New Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program helps students develop custom-tailored education

When Dean Blake Morant spoke at various events over the past few years, he heard from many people who were not lawyers, but who had a hunger to know more about the law.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘You know, Dean, I don’t have the time and money to become a lawyer. I don’t even know if I want to become a lawyer,’ ” Morant said. “ ‘But I realize I confront legal issues a lot and I would love to have a grounding in law.’ ”

Those comments led the School of Law to put together a committee to examine programs that go beyond the traditional JD degree. The committee was interested in creating a program that builds on Wake Forest University’s interdisciplinary strengths, its pro humanitate mission and its focus on social justice.

The result is a new one-year Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program that debuted with its first class of 10 students in August.

The program is designed for recent undergraduates who would like to develop a better understanding of the law, as well as mid-career professionals who are working in fields where an understanding of law is relevant, such as accounting, business, environmental compliance, criminal justice, finance, government, health care, journalism, nonprofits, and public health.

Graduates of the program will be able to interact effectively with attorneys in their workplaces and translate the work of lawyers for their co-workers who lack legal training.

Students in the MSL program take specially designed core curriculum classes taught by Wake Forest law professors that give them a grounding in the law, along with elective courses in the JD program that suit their areas of interest. In addition, students complete a thesis or independent study under the supervision of a faculty adviser.

By reducing the amount of time students spend in law school, the faculty and administrators of the School of Law hope that MSL students will be able to make career choices that aren’t driven by debt.

Pursuing careers in nonprofits, government and public service and other areas that have a public policy component should result in a more social justice for larger groups of people, said Ron Wright, professor of criminal law.

“The Wake Forest mission of pro humanitate – to do things consciously for improving humanity – is very much part of the purpose of this program,” said Alan Palmiter, a professor of business law and new associate dean for the program. “It’s our thought that social justice is an important component of pro humanitate.”

Chris Meazell, director of the program, is a former musician who went on to complete a JD and practice media and intellectual property law after many years of recording and touring.

“The idea that law is exclusively the province of lawyers is a bit odd,” he said. “Law is one of the pillars of civilization, and people should be in a position to study that in the same way that people study other disciplines.”

The first MSL class is pursuing law-related interests in nonprofits, health care, higher education, publishing and sustainable design.

“This is a tremendous degree for folks who have some experience in the workplace and are looking to accelerate that, or to refine their skills through a deeper understanding of the law,” Meazell said. “This could also be very attractive to recent college graduates as essentially a finishing degree to an undergraduate liberal education. You’re talking about focus, poise, critical thinking, general awareness – all of those things that can focus a great liberal arts experience into something more precise.”

Erin Easley (MSL ’13) is coordinator of the Pre-Professional Scholars Program at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, where she works to place talented minority students in professional schools.

Easley has found her MSL classes useful in talking with law school admissions counselors and in understanding the variety of contracts that her work requires. Professors have given her a reading list in her area of interest and helped her learn to research topics in the law library.

“Before I enrolled, I shared with Director Meazell what I wanted my end result to be. He worked with me to develop a curriculum that would best suit my needs,” she said. “I’m getting a custom-tailored education from all of the professors.”

Wake Forest University’s relatively small size, yet broad range of disciplines, made it particularly suited for an interdisciplinary program, Morant explained.

“Our students can have the advantages of not only an educational experience that is inclusive to the law school,” he said, “but they may work in political science, religion, business, all those kinds of disciplines that interface with a lot of the legal principles that they will confront out in the real world.”

Kellsi Wallace (BA ’12, MSL ’13)) earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s and gender studies. She would like to advocate for gender equality as director of a nonprofit.

She is using her MSL studies to give her a grounding in tax law, which is important for nonprofits. By building on her course in comparative constitutional law, Wallace wrote a paper comparing sexual violence in South Africa and America that will become a foundation for further research.

“Having this advanced level of education already puts me ahead of the game,” she said, “and allows me to break into the nonprofit sector without having to climb through the ranks.”

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