The wines of Napa Valley and the drive down the coastal route of Highway One were among the highlights of Agata Wisniewska’s family trip to California this summer. But the key draw for Ms Wisniewska was less relaxing: she wanted to complete her masters degree in law (LLM).
Berkeley Law, University of California, is one of a handful of leading US teaching institutions now offering hybrid LLM programmes. These combine online classes, taken in students’ spare time at home, with campus lectures offered during the summer break when the full-time students are away.
“I would not be doing such a course if I had to come to Berkeley for a year,” says Ms Wisniewska, who is now at home in Poland completing her course online. The LLM, she hopes, will help her progress faster up the career ladder.
The catalyst for hybrid programmes has been the decline in the numbers applying to full-time LLM programmes. Working lawyers are put off full-time courses by the prospect of having to quit their jobs — and forgo their salary — and return to student life for 12 months.
The numbers of students like Ms Wisniewska are small: Berkeley Law launched its hybrid course in January with a class of 13 students, against two cohorts each of 100 students studying at the school for the full-time LLM.
But these courses are a way to bring in students who would not otherwise consider graduate education. According to Anya Grossmann, director of global outreach and professional engagement at Berkeley Law, 85 per cent of those accepted on its hybrid course said they did not apply to any other degree programme.
The $60,345 tuition fee for the hybrid course is the same as the one-year full-time LLM. However, the hit to students’ salary of a hybrid degree is considerably less because they are only required to attend courses for 12 weeks.
“For a significant number of our students this is the only way to get an LLM degree,” Ms Grossmann says. A hybrid LLM is mainly aimed at those seeking career progression, she adds. “In certain countries, an LLM is the only way to get up the corporate ladder.”
Ms Wisniewska says she was able to get additional time off to attend the summer lectures at the end of her maternity leave from the Warsaw office of US law firm Greenberg Traurig. Her husband was able to join her, and look after their son, by taking unpaid annual leave.
The course, she says, has greatly improved her understanding of US corporate law for the deals she is handling. “It’s not my goal to work in the US,” she says. “For me it is about developing myself and my skills.”
Law schools started seeking out technology to provide cheaper, more flexible ways for people to study after demand for law degree courses tumbled in the wake of the financial crisis.
For the three admissions cycles up to last year, the number of applicants to American Bar Association degrees has hovered below 60,000, down from 88,000 in the 2009-10 cycle, according to data from the Law School Admission Council, which administers the standardised entrance exam for American, Canadian and Australian schools.
Demand for conventional full-time courses has recovered this year, and law schools have found that hybrid law degrees are not cannibalising LLM applicants but bringing in new ones.
Ken Randall, who was dean at the University of Alabama School of Law for 20 years, is founder of iLaw, which has worked with 22 law schools in the US to develop online or hybrid degree courses. “This is really about market expansion,” he says.
Last month, Columbia Law School announced a hybrid course on its New York campus. It will run over 12 weeks during the summer break, with an additional requirement to complete three online courses, each lasting four weeks.
The Columbia hybrid option uses the same professors as the full-time course, according to Julia Miller, assistant dean for executive education and non-degree programmes at Columbia Law School. “We wanted to make sure that this was of the highest quality,” Ms Miller says. “This is a commitment from the top down.”
The 12 weeks that hybrid course students will spend on campus are set to be “intense” and key to the networking element of going back to law school. “Exchanging those ideas with other students is invaluable,” she says. Hybrid degree programmes mainly attract mid-career employees. Ms Wisniewska, who is 30, is the second youngest in her cohort at Berkeley Law. Several of her classmates are in their late 30s and 40s.
She values the time they spent together in classes in California in the summer. “It is not always easy to organise our online lessons because other students live in all parts of the world,” she says. “But the experience of meeting them has been something I could never have achieved without going back to law school.”