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Where business, law and STEM converge

Celebrating its 10th year, Pritzker School of Law’s Master of Science in Law program prepares students for diverse roles in a myriad of fields
msl degree
“We could teach STEM professionals about law and regulation and contracts and negotiations — things they’re going to be dealing with but don’t have a chance to learn except on the job,” said Leslie Oster, director of the Master of Science in Law program (center).

Working in leadership roles in the health care industry, Nereida Parks increasingly found herself facing a host of complex issues, including data and privacy-related concerns. This led her to investigate degree programs that could help her navigate this ever-changing landscape.

During her search, Parks found she would either have to pursue a J.D. or a different kind of master’s degree that didn’t fit her specific needs. When she learned about the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Master of Science in Law (MSL) program, however, she discovered a good fit and enrolled.

“I found programs that covered regulatory compliance, but they didn't have the data privacy and cybersecurity pieces to the extent and at the depth that Northwestern’s MSL program did,” said Parks, who has held key positions at IQVIA, GE Healthcare and Anthem.

Centering on the intersection of law, business and technology, the MSL curriculum offers foundational classes in contracts, regulation, business formation and intellectual property as well as an assortment of specialized electives in such areas as financial regulation, privacy, data security, biotechnology, food policy, artificial intelligence, forensic science and environmental law.

Since its launch in 2014, the STEM-focused program has grown significantly. Compared to the inaugural cohort of 30 students (18 attended full time and 12 part time), there are now approximately 200 residential full-time and online part-time students enrolled, with more than 600 interdisciplinary alumni working in a variety of fields from patent litigation to clinical research throughout the United States and abroad.

The need for a STEM-focused law degree

The Master of Science in Law was created at a time when professionals from diverse fields were being tasked with increasingly complex issues involving regulation, product development, privacy, use of data, contracts, business development and entrepreneurship. The Law School recognized that STEM professionals, in particular, faced issues at the intersection of law and business, but many lacked the training to respond to these challenges.

“We said, ‘We can do this. We could teach STEM professionals about law and regulation and contracts and negotiations — things they’re going to be dealing with but don’t have a chance to learn except on the job,’” said Leslie Oster, clinical associate professor of law and director of the MSL program. 

During the program’s 10th anniversary celebration — held in tandem with the Law School’s annual reunion weekend in October — MSL staff discussed the many ways the program has evolved, including the addition of an online component in 2018.

“Since creating the online version, we've gotten many more mid-career professionals,” Oster said. “They’re saying, ‘I already have an MBA or a Ph.D., but I interact with law all the time. I'm reading contracts. I'm developing intellectual property. I'm facing issues involving privacy or security or a variety of other things.’”

MSL student Parks, who was recently offered a role as a regional privacy officer of North America and specialty care at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, said the program has allowed her to fill in gaps in her legal knowledge with a unique combination of training.

“I have the legal and business acumen to understand everything around data privacy and cybersecurity and the ability to apply this in a business setting,” she said. “That is a unique combination of skill sets that most people don't have.”

Jennifer Jing-Syuan Tzeng applied to the program after she realized that gaining some legal expertise could enhance her work as a tax professional at PwC. She has been impressed by the curriculum, particularly the course “Business Formation and Structure,” taught by Clinical Professor of Law Stephen Reed. "I noticed that although I did tax, my clients needed some contract, government procurement, or merger and acquisition expertise. The MSL program offered what I needed,” said Tzeng, who expects to graduate next spring.

A program at the forefront

Part of the MSL’s success is due to the program’s ability to anticipate industry needs as well as its students’ changing needs and interests. Over the years, additional courses have been added to the curriculum in areas such as health, financial technology and regulation, AI, and privacy.

“Since we had no past to build on in creating the MSL, what we did was look ahead to the future,” said Daniel Rodriguez, Harold Washington Professor of Law and dean of the Law School when the program was launched. “Those of us involved in the development of the program were trying to anticipate the needs of the legal system and the business world and trying to figure out how technology would fit in with those. We were building a curriculum for which there was no model and looking to attract students who were not just focused on business as usual but were willing to take a risk with this new program.” 

As for the future, Rodriguez, who still teaches in the program, sees the MSL blazing a trail in the legal industry by providing graduates with the skillset that would allow them to advise and even represent clients, as state regulatory schemes evolve in this direction. 

“I don't necessarily mean representing a defendant in a criminal trial,” Rodriguez said. “I mean helping entrepreneurs, advising people with a great idea who want to patent their invention and engaging in representation for individuals in administrative proceedings that don't require somebody to be a licensed lawyer.”

Overall, Rodriguez said, “The MSL has the real potential to be a disruptive and productive force in the legal services ecosystem.”

Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer.