A Gateway to the East? Asia-Focused LL.M. Programs

Can an LL.M. in Asia open doors for local and foreign lawyers in hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai?

Where the business goes, law firms eventually follow. So there is little wonder why so many of the world’s largest international firms have expanded to the booming commercial hubs of Asia. Perhaps it’s also no surprise that so many lawyers – from both inside and outside the region – see their future linked to Asia.

There are different paths leading to the Asian legal job market. Some lawyers get transferred overseas by their firms, while others steer their career eastward through their studies. As the demand for lawyers with a sound knowledge of Asian and International Law increases, so too does the number of LL.M. programs focusing on the laws of some of the region’s hotspots.

The rising star in East Asia is China, where rapid economic growth and entry into the World Trade Organization has led many of the “magic circle” and “white shoe” international law firms to build a strong presence in Beijing, Shanghai, or both.

Two popular Chinese Law LL.M. programs for English-speaking foreign students are in Beijing: Tsinghua University and Beijing University. Knowing Mandarin also gives students access to the LL.M. programs at Renmin University. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has also launched a partnership with Shanghai’s East China University of Politics and Law – an English-language International Business Law LL.M. where students split between the two campuses.

To the south, Hong Kong has long been a preferred business gateway into Asia and mainland China because of its efficient and flexible law system. It is also becoming an increasingly important center for Chinese (PRC) companies looking to expand out into the global market.

“With the growing volume of outbound business activities of Chinese enterprises increasing numbers of Chinese lawyers will work on cross-border business transactions inside and outside China,” says Lutz-Christian Wolff, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which offers three LL.M. programs in Chinese Business Law, Common Law, and International Economic Law.

“Our LL.M. programs are not only interesting for foreign students, but also for local students and students from within the greater China region who plan a career as international business lawyers,” says Wolff.

Ask Yuan Yuan, a Chinese student enrolled in CUHK’s International Economic Law program. ”Mainland China, as well as Hong Kong, have become involved in more international trade activities after China's accession to the WTO,” says Yuan. “There will be a large number of disputes and litigations concerning international transactions.”

Other programs in Hong Kong include the University of Hong Kong – with seven programs, including one specializing in Chinese Law. The PRC Law LL.M. at Open University of Hong Kong is another notable program.

But China is certainly not the only place in Asia where the action is for local and foreign lawyers. Large international firms operate in other centers all over the region, including Taipei, Jakarta, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok.

“The demand for foreign lawyers [in Asia] is on the increase,” says Simon Chesterman, director of a new LL.M. partnership between New York University (NYU) and NUS. “This is particularly true in Singapore, where the government has recognized that there is a dearth of top legal talent and thus provided significant support to the NYU@NUS program in order to attract the best students,” adds Chesterman.

Singapore has seen ups and downs over the last decade, but it seems that more companies and law firms are choosing the small island nation as their base for the wider Asia market. TheNYU@NUS program attracts Asian students who want an NYU degree, but choose to stay in Asia either for networking, family, cost, or other reasons. The other main group of students are European and North American lawyers planning careers tied to Asia.

“Students are considering positions all over the world,” says Chesterman. “Many will concentrate in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, but for others this year is an opportunity to develop expertise and contacts that they will then use in their home jurisdiction or elsewhere.”

NYU@NUS hosted an Asia Job Fair in October 2007, which helped line students up with interviews with big-league international firms like Allen & Overy, Linklaters, DLA Piper, Skadden, and Sullivan & Cromwell, all of which have offices in the Asia-Pacific region.

Meanwhile, in Japan, there are many official restrictions on what foreign lawyers (gaiben) can and cannot do, but the march of globalization has sustained the demand for foreign expertise at big international firms in Tokyo, such as Baker & McKenzie, Morrison & Foerster, and Clifford Chance.

A few English-language LL.M. programs in Japan – such as those at Kyushu University and Niigata University – aim to familiarize foreign lawyers with Japanese and Comparative Law, while the bilingual course at the University of Nagoya offers a handful of courses and seminars in English focused on Japanese law. Temple University also teaches an LL.M. in Transnational Law in Tokyo, but without an apparent focus on Japan.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is considering relaxing its ban on foreign law firms from practicing in the country. It is a controversial proposal that is opposed by the Indian Bar Council, but if passed, would open the door to foreign law firms, particularly from Britain. It is also yet to be seen whether more law schools would then start to offer courses focused on Indian law.

Of course, LL.M. students can also learn about Asian law without ever stepping foot in Asia. Programs at the University of Washington, University of New South Wales, and Queensland University are among those that offer Asia-focused specializations in Asian Law. There is also the Masters in Chinese Law program at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as well as the LL.M. in Asian-European Business Transactions at the University of Hamburg.

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