In a master of legal studies program, students learn to navigate complex concepts and practices related to law enforcement, the judicial process, and governmental standards and regulations. This graduate degree prepares you for careers in industries related to law and is ideal for those who do not wish to become practicing attorneys. Many legal studies professionals work as corporate compliance officers and human resources managers. However, your opportunities will vary based on your degree concentration and individual goals. This guide provides in-depth information about the legal studies field, including program options and job prospects.

What are the Best Legal Studies Programs of 2020? Here are our top 10:

Rank School Location
1 University of Illinois at Springfield Springfield, IL
2 Washington University in St Louis Saint Louis, MO
3 Webster University Saint Louis, MO
4 Pepperdine University Malibu, CA
5 Drexel University Philadelphia, PA
6 Regent University Virginia Beach, VA
7 University of Arizona Tucson, AZ
8 West Virginia University Morgantown, WV
9 Hodges University Naples, FL
10 Saint Leo University Saint Leo, FL

What Is Legal Studies?

Master's programs in legal studies typically deliver an interdisciplinary curriculum spanning theories and practice of law and institutions of the U.S. legal system. Students also learn the political, economic, and social implications of law and how to navigate legal procedures.

Career opportunities for graduates exist in the nonprofit, private, and government sectors. Depending on your chosen concentration, a master's in legal studies can qualify you for paralegal, financial examiner, or police and detective positions. You can also occupy organizational leadership positions by pursuing specialized training in employment law, business law, or conflict resolution.

Regulatory compliance represents another popular legal studies subfield. Here, specialists interpret industry standards and government regulations to implement effective workplace policies. Since compliance is a crucial aspect of any company, career opportunities abound in healthcare, higher education, information technology, pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing, and other industries.

You can access this degree page to explore the 10 best online master's programs in legal studies. The guide also contains information on academic and professional development resources.

What You Can Do With a Master of Legal Studies

Top Executive

An executive ensures an organization meets its goals. These professionals are often responsible for budgeting, forecasting, strategic planning, hiring department heads, and managing general activities. Some executives oversee an entire organization, while others manage a specific department. Many executives hold master's degrees in areas such as legal studies.

Median Annual Salary: $104,980*

Financial Examiner

Financial examiners ensure banks or other financial institutions comply with laws and regulations. These professionals review balance sheets, assess risks, analyze new regulations, and prepare reports. Financial examiners need at least a bachelor's degree, and higher-paying positions typically require a master's degree.

Median Annual Salary: $80,180*

Police Officer or Detective

Charged with protecting lives and property, police and detectives respond to emergency notifications, arrest suspects, gather evidence, and testify in court. Professionals may hold specialized positions, such as game warden. Others serve at the city, county, or state level. A master's degree can help police officers move into management or leadership roles.

Median Annual Salary: $63,380*

Arbitrator, Mediator, or Conciliator

These professionals help resolve conflicts between parties outside the court system. They may assist divorcing couples, corporations, educational institutions, or financial entities. They interview interested parties, arrange meetings, draw up settlement agreements, and research and apply relevant law. A master's degree can provide the critical thinking and writing skills necessary for these positions.

Median Annual Salary: $62,270*

Paralegal or Legal Assistant

Paralegals and legal assistants support lawyers by conducting research, compiling files, and drafting legal documents. They may investigate cases, gather evidence, write reports, and help lawyers during trials. Paralegals can specialize in areas such as corporate law or litigation. A master's degree qualifies paralegals to lead associations, teach paralegal studies, and publish research.

Median Annual Salary: $50,940*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

This in-depth career guide helps you discover the opportunities available to legal studies graduates. The page includes job prospects by degree level, employment statistics by location, and professional resources to help you find work and gain advanced skills.

What to Expect in a Master of Legal Studies Program

At the graduate level, legal studies curricula center on legal research and analysis, technical writing, and compliance skills (like auditing, reporting, and investigation). Students examine constitutional law and legal procedures with regard to property, contracts, and torts. The best online master's in legal studies programs also cover negotiation theories and practices. The following lists show common courses and popular concentrations in this field.

