Master of your destiny
10 October 2007
Over the past months, a number of legal education providers, mine included, have been releasing details of new Master of Law (LLM) programmes. I expect more will follow. There have been some suggestions that law firms do not value LLMs and so the question arises as to why these programmes are being developed. What lies behind this and, more importantly, what are the benefits of postgraduate study in law?
Starting from a wide perspective, a lot of people like to take their studies on to postgraduate level. There are around 500,000 postgraduates in UK higher education, with some 58,000 courses catering for them. Nearly half of all postgraduates take a second degree to enhance employment prospects. Research shows that this motivation is not misplaced: six months after completion of a postgraduate degree, more than 10 per cent or more graduates are employed compared with first degree graduates.
Looking specifically at law graduates, in 2005, just over one in 20 decided to study for a higher degree. There can be a range of motivations for those who decide to do this. A traditional route has been an LLM immediately after a first degree. In addition to looking to enhance career prospects, students who follow this route are usually pursuing an interest in a specific area of law. There are a range of LLM programmes to cater for this, the majority of which are traditional, well-established academic programmes. The LLM must include study at a higher level, and so these programmes will usually develop much higher levels of knowledge within a specific area of law. They will be taught and supervised by career academics and concentrate on case law. For graduates of these programmes who then wish to follow a career in legal practice, they will still have to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Vocational Course (BVC).
The newer, and developing, forms of LLM are looking to move away from the academic study of law to provide a more practice-focused approach. They are aimed at prospective and practising lawyers who are looking either to develop knowledge and skills in new areas of law or enhance their knowledge and skills in familiar areas of law. The motivation for providing these programmes is thus to offer opportunities to students and lawyers to invest in their career and personal development. These programmes therefore anticipate enrolment during or after the LPC or BVC.
From the personal development point of view, the potential benefits are obvious. In a sense, so are the career benefits: if you can improve your knowledge and skills in the right areas, then, by definition, you have the potential to benefit your career, as you will be better able to meet its requirements. However, the other way of looking at career benefits is to consider the impact on your CV when you apply to a firm. On the one hand, theres no doubt that an LLM indicates higher academic achievement; on the other, to what extent does a potential employer give credit? It has been reported that some law firms are ambivalent towards a Masters qualification and would rather that candidates spent time learning a language. I think that statements such as this do law firms a disservice. Law firms seek ability and expertise. If an individual has demonstrable expertise in any discipline, firms will be interested, whether it is fluent German or the comparative corporate governance regimes in the UK and US. While it is true that firms do not require an LLM, it is trite to suggest that they would ever ignore demonstrable specialist knowledge and skills: it is what most firms are built on.
There is also the developing global legal market to consider. First, in many countries outside the UK, there is much greater recognition of higher academic achievement. Secondly, an LLM can be a route towards acquiring an improved global perspective on law and practice. More than 1,500 lawyers from 97 jurisdictions have now completed the IBA International Diploma. The success of this has been a major factor in the IBA, in conjunction with the College of Law, deciding to launch the LLM in International Legal Practice from 2008.
A number of the new generation of practice-focused LLMs develop studies from the LPC. Those LPC providers who have degree-awarding powers are able to give credit towards an LLM for certain elements of the LPC. This can have a double benefit by effectively reducing the cost of a Masters. However, the fee for an LLM should always be gauged against the benefits you will gain from the programme itself. The quality and frequency of supervision are paramount: with any learning programme, this is one of the best indicators of its likely value. A good LLM will provide a structured, supervised means of expanding your capabilities in practice. The knowledge and skills gained should therefore be directly transferable into practice. To achieve this, the learning must be set in practical, transactional contexts. Any dissertation requirements should be have a similar focus and satisfy a simple test: If I do this, will it help me with my career in practice?
This test is, of course, the question which should be asked of any training or qualification for lawyers. I believe that quality LLM programmes can provide an affirmative answer to those wishing to invest in their professional careers.
Professor Scott Slorach is the College of Law's director of the LPC