Fancy working for a US firm in London, or even relocating across the Atlantic? Jonathan Ames investigatesthe benefits of signing up to a US-UK law programme
If playwright George Bernard Shaw had ever experienced the modern global legal profession, he may have adapted his oft-quoted phrase to: “England and America are two countries separated by a common legal system.”
That view would be especially applicable to the educational routes to qualification. Sure, they are both common-law jurisdictions, with the various states in the US inheriting, adapting and evolving core principles from 18th century colonial Britain.
But today the two systems are more second cousins than close siblings. And arguably it is more straightforward, but academically tougher, to gain a qualifying law degree in the US than it is in the old mother country.
Perhaps in the spirit of separation from their colonial masters, the Americans have shunned the term LLB – an acronym for ‘Latin legum baccalaureus’ – and coined their own classical description, juris doctor, or ‘JD’.
Since the 19th century the English and US undergraduate law degrees trundled along on either side of the Atlantic, the one not much troubling the other. But by the beginning of the 21st century globalisation was the word, exemplified by the growing numbers of merged Anglo-US legal practices. The creation of firms such as DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells – in addition to the plethora of US law firm offices in London – has shone a light on the type of lawyers that firms want to recruit and the type of legal education they require.
At least two UK law schools are looking to capitalise on a perception that US law firm management teams and recruitment partners prefer the JD over the LLB. Some four years ago, the law faculty at University College London (UCL) launched its ‘two-plus-two’ degree in conjunction with the Ivy League’s Columbia University in New York.
UCL is now set to be followed by the College of Law (CoL), which from September next year will link with Chicago’s highly respected Northwestern University to offer a similar programme. Similar, but different, at least in terms of presentation – while UCL offers a four-year programme that results in an English LLB and a US JD, CoL is describing its offering as a ‘US gateway’ programme that results in an LLM.
Both provide students with an opportunity to qualify in England and the US, but the route they take in getting to that result is somewhat different. And although there is no doubt that both courses are innovative academically, there are questions over whether the market is crying out for law graduates who can qualify in either jurisdiction quite as loudly as UCL and CoL are hoping.
“Would a top US law firm hire someone who has done a JD outside the US?” asks a lawyer at the London office of a global US practice. “That’s where my scepticism comes in.”
The counter-argument from both law schools is that their joint-venture programmes ensure top-quality US teaching. The UCL JD involves two years of study at Manhattan’s Columbia University – and it has a price tag to prove it (see box, page 46). And although CoL’s gateway course is conducted entirely in London, lecturers from Northwestern will be flown in to provide authentic US academic experience and know-how.
So far, UCL’s JD programme has been highly exclusive, with only two students a year on the course. Students sign up to the standard three-year LLB and after the first-year results are in, those who fancy chancing their arm – and their wallet – at the US qualification are invited to apply. Once accepted on the course, the students complete a second year in London on the LLB before heading to New York for years three and four.
To safeguard against concerns that students might jump ship after the first two years and walk away with an express LLB, the law school will not award the English undergraduate law degree until the JD component has been completed, although as Catherine Redgwell, professor of international law at UCL, says: “The students who are interested in this programme are very highly motivated, so that’s not been an issue”.
According to Redgwell, the programme’s students fall broadly into two categories – those with a keen interest in international commercial law and a desire for the potential to practise in both London and New York, and those with a strong academic interest in different legal systems.
“We don’t assume that all graduates are going to go on to practise law,” she comments. “Pedagogically we see this as a marvellous opportunity to be exposed to different styles of teaching and approaches.”
Nonetheless, the attraction of ultimately gaining a dual UK-US qualification is a strong motivation. “We’ve only got a limited pool of experience to draw on so far,” Redgwell says, “but it appears that the intention of the students doing the programme has been to qualify in the two jurisdictions. We’ve also had students applying for this programme who come from outside the UK and intend to practise in Singapore or Hong Kong, for example. The attraction for them is the dual qualification and the commercial expertise.”
CoL has had the advantage of being able to observe UCL’s trailblazing in this field for the last few years. And now its programme is arguably more comprehensive and considerably cheaper.
Although students graduating from the UCL course will still have to sit either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) before qualifying in England, CoL’s gateway programme is open only to its students who have already completed those two courses.
