Becoming a Renaissance Lawyer in a Bankruptcy LL.M. Program

Bankruptcy lawyers need to dabble in all legal areas to be successful. But why are specialized programs in the field seeing decreased enrollment?

It’s the field of law where you need to know it all.

Lawyers who specialize in bankruptcy are required to know a little bit about every branch of law, from contract law to property law to environmental law. They’re required to understand every kind of business, from Mom and Pop shops to big corporations. They’re required to research flight restrictions to China to save airlines, sort out how to save General Motors, brainstorm what to do with RadioShack’s leases.

And they need to think quickly on their feet and devise solutions within three or four months.

“If you get bored with things and want to do a little bit of everything, bankruptcy law is one of the last areas of law where you’re sort of a Renaissance lawyer,” says G. Ray Warner, law professor and associate dean of bankruptcy studies at St. John’s University School of Law in New York, home to the United States’ most extensive bankruptcy LL.M. program.

“It’s like emergency room law. You need to get this patient back up and out. You’re going to have a case done in three or four months—which is virtually unheard of. Everything is quick and in your face. If you take six years to figure out the issues, the company is going to be dead.”

This jack-of-all-trades, thinking-on-your-feet field of law attracts a small but devoted group of students to Warner’s school every year. But it is nevertheless a small group. St. John’s University is one of the few programs in the country with an LL.M. specifically focused on bankruptcy law.

Other schools offer programs where students can pursue courses in bankruptcy within the scope of business law LL.M. programs. UCLA School of Law’s LL.M. specialization in business law includes a bankruptcy track, New York University School of Law offers a bankruptcy reorganization seminar within its Corporation Law LL.M., San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law offers an online LL.M. in bankruptcy and restructuring, and Chapman University's Fowler School of Law in California offers several bankruptcy electives within its business law LL.M.

But officials at the few schools that offer courses or specializations in bankruptcy law say that bankruptcy LL.M.s have never generated much interest.

“It’s not hugely popular. It’s not a course on human rights,” says Matteo Solinas, a lecturer in corporate and financial law at the University of Glasgow’s School of Law in Scotland, which offers a course on insolvency.

In fact, one school that preferred to remain nameless told LLM GUIDE that it was considering shutting down its bankruptcy LL.M. specialization due to low interest.

Warner says slightly decreased interest in his program, which typically between 10 and 15 students each year, correlates with a decrease in American bankruptcy cases. Indeed, only 34,000 bankruptcy cases of all kinds reported in the US in 2014, compared with 44,000 in 2013 and nearly 58,000 in 2012. Warner attributes this to the Fed’s low interest levels and to the fact that many businesses already failed during the recession.

But although interest in bankruptcy LL.M. programs is relatively low, the students who do enroll in the St. John’s program rave about the exciting opportunities in this field. Steven Golden, a student at St. John’s who is also currently working at a law firm, says he fell in love with bankruptcy law during his second year of law school.

“I like law, I like learning about different things, but if I did personal injury law, what you really know is personal injury law. You know that thing backwards and forwards, but you don’t know anything else,” Golden says.

“In bankruptcy law, you can work with lots of different things—environmental issues, for example.”

And since the bankruptcy LL.M. sees low enrollment, Warner says the school can easily find job placements for its students, funneling them into top firms in New York and Delaware, the states that see the most bankruptcy cases.

Evolving insolvency laws in the EU

Insolvency cases are also down in the European Union. For example, 470 companies declared bankruptcy in the Netherlands in February 2015, a 23 percent decrease compared to February 2014, according to Statistics Netherlands, which compiles national statistics for research and scientific purposes.

But insolvency law in the EU is nevertheless evolving, and that’s creating niches for lawyers who work in the space. Different member states within the EU operate under different insolvency laws, and lawyers in Europe are increasingly looking to other countries for inspiration on how to crack insolvency cases.

That’s why Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands and Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom are collaborating on a new dual-degree bankruptcy LL.M., which rolled out in September 2014.

“The EU is trying to, very slowly, move towards more harmonized insolvency law, but still there are substantial differences between the insolvency laws of the member states,” says Michael Veder, professor of insolvency law at Radboud’s Business and Law Research Center.

“Increasingly in the EU we look beyond the borders of our own legal system. If I am a practitioner and within my firm we’re looking at the possibilities of reorganizing a company, we don’t just look at Dutch law, but increasingly at laws in the UK and also at Dutch law. That is what this program that we set up offers to the students.”

Students in the program split their year between Nottingham and Nijmegen and earn two degrees at the end of their studies. This inaugural year, five students enrolled in the program, but Veder says he’s seen increased interest in next year’s program, and that he expects more applicants by the May 1 deadline.

Veder says he and his students are interested in insolvency law for the same reason their American counterparts are interested in bankruptcy law: its ambiguous and multi-faceted nature.

“Insolvency is typically an area of law where, in my mind at least, everything comes together,” he says. “You need to have a good understanding of contract law, property law.”

“That is what makes insolvency, from an academic point of view, extremely interesting.”

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