expose you to new ideas.
posted by chapps at 12:06 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments! Consensus seems to be that the degree falls on the wrong side of a cost/benefit analysis, especially according to practicing lawyers. Perhaps there's a market of people for whom the degree is useful, but it's not certain that it includes me.

I wish I could hear from at least one person who has completed a program like this (with the post-purchase rationalization bias firmly in mind), but the fact that I haven't been able to find one is its own kind of information.
posted by mf_ss at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2013

I think these are a recent development (last 8 years or so).

GW used to have this, but they called it an "executive J.D." Maybe they still do it.
posted by jgirl at 5:12 PM on September 27, 2013

To clarify what chapps said -- an LL.M. is not the same thing as an MSL. -- an LL.M. is a masters degree obtained after receiving a JD. This is for people who've obtained a law degree abroad needing a US (or other local) law qualification or those who specialize in a certain area, most commonly tax. I have a tax LL.M., and most tax lawyers I know have them. In other areas it's not really needed or common. Regardless, the two degrees are not the same thing.
posted by melissasaurus at 5:26 PM on September 27, 2013

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