Cross-Disciplinary is the Gold Standard of LL.M. Learning

Diversity of thought is essential to generating effective solutions for today’s unique problem

Many of the problems facing the legal industry today cannot be solved by one law firm or company alone. No surprise that some pioneering lawyers have sought to work with specialists, peers or even rivals on innovative solutions in areas such as sustainability, diversity and digital transformation.

Increasingly, this is being reflected in the teaching of the top law schools on their flagship LL.M. degrees. Schools see collaborative initiatives involving multiple disciplines, linking LL.M. students with designers, technologists and business students, as the gold-standard of legal education, particularly with so many systemic, global challenges from pandemics to climate change.

“Diversity of thought is essential to generating effective solutions for today’s unique problems,” says Sarah Gruzas, director of graduate and international programs at USC Gould School of Law in California.

USC Gould offers several experiential learning opportunities both inside and outside of the LL.M. classroom, so students are better prepared for diverse practice areas such as education, labor, and restorative justice. The school’s Center for Dispute Resolution hosts symposia that cross multiple disciplines, such as dispute resolution challenges specific to energy, entertainment, and real estate sectors.

Students on the LL.M. can also enrol in courses hosted by other USC schools, including the schools of business, public policy and cinematic arts.

“The law interacts with almost every field, but the disciplines with the closest relationships include compliance, policy-making, business, entertainment, human resources, and finance,” says Gruzas.

USC Gould also recently launched a Master of International Trade Law and Economics jointly with the Dornsife Department of Economics at University of Southern California, designed to improve graduate employability in policy-making, economics, analytics, and consulting.

“It makes sense that law firms and other employers would seek diverse candidates and those with a variety of skill sets to stay competitive in their industry,” Gruzas says. “Attorneys with backgrounds in multiple fields can draw on their various experiences to approach issues holistically and comprehensively, better serving the client.”

Andrew Shepherd, deputy director of global faculty at James E. Rogers College of Law at University of Arizona, agrees. “Collaborative initiatives play a large role in ensuring that various degrees of expertise are considered,” he says. “As litigation continues to involve complex subject matter, having different kinds of experts on your team or as consultants can make all the difference.”

How can LL.M. students work across disciplines?

What kind of skills do LL.M. students need to work collaboratively across disciplines? “Primarily, know how and when to ask questions,” says Shepherd. “Lawyers cannot be experts in everything, but must possess strong research skills, so they can know when it is necessary to consult with other professionals and the right questions to ask.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a new formal degree, but openness to multiple, complex subjects. At Arizona Law, LL.M. students are encouraged to interact with the various departments around campus. The law school also offers dual master’s degrees in business administration, public health, public administration, or Latin American studies.

Elsewhere, Cornell Law School and Cornell Tech — a technology, business, law, and design campus in New York City — have adopted a novel approach to interdisciplinary work. Cornell Tech’s LL.M. in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship requires cross-disciplinary learning: students partner with engineers, computer scientists, and business students to learn how to develop and launch products. This will help them both understand their clients and innovate as lawyers and practitioners.

In addition, the LL.M. candidates learn about legal technology — the use of software and technology to provide legal services — so as to make them more employable. “Our students go off to become innovative lawyers at their firms and companies, to work in startups, legal tech, or in a myriad of other paths, as unique as they are,” says Matthew D’Amore, associate dean of Cornell Tech.

When it comes to legal practice, he says lawyers are engaged in cross-company collaboration, internal collaboration across departments in the same organization, and business-driven collaboration.

“You can think of a law firm as a business, and that business has a variety of product lines through the legal services it provides,” says D’Amore. “It has a brand, a reputation, and good will. It has revenue, expenses, and profit. It launches new products when it expands into new areas or rebrands its services, and it trims others back as client needs change.”

Some of the things that lead to success in these endeavors include leadership, emotional intelligence, and humility. “Working across disciplines requires respect for what everyone on the team brings to the table, the judgment to know when to lead and when to follow or seek consensus, and the recognition that problems have many possible solutions,” D’Amore says.

Ultimately, to be a successful lawyer requires much more than just knowledge of the law.


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