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BALTIMORE (AP) - The law school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore hopes to introduce a master of science in law program - the first of its kind in the region - as soon as fall 2015.

The plan cleared a key hurdle earlier this month when the university's governing body approved the proposal at a meeting held via conference call due to bad weather.

The new degree would be geared toward non-lawyer professionals who don't want to pursue a juris doctorate but are interested in gaining a deeper, more specialized knowledge of the legal world than other masters' programs can provide.

The part-time, two-year program is proposed as a joint effort of the university's Baltimore and College Park campuses. It is one of several ideas that has resulted so far from a formal collaboration between the two institutions, known as "MPowering the State," that was launched in 2012 to encourage the sharing of ideas and expertise, promote innovation and support the creation of new programs.

The master of science degree would be awarded by the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore but the classes would be held at College Park. They would be taught by faculty from both campuses.

A committee of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents voted last month to advance the proposal to the full board for final approval.

Even though the board signed off on the program, the university still needs a few more signatures before the proposal is a done deal.

The American Bar Association has given preliminary approval to the plan, contingent on approval from the University System of Maryland regents and from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which sets statewide policies for colleges and universities. The commission is expected to make a decision by April, once a public comment period ends March 9.

Carey Law Dean Phoebe A. Haddon and several others said they're fairly confident the proposal will clear all hurdles without issue.

"We're quite proud of the program itself," Haddon said. "We believe it will respond to a real consumer need, particularly among people who are already employed and working with law-related issues but could use additional training in a particular area."

Joann A. Boughman, the university system's senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the new degree program would align perfectly with the goals of MPowering the State, which is funded with money carved out from the state budget.

MPowering the State has committed to covering the first two years of the new degree program's expenses, such as faculty salaries. The initiative has committed $1.1 million in the first year, fiscal 2015, and $1.3 million in fiscal year 2016.

After that, tuition and fees from students should enable the universities to continue offering the program, officials said. The goal is to enroll 30 students in the first year and 80 students by the fifth year.

If all the necessary approvals go through, the program would become the only master of science in law offered in the Baltimore-Washington region.

About 30 law schools across the country offer master of science in law programs, according to LMD, a Laurel-based marketing and communications firm selected to study the level of demand in the local market and make recommendations about whether and how to implement the program at the University of Maryland.

LMD determined that Maryland's location and workforce composition make it fertile ground for launching a master's of science in law program. Several state and university officials agreed.

"This is just a really nice match between the needs of the region and the expertise in our law school and in (College Park's school of) public policy," said Boughman, who acts as a liaison between the regents and the university system's 12 institutions when they submit proposals for approval.

"It capitalizes on the existing knowledge base, the expertise in legal policy and the regulatory processes, and the huge need of many professionals in our area, in a variety of fields, to understand these things - the law, regulations, policy-making, especially given that we're right here near the federal government."

The one significant risk outlined by LMD in its report is that the ultimate value of a master's of science in law is still undetermined by the marketplace because it's still a new concept. Most of the existing programs have only been up and running for a few years.

To minimize that risk, LMD suggested that the university invest heavily in outreach, marketing and recruitment efforts that target area employers most likely to value the skills that would be taught in the new courses. It also recommended that the program be designed to focus on subject areas that overlap with the Carey school's existing expertise. To that end, students pursing the master's of science in law degree would have to choose one of four specialties: health law, environmental law, crisis and emergency management, or government law and the regulatory process.

Carey is nationally recognized for its strengths in those areas. For example, the school's existing law and health care and environmental law programs are ranked third and sixth, respectively, nationwide, by U.S. News & World Report.

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com

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