December 14, 2005

Law school offers unique master's program

by Pete Rosenbery

masters law class

Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- You don't need to be a law student anymore to attend Southern Illinois University Carbondale's law school.

This is the first semester for the law school's master of legal studies (MLS) program. The 30 credit-hour program provides the opportunity to earn either a master of legal studies in health law and policy, or a master of legal studies – a more general program tailored to an individual student's interests.

Discussions about how best to reach out to the community with law-related programs date back more than a decade, said Thomas C. Britton, associate professor and director of graduate legal studies. The Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the program, which the American Bar Association acquiesced to with the caveat that it not detract from the law school's juris doctor program.

The program "is a unique opportunity for non-law students to learn significant amounts about the law," Dean Peter C. Alexander said. "Our program is fairly unique in that MLS students sit side-by-side with law students and take all their classes from law faculty."

Alexander noted that MLS programs in many institutions are in liberal arts or public policy disciplines and rarely operate in a law school. Scheduling classes may be a challenge for those who work full time, but students can complete the program in two years, Britton said.

The perspectives students bring to class in terms of age and background are important, said Sheila Simon, a clinical assistant professor at the law school. She teaches a legal writing course for first-year law students and has an MLS student, Peggy Stockdale, in her class.

Stockdale, an SIUC psychology professor, "really adds a lot to the class," Simon said.

"The MLS students have a diversity of background that our law students don't have," she said. "They are a good addition to the class."

In addition to Stockdale, other participants this semester include Ray Minor and Mike Miller of the Illinois State Police, Cynthia Sears, a manager of managed care for Southern Illinois Healthcare, Jake Baggott, chief business officer for SIUC Student Health Programs, George Vineyard, a researcher for student health programs on campus, and Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole.

Much of Stockdale's research, particularly in workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, concerns legal issues.

"It's been a very positive experience. I enjoy the challenge of being able to take courses that regular law students are taking and being in class with them," she said, noting that being "on the other side of the podium" has also been interesting and fun.

There are three required courses – Introduction to American Law and Legal Systems, Legal Research and Writing for Non-Lawyers and a capstone writing requirement. The remaining curriculum for the most part is from courses the law school offers regularly.

The rigorous program fits the particular needs of mid-career professionals, Britton said, emphasizing he believes this class is well prepared for the program's many demands.

"They are not any more intimidated than law students are by the process," he said. "Law students have longer to grow accustomed to the stresses of law school than these students, but certainly, this group isn't intimidated. Because they are mid-career people they are focused and know what they want to get out of the program."

Cole said the program opens the door for people who want some legal training but who do not need a law degree.

"This is a great opportunity for someone who wants to study the law and have a better legal understanding of issues but without the need for a degree to practice law," Cole said. "Going to law school as a full-time student isn't for everyone, so this program combines the best of the law school and the best of an advanced graduate degree, but without many of the obstacles."

For more information on the program, contact associate professor Thomas C. Britton at 618/453-8980.

Offering progressive graduate education and serving others are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(Caption: Legal eagles – Thomas C. Britton, an associate professor and director of the graduate legal studies program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s law school, leads a discussion in the Master of Law class. The class is designed for mid-career professionals wanting to learn about the law and, in many instances, its applications in their chosen professions. Listening during a recent lecture are (front row, left to right) Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole and Cindy Sears, and (second row, left to right) Jake Baggott, Michael Miller and Ray Minor.)

Photo by Russell Bailey