The Global Financial Crisis shook markets a decade ago. To this day, economies—and the legal profession—are still grappling with its wake.
“What started as the collapse of Lehman [Brothers Holdings Inc.] sent shockwaves all over the world,” says Rodrigo Olivares-Caminal, professor of banking and finance law at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). “In Europe, that translated to the sovereign debt crisis.”
“We as legal practitioners needed to be at the forefront—otherwise you become a dinosaur.”
Today, Finance LL.M. programs are still adapting to legislative and technological changes that have come out of the crisis. But the specialization is still in high demand; Fordham Law School’s Banking and Corporate Finance program continues to be its strongest, and accounts for a third or even half of its annual LL.M. class, according to Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean at Fordham. The program covers areas like bankruptcy, corporate finance, governance and tax, cross-border insolvency, mergers and acquisitions, and securities regulation and enforcement.
“You can see shifts in world economics in how the class looks,” says Jaeger-Fine. There’s been an increase in students from China in past years; applicants tend to be on the younger side, and come to the LL.M. earlier in their careers.
“There’s a pretty good reason for that: there are a million Chinese lawyers, and to distinguish themselves—to get a job at international or major Chinese firms—they really need to have something special,” Jaeger-Fine says. Fordham fields a mix of applicants with mainly law firm experience, and some banking experience, usually in the five to seven year range.
Matt Jennings, associate director for outreach at Boston University Law School, says that BU’s Banking and Financial Law LL.M. has been historically strong among students fromLatin America, but has seen an uptick in applicants from Asia in recent years.
“We see a lot of interest from countries where there’s a need to educate key policy makers in financial services—to gain strengths from learning about the US model,” says Jennings.
He also notes that it’s important for applicants to distinguish between banking and finance law, and business law. “Often students will see the financial law element of the program and interpret that as commercial or business law, when in fact they’re two very distinct things,” he says.
Compliance, compliance, compliance
The global financial crisis catalyzed an explosion in legislation, says Olivares-Caminal; consequently, compliance has been one area to which law programs have adapted their curriculums.
Boston University even launched a certificate in financial services compliance as an offshoot of its Banking and Financial Law LL.M. due to the surge in demand amongst both US and international employers for professionals versed in compliance, says Jennings.
“After the passage of [Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act], there’s been a huge uptick in hiring—firms needed the personnel to make these changes, but didn’t have them in-house,” Jennings says. “We’ve seen a tremendous growth in demand internationally, especially in Latin America, for these positions.”
Jaeger-Fine agrees, saying that there was an uptick in insolvency law for a while, although that’s leveled off.
“It used to be a quirky side deal, something few people were interested in; now, people in finance understand they need compliance,” she says. “You can’t do anything if you mess that up. Once the newspapers start reporting, compliance really underscores everything everyone is doing.”
There has been also been a lot of interest in global finance issues, she adds. Dovetailing that is a concern with international arbitration:”people who sort of see it as, well you have issues, they're going to be arbitrated, so we better understand the basics of how it works and have a sense of what we’re in for when we’re in disputes,” she adds.
Finance Law LL.M. curriculums, especially those in Europe, have also adapted to the shakeout of sovereign debt crises; Queen Mary has traditional modules on financial entities, focusing mainly on banks and financial conglomerates, but has also added one looking at sovereign debt and state-owned enterprises.
“Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Ukraine—we still have what is left of the Greek crisis,” Olivares-Caminal says. “And then on the banking side, we have issues with the top three Italian banks, the Bank of Spain—all those crises took place in the last year.”
And of course: cryptocurrencies. The development of alternative currencies carry monumental implications for the legal field, and law programs have consequently been pushing their curriculums to catch up to the high-speed changes. Fordham will be offering the first course taught by full-time faculty member on blockchain this coming academic year. BU also sees financial technology as a huge growth area, and has been looking to add more and more courses in that field, says Jennings. “That’s where the profession is going—regulating cryptocurrencies and platforms,” he notes.
Career advice for Finance and Banking Law LL.M.s
Most Queen Mary students see the LL.M. as stepping stone to a sturdy banking career, says Olivares-Caminal.
“What they want to do is to either consolidate their position in their current jobs, or use it to find another one for a breath of fresh air,” he says. “Some use it to convert themselves—perhaps they’ve been working a long time in corporate, and want to move into banking, or have been doing litigation and want to move more into corporate.”
Jennings says that the job market for work in compliance has seen an uptick, and that many BU students show strong interest in the private equity sector. International students are usually looking to return to their home countries, although their career moves after graduation tend to depend on the circumstances they came with—whether they were sponsored by an employer or government, for instance. The program has seen students from Indonesia, Mozambique, and other emerging economies coming for the LL.M. with the intention to return home and help develop their country’s fiscal policy. Students from China and Asia are often looking for a return for private practice, Jennings adds.
The legal job market certainly took a hit in the wake of the crisis, but Jaeger-Fine says that placement in Big Law firms has improved, although she notes that“Before, you had as many offers as you had lunches—that’s not the case anymore,” she says.
Some useful advice? Remain as current as you can with your knowledge, she advises. Read the newspaper every day, as well as trade press in your specific areas of interest. One of the most significant impressions graduates can make is having an in-depth understanding of the space in which they seek to work.
Demonstrate excellence in all that you do—including the work it takes to acclimate to a new culture and set of professional customs, she adds.
“It’s always been getting out there and forming relationships—there are no shortcuts to that,” says Jaeger-Fine. “Not only demonstrating professionalism, but acting—getting involved in things like bar associations. Really showing that you’re willing to to do the good hard work. If anything, it’s the old-fashioned way in the world of getting people to know you.”