Are non-lawyers the future of law school? One school in Delaware thinks so

Cheryl Kettinger graduated from Widener University's Delaware Law School in 2012 with a master's degree in health law. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Cheryl Kettinger graduated from Widener University's Delaware Law School in 2012 with a master's degree in health law. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Cheryl Kettinger isn’t a lawyer, but she is a law school graduate.

In 2012, Kettinger graduated from a special program at Widener University School of Law designed to educate people like her — those who work with the law but aren’t angling to become licensed attorneys. Her colleagues included nurses, social workers, and insurance representatives.

“It gave me a broader base of classmates to learn from, to argue with, to be challenged with,” said Kettinger, a market compliance officer with hospital management company Tenet Healthcare in Philadelphia.

And Kettinger’s broad base of classmates — unlike any you’d find in a traditional law school classroom — may just be the future of legal education.

A broken model

The law school business model used to be simple.

Step one: Recruit a bunch of aspiring lawyers.
Step two: Charge those aspiring lawyers a hefty fee for three years of education.
Step three: Graduate those aspiring lawyers so that they can become, if they choose, lawyers.

It all worked reasonably well until the economy tanked in the late aughts. Legal jobs dried up and many of those aspiring lawyers decided perhaps they should aspire to something else.

“As demand for law schools falls, so does the revenue of law schools, and they find the need to find revenue elsewhere,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a legal education watchdog.

A growing handful of schools have decided if there aren’t enough aspiring lawyers for them to stay flush, they’ll open their doors to a new market: non-lawyers. In fact, many are betting their futures on folks who interact with the law and could use a modified version of legal education, but don’t need a full-blown, three-year degree.

Leading that charge is Widener University’s Delaware Law School, located just outside Wilmington. (Widener also operates a law school in Harrisburg, but the two schools maintain separate operations and deans.)

Delaware Law’s story is largely emblematic of the challenges many law schools face. From 2011 to 2015, the school’s enrollment fell 42 percent, only moderately above the national average. Much of that loss has been in its traditional J.D. program, where enrollment plummeted from 950 to 458.

What distinguishes Delaware Law, however, is that it experienced modest growth in one degree area, its master’s of jurisprudence or M.J. Many of Delaware Law’s M.J. programs are in the area of compliance, the practice of establishing an honest company culture and ferreting out problems before they mushroom into catastrophe.

Compliance officers need not be attorneys, but they make good money. The average chief compliance officer makes about $150,000 annually, according to a survey by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. Compliance officers often need some basic understanding of how the law functions coupled with a comprehensive knowledge of a particular fragment of law. They are precisely the type of people who could use some form of legal education, but traditionally have had little place to get it.

Delaware Law first edged into the compliance education arena in 1999 with an M.J. in health law. After a dormant period, it’s recently begun an aggressive expansion. Since 2010 it has added degrees in corporate law, corporate law with a certificate in global compliance, health law with a certificate in legal nurse consulting, and corporate law with a concentration in environmental compliance, among others.

 Earlier this year it announced it would start an M.J. in higher education compliance, providing a modified version of legal education for the many university administrators who must contend with Title IX law, disability law, medical insurance law, and other areas of liability.

“Our plan is to be solid and steady with our basic JD program and then creative and expansionary with these other programs, provided we can do them with quality,” said Dean Rod Smolla.

Most of the school’s compliance degrees are one-to-two years long and fully online. They cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000–a healthy sum but far less than the standard rate for a J.D.

The result of all this is a swift change in Delaware Law’s academic profile. Back in 2011, over 80 percent of Delaware Law students were enrolled in the J.D. program. Today it’s around 70 percent. And it could continue to fall. Smolla said he envisions a future where half of the school’s students aren’t on a J.D. track.

“That’s a whole new thing for law schools,” said Smolla. “And it’s good for us in terms of expanding our revenue streams and diversifying our portfolio.”

Delaware Law isn’t the only school diversifying. In 2013, non-J.D. enrollment made up 8 percent of all law school enrollment, according to the American Bar Association. That’s the highest mark since 1963, when the ABA began tracking the statistic. Law school programs in compliance education have grown at a similar pace. In 2011, the compliance program at Delaware Law became just the third law school program to earn accreditation from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. Since then, seven other programs have joined the ranks, including one at prestigious Northwestern University.

