By: Shaun Francis
As I approach my final days in the Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law program at Tulane Law School, I want to take a moment to reflect on where I was just a few years ago and where I am today. It certainly has been a fun ride.
Before I talk about the Tulane MJ program specifically, I need to take a step back a bit further. I am a labor union representative and have been working for various labor unions and in various positions in the labor movement for over 15 years. Over that time, I earned tremendous knowledge and skills in the real-world, on-the-job experience, and non-degree certificate and training programs. I am very proud of one in particular: being accepted to and graduating from the Harvard Trade Union Program at Harvard Law School.
So, in 2019 I decided I would finally get my undergraduate degree. But the answer wasn't exactly clear when I thought about what I wanted to major in. Of course, I could go to a labor studies program - but what would I learn there exactly? With my years of experience and non-degree training, there wasn't much that I would learn at a labor studies program that would grow my knowledge and skills all too much. I decided that I would earn my undergraduate degree in Human Resources Management. The way I saw it, it would be a degree, and it would give me a perspective and knowledge about how "the other side lives" - the HR and Labor Relations folks I dealt with "across the table" daily in my union work, and it would grow my overall knowledge and skills. Well, I was right! I learned a lot in my HR undergrad program. Some of it was not applicable to my work, but a lot of it was.
So after completing the HR bachelor's degree, I wanted to keep learning and keep growing. I wanted an advanced degree. But once again, I was faced with the question - in what field of study?
Having learned a lot in HR during undergrad but not being an actual HR practitioner, continuing on for a Master's degree in HR would be unnecessary overkill. I knew that I had a passion for law, and if I were younger, I probably would think about law school to get a JD degree and become a practicing labor-side labor and employment attorney. But that just wasn't in the cards for a 40+ year-old working professional.
I began to look for Master's programs at law schools. I wanted the rigor and gravitas a degree from a law school would provide but in an online format for a non-lawyer. And if the degree could touch on labor and employment in some way, even better.
I found a number of programs at great schools. I found programs with curriculums that were "pure law." Basically a mini 1L program from law school. Classes like Torts, Civ Pro, and Contracts. That interested me greatly, but I wondered how exactly I would translate those pure law courses into practical skills as a union representative. I also found programs that were essentially Masters in Human Resources at a law school, with courses like Staffing, Comp and Benefits, etc. The types of HR classes I learned in undergrad but was seeking to avoid in my advanced degree.
Then I came across the Tulane Law School Master of Jurisprudence program. It checked all the boxes, at least on paper. The curriculum was not overtly HR and not pure law. The courses, such as legal research and writing, employment discrimination law, and labor law, struck directly at the core of what I do for a living. I work at the intersection of the law and labor, and these classes were what I was looking for. The program was fully online and came from a renowned law school. I signed up!
Sometimes the best-laid plans do not intersect with reality. This program was not one of those occasions. From day one, the program checked all the boxes and was exactly what I was looking for. The coursework was rigorous but not impossible. The professors were expert lawyers and accomplished law professors. The course materials were the same as the Tulane Law JD students were studying. But the professors didn't let you sink. They understood that, unlike most of their daytime JD students, we are working adult professionals with careers, kids, lives, and more outside of our studies. And most importantly, the coursework made me better at my job.
An example... Right now, those of us in HR or labor relations are dealing with the issues of reasonable accommodations under the ADA in light of the waning Covid pandemic. What do we do with accommodations that were grated before, now that Covid is "going away"? As a union rep, I am dealing with members calling me who tell me that their 100% work-from-home accommodation, that they have been living and working under for a few years now, is being revoked, and they are being summoned back to the workplace immediately. Prior to my time at Tulane, I would have either given poor advice or kicked the issue to my supervisor or our legal department. Now, I know the law. I know the latest guidance from the DOL and other agencies. I know how to interpret and implement the law, and I know how to call up the HR folks on behalf of my members and "speak the language" to make positive changes. I can both educate my members on the law and advocate for my members to the HR people on the company side.
That is just one example of how this program made me better at my job, even though I am not an HR professional. Every day I am implementing something different that I learned at Tulane. I write better because of my training in legal research and writing. I can have more open and respectful conversations with my union members, and just people in general, because of what I learned about sex and gender expression and identity that I didn't know before - despite thinking I was such a good ally. And even though I have negotiated dozens and dozens of union contracts before Tulane, I learned real tangible skills in the art and science of negotiations that I never knew before.
Last week, even though I am in the final coursework of my final semester here at Tulane, I was able to walk in the spring graduation ceremonies. Even though I am an "adult returning student" and someone that studied virtually exclusively online from my home in Upstate New York, I felt so at home with my fellow graduates in New Orleans. I was proud to be a part of the pomp and circumstance of the Law School graduation and the big hoopla that was the unified ceremony at the football stadium packed with thousands of students and family members.
If you are hesitant to join this amazing program because you do not work in HR, I am here to tell you to stop hesitating and enroll. You will find great friends in your fellow classmates that you will have forever. You will grow your knowledge and skills no matter your industry and career. And you will become part of the Tulane University and Tulane Law School family.
Tulane MJ in Labor and Employment Law - A non-HR student's perspective. © 2023 by Shaun Francis is licensed under CC BY 4.0