In effect, the gateway is a six-month top-up course that allows students to meet the requirements of the New York Bar. It results from a concerted round of lobbying and negotiation over the last few years involving CoL and the state authorities. Until very recently, the New York Bar officialdom had been highly protectionist, refusing to allow those who had not read law at undergraduate level to sit the bar exams, a provision that effectively excluded all those with the English Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Now that the barrier has been breached, CoL officials are confident there is a market for the dual-track qualification. “The attitude of the English and US firms is very interesting,’” comments Sara Hutchinson, CoL’s business development board member. “What they’re looking for is flexibility and this is the only programme to offer that flexibility to those who haven’t got an LLB.”
UCL’s Redgwell also points to some harsh economic realities that will make British dual-qualification graduates attractive to US firms in London. “One of the drivers in setting up the programme,” she explains, “was the view of US firms that it’s cheaper to recruit US-qualified lawyers locally. From an employer’s perspective, it allows you to have someone who is US and UK-trained in a cost-effective way.”
Indeed, that view wins backing from employers on the ground. ‘‘One needs to consider the expense to US law firms of staffing their offices with expats in the UK,” says Grant Castle, training principal at the London office of Washington DC-based Covington & Burling. “Whenever our firm is looking at sending staff over from the US to the London office, they look long and hard at the financials.”
And those financials can be brutal. It is estimated that it is twice as expensive for a US firm to post an expat associate to London than it would be if the firm hired locally. The firms have to create packages with costof- living adjustments and tax equalisations that put associates on the same standard of living relative to staying in the US. “If you were a firm that wanted JD graduate lawyers in London,” says Castle, “and you could get them from decent law schools and you didn’t have to pay for them to come here – they could be hired locally – that would be quite attractive.”
But do US firms really want US-educated JD graduates? That depends, as commentators suggest there are two types of US law firm office in London – those that are little more than satellites of the mothership back in the States, and those that consider themselves to be self-sustaining. The former tend to be keener on being staffed by US-educated lawyers.
There is also an uncomfortable strand to this issue for English law schools. Lawyers at US firms in London – even the English solicitors at them – say that US legal education outstrips its English counterpart.
Castle explains: “In the US legal education system, they spend a lot of time focusing on the skills required to be a top lawyer. Here we focus on some skills during the LPC, but in the US they focus on legal analytical skills, legal writing skills, and core skills that have general applicability.”
So are newly qualified lawyers in the US better than their UK opposites? On average, yes, acknowledges Castle. “Those who have come through one of the top US law schools probably are better, although it depends on the type of law being practised. For example, with the type of law you would see here at the bar – where much of the practice comes down to legal analytical skills and legal writing – the US lawyers will have had a sounder grounding in those skills than would those who have come through the UK legal education system.”
Bagging a degree that could lead to qualifying as a lawyer in both England and the US isn’t cheap.
UCL’s programme is the more expensive of the two UK programmes on offer in 2012, primarily because of its two years of residential study at Columbia University in New York.
Total costs for the four-year programme amount to a staggering £114,000, excluding living expenses for the two years in London. That includes £18,000 for the two years of study in the UK, plus $77,000 (£48,000) for each year in New York – a figure that incorporates $20,000 annually for living expenses.
That price rises again if the UCL graduate intends to qualify in the UK, as they still have to complete either the LPC or the BPTC.
The CoL route is considerably cheaper, coming in at a base total of £34,000, a fee that includes the vocational courses. It breaks down as £8,870 for the GDL (at CoL’s London Moorgate branch), £12,550 for the LPC and £12,500 for the US gateway course.
Even considering that students will need to have completed a first degree before sitting the GDL, at the top whack of £9,000 a year the total cost still comes in substantially lower than UCL’s course – around £61,000 cheaper. Indeed, the cheapest route would be to do a three-year LLB and then the CoL’s LPC and gateway programme, which would total about £52,000.
CoL chief executive Nigel Savage has long been lobbying the regulators of the English solicitors’ profession to dump the training contract, and he envisages that the gateway course could pile on the pressure for that ultimate evolution. “While it might not be the primary intention,” he says, “one of the outcomes [of the course] will be to make it easier for home students to qualify into a ‘global’ legal profession without having to do a training contract.”
That rationale is based on the theory that UK and US global law firms are increasingly disinterested in which common law qualification their lawyers have, so British nationals with US qualifications will be just as attractive as those who qualify as solicitors.