A Dive Into Public International Law LL.M.s

In the age of globalization, international and comparative law have become increasingly important, especially as wars and humanitarian disasters compound the need for human rights advocates. We take a closer look at the current LL.M. landscape for public international law and how to pick the best program.

Globalization. Forced migration. The devastation of climate change. Such seismic shifts are bringing a renewed focus to LL.M.s in Public International Law—the body of rules that govern interactions between countries and other entities.

For Dainyah Mason, an avid volleyball player born and raised in the British Virgin Islands, a longstanding interest in international law drove her to pursue the University of Leiden’s LL.M. in public international law.

“I actually always knew I’d wanted to do international law, even before starting my undergraduate degree, so it was quite a straightforward decision, really,” says Mason, who completed her undergraduate law degree from the University of Kent in England. 

Once at Leiden, she chose the Human Rights track, which focused on contemporary issues and allowed her to delve into her own research passions.

“I really was considering applying to Utrecht University or Maastricht University, but in the end decided to put all my chips on one horse, so I only applied to Leiden.”

Indeed, with issues like the European migration crisis and Brexit making waves across the geopolitical landscape, the specialization is experiencing a resurgence in relevance. And LL.M. programs have in turn taken a closer look at the areas in which lawyers will be most needed, ranging from human rights law to jurisdictional issues with the implications of Brexit and increasing protectionist policies in the US. 

[See the Top 10 LL.M. Programs for Public International Law]

“As Brexit unfolds, issues as to jurisdiction will multiply as will the overlap of public international and international commercial law,” says Katherine Reece Thomas, LL.M. program director at The City Law School of the City University of London. “Issues to do with the use of force continue to be very fast moving and highly important.”

A selection of Public International Law LL.M. programs

Europe boasts a strong list of Public International Law LL.M.s, with proximity to the Hague and other international arbitration bodies. Leiden, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht, SOAS University of London, and Maastricht often figure among the top choices for prospective students. 

In the US, New York University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University and Yale all have strong public international law LL.M. programs. Some have explicit focuses; Fordham University School of Law, for instance, has taken an angle in human rights. Its International Law and Justice LL.M. specialization was developed within the framework of Fordham Law's Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, which has a strong research interest in international human rights.  

See all LL.M. Programs in Public International Law

The majority of its LL.M. student body is international, with students from more than 40 countries each semester, according to Marty Slavens, graduate admissions officer at Fordham. “Our faculty have developed relationships with judges from Ghana, so we often receive a number of students from this country,” says Slavens. 

But others LL.M.s attract students from different locations. City University merged its commercial law and Public Law LL.M. programs; its students are mostly from Europe, especially Greece, France, and Cyprus. Reece Thomas says that one of the big issues in the field has been dispute settlement in international investment law: whether the traditional system of arbitration panels will be maintained, or if court-like systems will dominate. Her students have written dissertations about the nature of the protections in investment treaties, addressing whether these are too much in favor of investors, or viewed as legitimate in terms of transparency and fairness. 

“Dispute settlement in investment law, including procedural matters like costs and access, tends to be popular,” Reece Thomas says. “Students also enjoy writing about the investment laws of their home states, particularly Middle Eastern students who seek to evaluate the effectiveness of their countries’ legal regimes.”

But public international law can touch on many other issues.

For example, for one of her final papers at Leiden, Mason wrote about nanotechnology and laws that regulate what weapons states are allowed to use. 

“That was really fun to research,” she recalls. “You can get weapons that can affect people on such a significant level, and it’s like, how is that even allowed? It’s not even mass weapons—you’re dealing with nanotechnology, and yet the impact on people is detrimental.”

Post-LL.M. jobs in public international law

Reece Thomas says that some of her students have gone on to work for international law firms like Linklaters and Baker & McKenzie; many also return to their previous jobs they held before going to City on leave, often from governmental roles in their home countries. One student became counsel for an energy company located in London, while a number of others went to work for international NGOs—such as Transparency International, Amnesty International, and Oxfam—and doing internships with the International Maritime Organisation. 

Fordham’s Vivian Leitner Global South LL.M. Scholars Program specifically grants their scholarship on the condition that awardees return to their home countries, leading many back home to continue their career after the LL.M.

Dainyah Mason herself moved to the Hague for a while after completing her LL.M. in February, doing an internship at the Antonio Cassese Initiative—a Dutch NGO based in Amsterdam. In September, she’ll move to London to prepare for the bar so she can practice as a lawyer in the UK. 

“It’s a really long career path in international law, so it’s ideal to get some experience built up; so what I’ll do is get a job as a lawyer practicing something related to the field, just to get the experience under my belt,” Mason says. “It’s like a five-year plan—a long and winding path. There’s really not a direct way to go about it.”

Photo: Cropped/INA-DENIA/CC BY-SA 4.0

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