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St. Thomas offering online LL.M. program

Companies that want their in-house lawyers formally educated in business ethics and compliance now have another alternative to sending them back to campus.The University of St. Thomas School of Law has begun to enroll students in its first all-online LL.M. degree program, in organizational ethics and compliance. The first 25 qualified applicants will be accepted for classes that begin in January 2018, and Minneapolis-based St. Thomas law officials hope the master’s program for lawyers will attract some from outside Minnesota.

Members of the St. Thomas compliance advisory board, made up largely of Twin Cities Fortune 500 compliance officers, requested an online degree program for some of their overseas professionals, according to law school dean Robert Vischer. The law school is offering the 17-month program in conjunction with St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business and — by extension — is the only one in the United States accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International). Other law schools offer on-campus business ethics and compliance degrees, but none provide their programs completely online, Vischer said.

For example, Loyola University in Chicago offers an online LL.M. in business law and compliance and an online Masters of Jurisprudence degree on the same subjects to non-lawyers. The University of Colorado Law School in Boulder offers an on-campus MSL in ethics and compliance for non-lawyers. Fordham University Law School in New York City offers on-campus LL.M. and MSL degrees in corporate compliance.

“There are students all over the United States and even internationally who could benefit from this type of program, and it’s not really being offered in many other places,” said advisory board member Robert Föehl, executive-in-residence for business law and ethics at Ohio University. “It’s not a substitute for the in-person program, but this provides a much wider reach to satisfy the demand for this type of programming for professionals.”

The same professors and adjunct faculty who teach St. Thomas’ on-campus organizational ethics and compliance courses will teach online, but the number of courses will be limited to nine, based on input from the advisory board, noted Colleen Dorsey, director of organizational ethics and compliance for the law school. Those courses will cover investigations, white-collar crime, the Foreign Practices Act, privacy and cybersecurity, risk and project management.

“We’ve been very deliberate and thoughtful about those nine courses,” Dorsey said. “This is the first year, and we want to focus on the quality and be able to really give the absolute top-notch attention that it deserves, and we just wouldn’t have been able to have 14 elective courses online in time for them to choose from.”

Corporations enforce compliance by setting and following expectations for employee behavior, and preventing and detecting violations of rules. Strong compliance and ethics policies and adherence to those policies can potentially save a corporation from fines and lawsuits. Shareholders and the public also demand corporate responsibility in obeying laws and regulations and in adhering to ethical standards for a corporation’s particular industry.

Federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect in 1991 spurred corporations to begin designating chief ethics officers, according to a report in Forbes. Demand for their expertise increased after Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in response to financial scandals wrought by Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. Sarbanes-Oxley empowers the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect shareholders and the public from accounting errors and fraudulent business practices.  Other federal and state agencies enforce compliance based on industry and employment practices.

Many compliance professionals have evolved into their roles, including Dorsey, a former antitrust attorney at Land O’Lakes in Arden Hills. When, the company’s general counsel asked Dorsey to create an ethics and compliance program for Land O’ Lakes in 2010, Dorsey learned the ropes from members of the Minnesota Compliance Group, an organization of compliance and ethics professionals who meet regularly to share best practices.

Recent ethical lapses at high-visibility companies such as Wells Fargo and Uber have fueled public demand for higher business standards of right and wrong. Companies are seeing the value in formal ethics and compliance education, according to Dorsey, and St. Thomas has become known for its focus on ethics education.

“It’s becoming more an accepted and embraced master’s level degree by companies and law students who see the value in it,” she said.

Indeed, some St. Thomas law students have added a concentration in organizational compliance and ethics to make themselves more marketable upon graduation.

“I think companies are really appreciating that universities are putting their time, talent and resources toward these kinds of degrees, because it helps students hit the ground running and can really add value,” she said.  “Now it’s grown into its own profession which requires specialized knowledge, which is different than it was 10 years ago or even seven years ago.

“If I had the opportunity to get a masters-level degree when I had the chance, I would have jumped on it.”

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