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SANTA ROSA -- In launching its new master of legal studies program this semester, leaders at Santa Rosa's Empire College said that they are addressing what has become a strong trend in modern legal education -- demand for a robust yet truncated alternative to the four-year Juris Doctorate.

In a society where many professions face legal and regulatory questions on a regular basis, William Robertson, dean of the Empire College School of Law, said the program stands to advance the skills of professionals in fields like human relations, banking, law enforcement, education, health care and others.

"It fills a gap for people whose jobs put them in the intersection of what they do and the legal system," Mr. Robertson said. "They can make a two-year commitment that is very focused for their career."

The program welcomed its first cohort of students this fall semester, representing what Mr. Robertson called a significant diversity of professional backgrounds. Participants are graded anonymously alongside those seeking a Juris Doctorate while taking part in many of the same core courses, and ultimately pursue electives that will tailor the program to their interests.

"The professor won't even know who is a master's candidate and who is a J.D. candidate," he said.

Participants in the 36-unit program are expected to graduate with knowledge of common law, along with tort, criminal and contract law. The program also involves education concerning the U.S. Constitution and related issues, and elective courses are designed to adapt to the specific interests of students.

Both Mr. Robertson and Roy Hurd, college president, noted a number of examples where professionals in non-law fields have historically chosen to obtain a four-year Juris Doctorate during the 40-year history of the Empire College School of Law. A medical doctor doing expert witness work, for example, found that knowledge helpful while working in the legal realm. In another case, a bank executive leveraged the related negotiation skills in his own work.

While the full four-year program would lend some additional training, Mr. Hurd said that the two-year program could now be a more practical option for those who are looking to augment their professional skills in a non-legal field.

In a broader sense, the program addresses a training gap that has widened as a tepid economy has caused many employers to scale back their on-the-job training of new hires. There is a growing pressure for new hires to come to the table with measurable and practical skills, helping to fuel the creation of programs such as the Master of Legal Studies at Empire, Mr. Hurd said.

"Nowadays, it's different -- employers are looking for someone they can hire who can do a specific task for them," he said. "It's becoming more of a job-centric activity in the educational community."

While not the only program of its kind nationally, it is the first such program accredited by both the California Committee of Bar Examiners and the national Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, Mr. Robertson said.

It is also the first to allow graduates the option of continuing towards a Juris Doctorate if desired, he said.

"We're the first program where you can have both. There's vertical flexibility," he said.

That flexibility also works both ways -- while a bachelor's degree is not a prerequisite to pursue a Juris Doctorate at Empire College, the nature of the accreditation from the ACICS allows those with a bachelor's to change course and instead graduate with the two-year Master of Legal Studies designation.

"Four years going to class at night is a long haul. Life happens to these people going to law school," Mr. Hurd said. "This is a nice way to recognize that education with a nationally accredited master's degree."