Concentrations Offered for a Master’s Degree in Legal Studies

Sports Law
Sports law focuses on business, ethical, and legal issues that arise in the world of sports. Students learn about regulations governing branding, finance, and revenue in the sports industry. Courses cover topics such as intellectual property issues in sports and entertainment law.
Human Rights
Students in this concentration explore concepts related to human rights protection in regional, national, and international contexts. The curriculum focuses on theoretical concepts of justice, human rights, and oppression. Students take courses in areas such as bioethics, international religious freedom, international trafficking, and human rights research.
Corporate and Healthcare Compliance
Complex and highly regulated industries such as finance, banking, and healthcare must comply with certain laws. Students in this concentration learn about regulatory environments, investigation, risk assessment, and data security. Courses often cover intellectual property law, hospital law, and pharmaceutical device compliance.
Criminal Law
This concentration prepares students for positions in fields such as criminal law and juvenile justice. Coursework emphasizes constitutional criminal procedure, juvenile law, human rights, and legislation. Learners may study topics such as immigration law and restorative justice in the U.S. legal system.
Indigenous Peoples Law
This concentration provides in-depth knowledge of Native American law, self-governance, policy, contracts, compliance, and business practices. Courses often cover the history of federal Indian law and policy, criminal justice in Indian country, tribal courts, and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Courses in a Master's in Legal Studies Program

Master's in legal studies programs typically require fundamental courses in legal theory, U.S. law, and the Constitution. Students may also pursue concentrations or electives related to their career aspirations. Although curricula vary by school, the courses below are common to most master's in legal studies programs.

Foundations of Legal Thought

This course covers the theoretical, historical, and philosophical foundations of legal principles. Students examine concepts such as the role of lawyers in justice provision and jurisprudential thinking. The course explores how law and criminal justice intersect and provides an overview of modern theories of justice.

Criminal Procedure

This course surveys the Constitution's effects on criminal procedure. Within this context, students explore the rights of accused persons and the impact of criminal procedures on the justice system. The course covers concepts such as arrest, search, seizure, probable cause, stop-and-frisk, and temporary detention.

American Legal System and Writing

Students read case studies, research relevant topics, and analyze current issues in the American legal system. Students learn how to use a law library, conduct online research, and examine analog court cases. Learners write legal documents such as case briefs, complaints, and statutes.

Criminal Law

This course covers general principles of criminal law, including the foundations of common law doctrine, the history of criminal law, and modern statutory requirements. Students also examine the psychology of criminality and the effectiveness of criminal law.

Constitutional Law and Policy

Students examine the U.S. Constitution's history, theoretical foundations, limitations, and structure. Learners consider the powers, rights, and limitations of the federal government, state governments, and local governments.

How to Choose a Master of Legal Studies Program

Your choices for master of legal studies programs are plentiful, whether you wish to attend classes on campus or via distance learning. As you search for the school that best meets your needs, consider factors like cost, accreditation, and programmatic outcomes. You should also look into each school's academic resources and career services.


Colleges and universities must maintain national or regional accreditation to confer valid academic degrees. National accreditation comes from authorities supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Depending on their location, schools become regionally accredited through one of six organizations. Master of legal studies programs can also gain specialized accreditation from the American Bar Association, if the curriculum leads to paralegal licensure.

Cost and Financial Aid

Student loan debt is a significant issue for college graduates. Fortunately, many online master of legal studies programs offer affordable tuition that ignores residency status. You should always inquire about a school's tuition structure. Some institutions charge part-time learners higher rates than full-time students. Financial aid is another important consideration. The best master's programs in legal studies offer institutional scholarships and grants.

Program Structure

Your student experience and graduation timeline will be affected by how your chosen program structures its coursework. Distance learners should consider whether asynchronous or synchronous coursework works best with their home and work responsibilities. While most schools allow students to individually pace their classes, some master of legal studies programs are cohort-based, with learners advancing through the curriculum at the same pace as their peers. This structure fosters collaboration but may slow down graduation.

Concentration Options

Although required coursework is similar among legal studies programs, you can customize your degree plan through selecting a concentration. Typical options include intellectual property, conflict resolution, human resources, and international relations. You can also pursue a compliance concentration for working in industries like financial regulations, healthcare, and manufacturing.

Student Resources

The best master of legal studies programs offer a range of academic and career resources, including one-on-one counseling, dedicated tutoring services, and access to research databases and learning software. You should also prioritize schools that deliver internship-placement programs, job search assistance, and resume and interview guidance.

Master of Legal Studies Program Admissions

This section outlines the criteria and process of applying to master's degree programs in legal studies. You should always confirm details with each school's admissions specialists. These counselors can also help you apply for scholarships, work-study positions, and other forms of financial aid.


  • Minimum GPA: Degree applicants generally need a 2.0-3.0 minimum GPA. Competitive master of legal studies programs may hold students to higher standards, and some online programs may not specify a minimum GPA. In addition, some institutions accept students with substandard GPAs if they boast strong standardized test results and/or relevant work experience.
  • Work Experience: To enroll in an accelerated or executive master of legal studies program, students may need to demonstrate 3-5 years of relevant career experience. For schools that do not require job experience, learners can usually earn transfer credits for their skills and work history in the field.
  • Prerequisite Coursework: Because graduate programs build on core skills, they usually require students to complete specific classes as part of their undergraduate training. Common prerequisite topics for legal studies include introduction to the legal system, professional ethics, and risk management. Graduate students who lack the necessary coursework often complete a bridge program before pursuing their formal degree plan.

How to Apply

Standardized Test Scores

Postsecondary schools, especially institutions that provide online academics, increasingly disregard test results, opting for more holistic methods of student evaluation. Minimum requirements vary among schools that require GRE/GMAT/LSAT scores, so you should confirm these criteria with an admissions counselor. Certain universities waive test requirements if you display strong academics through a high GPA or extensive work experience in the legal studies field.

Personal Essay

Students who apply to legal studies programs can expect to furnish a one- to two-page personal essay. Also called a letter of intent, this essay enables you to detail your academic background, professional accomplishments, and career goals. Schools also use the personal essay to discern whether an applicant's character aligns with the institution's mission and, when applicable, the cohort learning model.

Recommendation Letters

Most programs ask candidates to submit 2-3 recommendation letters. These documents should be written by professors, employers, and other individuals who can attest to your skills, achievements, and personal qualities. Some schools specify who may write your recommendations, and certain programs prefer to contact recommenders directly through email, phone, or video conferencing.


If you need to take the GRE, LSAT, or GMAT, plan to spend three months (or roughly 120 hours) reviewing materials and practicing regularly. After test day, you can expect to wait up to three weeks for the testing authorities to publish results and send official reports to designated schools.

After you choose the best master's in legal studies program for your needs, calculate how much time you need to gather materials and start the application process. Confirm the admissions deadline first. Graduate programs typically accept applications up to two months before classes begin. Some schools operate rolling admissions, accepting applicants year-round.

In general, slot 4-6 weeks to prepare the application. This time frame allows you to write an effective personal essay and resume. The window also gives recommenders enough time to craft their letters.

Resources for Master of Legal Studies Students

Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

With more than 85,000 members, the ACFE is the world's largest anti-fraud organization. The association offers self-study courses in areas like fighting government fraud and responding to cyber-risks. Members can also pursue the certified fraud examiner certification. Furthermore, the ACFE delivers free career webinars, an online job board, and in-person training sessions at local chapters.

National Association of Legal Assistants

Founded in 1975, NALA supports paralegals and other legal professionals by offering career development opportunities. Members can access on-demand webinars, self-study classes, and leadership development training. NALA also delivers two levels of paralegal certification, and the organization's career center provides job search tips and postings. Members can connect through online discussion boards and national conferences.

NALS: the Association of Legal Professionals

NALS offers comprehensive career development services for legal professionals, including financial support through its foundation. Members can gain certification in areas like accredited legal professional, professional paralegal, and professional legal secretary. The association also delivers legal training courses and provides webinars, a digital library, and job listings.

Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics

Established in 2004, SCCE serves over 7,500 ethics and compliance professionals across diverse industries. The society operates a large job board, provides access to research journals, and connects members through web conferences and in person. SCCE offers three certification programs in corporate compliance and three in healthcare compliance.

Society of Financial Examiners

SFE represents 1,700 financial examiners of banks, insurance companies, credit unions, and savings and loan institutions. The society provides job postings, continuing education coursework, and professional seminars in areas like insurance resolution. SFE also offers three certification programs, enabling members to earn the accredited financial examiner, certified financial examiner, and automated examination specialist designations.