Compliance a burgeoning field

Compliance education has been a natural pivot for law schools facing enrollment pressure. For starters, compliance is a law-related field so law schools can claim some authority in the area. 

“Think about all the people whose jobs interact with the law, but right now there’s no place for those people to go for an education,” said Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University who recently co-authored a paper on market disruption in legal education. “The knowledge they need is in the law school. It’s just a matter of repackaging what we’re already doing for these new markets.”

Just as important, the compliance field is growing.

“It’s absolutely exploding,” said Kristy Grant-Hart, a longtime compliance professional and professor at Delaware Law. 

The number of compliance professionals certified by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics has risen roughly 70 percent since 2012, according to the organization’s internal figures.

“There are so many compliance roles available out there now,” said Laura Jacobus, another Delaware Law professor. “You can look at any job board and see the breadth of depth of compliance roles in every industry at every level.”

Bad actors are partly to blame. Corporate scandals at Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and the like have spooked many companies into beefing up their compliance departments. At the same time, new government regulations in finance and health care have reinforced the need for in-house employees who can interpret those changes and help companies adapt.

“Our legal and regulatory world is becoming more and more complex,” said Alli Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the Leagal System at the University of Denver. “So what we are seeing is that there are many professionals who are already working in an industry who simply want to have the benefit of some additional legal background and knowledge.”

But does it work?

Some look at law schools’ embrace of compliance education and see a distressed sector innovating to stay alive. Others see a distressed sector turning desperate and predatory.

“Law schools have managed to lose a lot of the public’s trust,” said McEntee, referencing the notion that law schools once manipulated job-placement data to lure more applicants. “They don’t necessarily trust that they’re making decisions that are based on anything other than their own financial interests.”

McEntee worries that many non-J.D. programs are simply stop-gap solutions to mend law school budgets.

“I think there’s a deep skepticism about the value of these programs, both in terms of the value in terms of the substance taught and in the actual value in terms of the return on investment,” he said.

Others worry that the proliferation of non-J.D. programs will eat into the market for lawyers, allowing employers to siphon off bits of the traditional attorney role and distribute it among those with lesser qualifications.

Proponents argue the educational change is necessary and potentially healthy for law schools.

“We like to see schools innovate and try new things,” said Gerkman. “And when they try new things — even when they’re trying them outside the J.D. curriculum — there’s a possibility that they will be learning things that they will be able to filter back to the J.D. curriculum.”

Pistone, the Villanova University professor, said technological changes and economic circumstance have forever changed the legal job market. Jobs that once required hundreds of billing hours can now be done by powerful search engines, which has in turn put pressure on the legal industry to adjust.

“I think what we’re gonna see in law is more people who are licensed to provide limited legal services,” said Pistone. “So there’s an opportunity for law schools to educate people in those markets.”

There’s little available evidence on the value of new degree programs like Delaware Law’s. The Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, the body that accredits compliance-education programs at law schools, doesn’t track job-placement or employment-outcome data. Neither does Delaware Law.

Some mixed results

Without hard numbers, it’s difficult to judge Delaware Law’s foray into compliance education. And anecdotal evidence paints a cloudy picture.

Cheryl Kettinger said the program gave her a leg up. She stumbled into compliance a little over a decade ago, but never had any formal education in the field. Since graduating from Delaware Law in 2012 she’s landed two new jobs in compliance, each a step up from her prior posts.

“My evolution into my role, if you look at it, on a resume, until I went and made the decision to go back for a masters degree I really didn’t have all the educational certifications or degrees you would expect someone to have in the roles that I played,” said Kettinger.

Ebuka Okoye, meanwhile, is still waiting for his degree to pay dividends. The North Carolina resident had no compliance experience before earning his M.J. from Delaware Law in spring 2015.

“It’s been difficult since I graduated,” he admitted. “I’ve been doing a variety of odd jobs while trying to get a foot into the compliance world.”

A native of Nigeria, Okoye’s interest in compliance stems from experiences in his hometown — where he said ineffective government and mischievous corporations combined to ruin the local environment.

Okoye didn’t get into Widener’s J.D. program, but thought the M.J. could lift him into a law-related field. He largely praised the quality of the education he received at Delaware Law, but so far his new credential hasn’t pushed him over the top in an interview.

He has applied for more than 20 compliance jobs since graduating and works as a landscaper to make ends meet.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “But at this point in time I feel like I just have to keep probing.”

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