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New Akron Law degree equips non-lawyers with legal skills

In September, Akron Law's new 30-credit advanced degree Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program officially got underway. (Photo courtesy of The University of Akron School of Law).

Legal News Reporter

Published: October 25, 2017

Healthcare manager, human resources professional, law enforcement officer, patent agent and journalist—all careers in which legal knowledge can enhance an employee’s ability to do the job.

Now The University of Akron School of Law is offering a new master’s degree program for students working or planning to take positions in fields that routinely intersect with the law but do not require a JD.

In September, the 30-credit advanced degree Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program officially got underway with students taking classes that will enable them to expand their understanding of U.S. legal principles and doctrines.

“This degree is designed for working professionals who do not plan to practice law or sit for the bar exam, but are seeking more in-depth knowledge of substantive areas of the law that pertain to their profession,” said Akron Law Dean Christopher J. (C.J.) Peters.

The inaugural class includes six students, whose occupations range from patient liaison to personal banker.

Danielle Swinehart is among the group. The Wadsworth native received her bachelor’s degree in food science from The University of Akron in 1998.

Since then she has lived in Georgia, where she served as a quality and food safety manager for both Sara Lee and Kellogg.

“I planned to go into food manufacturing and engineering, but what I found myself doing was handling recall investigations, supplier contracts, regulatory issues and dealing with customer complaints,” said Swinehart.

Prior to moving back to Ohio and beginning the program at Akron Law, she held the position of corporate quality assurance manager for Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients in North Carolina.  

“This was a challenging position as I was instrumental in the engineering and construction of a new facility,” she said.  

“The state-of-the-art food machinery required me to collaborate with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and NC State University to seek and gain the FDA approval of the process.

“I felt a bit like I was becoming a food lawyer.”

Swinehart said she always had an interest in law and believes completing the MSL program will enable her to better assist her next food employer.

While the program was approved in the summer of 2016, Matthew J. Wilson, former Akron Law dean and president of The University of Akron, said the plans have been in the works for a while.

 ”The law school faculty had started talking about creating a master’s in law program before my arrival in 2014,” said Wilson. “When I started at the law school, I reignited the discussion and began working with the faculty to put the program together and obtain the necessary university and state approvals.

“I think the degree is something that is beneficial and needed in the marketplace,” said Wilson. “Oftentimes people cannot afford either financially or timewise to get a three-year juris doctor degree, yet they do need a better understanding of legal issues to help them do their jobs or secure gainful employment.

“This program provides the chance for them to enhance their abilities and knowledge in as little as two semesters if they go full time, or two to three years if they study on a part-time basis. Fortunately at Akron Law, students have the flexibility of studying during the day or night and commencing their masters studies in August, January or May.”

As of the fall of 2017, full-time MSL tuition and fees for Ohio residents cost $24,214, with non-residents paying just $100 more to cover an out-of-state surcharge.

To apply a candidate must have a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent and provide a personal statement and letters of recommendation. Non-native English speakers must submit evidence of English proficiency.

“We do not require that applicants take the GRE or the LSAT,” said Peters. “We will look at undergraduate grades, majors, life experience and ability to write. If applicants choose to submit standardized test scores, we will consider them.”

While students can tailor the program to fit their needs, they are required to take Introduction to the American Legal System, along with one of the following courses: Torts, Contracts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure I or II or Fundamentals of Intellectual Property Law.

Full-time or adjunct Akron Law professors teach the MSL classes, but the credits are not transferable if a student decides to get a law degree later on.

Students also have the option of doing a Capstone project.

“There are no credit hour requirements for the Capstone,” said Emily Janoski-Haehlen, associate dean for academic affairs and institutional excellence. “It can be done concurrently with any additional credit hours.

“The students are able to choose most of their classes,” said Janoski-Haehlen. “We expect that they will develop the curriculum in a way that will assist them in their current positions.”

Swinehart, who has two young children and continues to reside in Wadsworth, said her first semester elective classes include Contracts, Insurance Law and Family Law.

“I am recently divorced and chose to include Family Law for the benefit of my children,” she said. 

Next semester, she plans to take Health Law and Constitutional Law.

She is scheduled to graduate in May, but said she is also registered to take the LSAT in December.

“I am enjoying this program so much that I am thinking that I might want to continue onwards towards a JD, which would allow me to make even a greater impact on the food industry.  For now my focus is on the MSL and I truly believe that it would enhance any professional’s career,” said Swinehart.

This spring more students will join the program.

“Our goal is to have between 10 to 15 students begin each semester,” said Janoski-Haehlen.

“Although we are targeting working professionals who want to enhance their careers, it is possible that we might admit a recent graduate who is weighing whether or not to go to law school,” said Janoski-Haehlen.

“This program is just another way in which we are trying to reach non-traditional students,” said Peters. “We already offer a spring start, flexible scheduling and some online content,” said Peters. “While we anticipate that there will always be demand for the traditional JD degree, one of the fastest growing segments of the legal services market are jobs that require some legal expertise or training but do not involve practicing law.

“We at Akron Law are thinking creatively about options that can help students fulfill emerging needs in the marketplace.”