M.Jur. gives non-lawyers tools to understand the legal system

As lawmakers begin to debate future laws in the State Capitol this month, the St. Mary’s University School of Law announces a new Master of Jurisprudence degree program — the only degree of its kind offered at a law school in Texas.

The graduate degree will equip non-lawyers with the tools to understand current and future laws and enable them to gain the professional edge needed to further careers in fields that frequently intersect with the law, such as healthcare, business and education.

“This significant expansion of our degree options fills a void in the educational and workforce landscape,” said Dean Stephen M. Sheppard, J.S.D.

The addition of a new type of degree program is the first for the St. Mary’s School of Law since 1996, when it added the Master of Laws (LL.M.) program, which typically draws students who have already earned a Juris Doctor or the foreign equivalent.

Though the St. Mary’s University School of Law’s Master of Jurisprudence degree program is unique among the state’s law schools, the new offering follows a trend of developing similar degrees at law schools across the nation.

Market research shows that graduates of similar programs have said the credential enabled them to advance their careers and earn larger salaries.

The program encourages students to explore the connections between the law and their respective disciplines and to study the American legal system more comprehensively than through on-the-job training.

“As businesses seek to lower their costs, these graduates will be ideally situated to take on basic tasks that intersect with the law, such as compliance work,” said Professor Colin Marks, director of the Master of Jurisprudence program.

Master of Jurisprudence students will gain a general knowledge of the law and will graduate with the ability to better understand legal issues, such as statutes, regulations, contracts and employment matters.

For instance, Marks said someone in a management position who handles personnel matters may need to better understand the gray area in which a hiring or firing decision might fall.

“This degree will enable that graduate to research previous decisions on similar issues in order to determine the best course of action instead of hiring an attorney for each instance, or perhaps knowing when an attorney is really needed,” Marks said. “That’s of real benefit to the local professional community.”

Though the Master of Jurisprudence does not provide a path toward law licensure, master’s students will learn to think like a lawyer and more effectively work with those in the legal profession by enrolling alongside Juris Doctor students in introductory courses.

Students can complete the 30 credit-hour master’s degree through full-time study in one year or through part-time study in two years. Working professionals can take advantage of the option for evening and online coursework.

“Most law is regulatory, and you don’t get exposure to how the regulatory system works in a basic undergraduate degree,” Marks said. “Master of Jurisprudence students will be taking administrative law as well as legal research and writing. They’ll be able to really understand statutes.”

The law school is now accepting applications for the inaugural class to enroll in fall 2015.

The initial class size will be capped at about a dozen students to provide a high level of individual attention, Marks said. The program will operate under St. Mary’s University’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“The best applicants will be those who have had significant real-life experience and who value the tools provided by legal training but without the commitment to and investment in a three-year J.D.,” Marks said.

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