How LL.M. Degrees are Embracing Sustainability and Social Justice

Student and employer demand is high for courses that tackle world problems

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, senior lecturer in climate law at Edinburgh Law School in Scotland, UK, has noticed a growing interest in sustainability and social justice in the students applying for LL.M. programs.  

“There’s always been a relatively high demand for environmental studies and especially climate change. But certainly in the last 18 months that has really ratcheted up very considerably,” he says.

The trend is widespread among law schools. Since the LL.M. in Law and Social Justice was introduced in the School of Law at the University of Leeds in 2018, demand has surged. “From 2019 to 2020, applications rose by 109 percent. For 2021, we have seen another 26 percent rise in applications,” says Colin Mackie, associate professor in business law.

The law school’s new program reflects the increased student demand across the board for greater embedding of sustainability in the curriculum. Research has found that around 60 percent of students on all degrees across the UK want to learn more about sustainability, and that about 80 percent of students want their institution to be doing more on sustainable development.

Demand is also high among LL.M. students at law schools, which reflects heightened public awareness thanks to the 2015 Paris agreement, extreme weather events like Californian wildfires, and public action such as the Extinction Rebellion protests.

“There has been sustained interest in environmental protection since the emergence of modern environmental law. But with the growing crises of climate change and environmental injustice, the interest is really exploding,” says Sara Colangelo, Environmental Law and Policy Program director at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC.

The increased student interest also reflects demand from employers. “The financial markets and corporations have now committed themselves to net zero obligations. Practically 75 percent of global GDP is now subject to a net zero commitment of some sort. That’s pretty spectacular,” says Ghaleigh at Edinburgh.

What can lawyers do?

When it comes to tackling sustainability and social justice issues, lawyers have many roles to play, in amplifying the voices of marginalized communities and the interests of sustainability through both forming and enforcing legislation and regulation based on sound science and evidence.

“Lawyers are fundamental in addressing the world’s social and environmental challenges,” says Mackie at Leeds. “Law permeates every aspect of society, meaning that there is a role for legal experts in a hugely diverse range of practice areas.” This may be in local and central government, volunteering in legal advice centres, undertaking pro-bono work in a law firm or working for charities specialising in legal advice.

Mackie points out that legal groups and legal expertise have been central in shaping the post-Brexit governance of environmental law in the UK. He says law can similarly be used to legislate for equality: “Law plays an important part in compelling the types of structural change needed for creating just and resilient communities.”

Judith Bueno de Mesquita is a lecturer in international human rights law at University of Essex’s School of Law in the UK. She says that human rights are an emerging and now vigorous field for litigation on environmental issues. “Litigation for social justice is expanding, as are the critiques of its limitations, the extent to which decisions are implemented, and broader political and economic forces that negate the small legal steps forward.”

Can an LL.M. help to create social justice?

Essex is one of a growing number of law schools to run LL.M. programs in sustainability or social justice. The program, LL.M. in Economic, Social and Cultural rights, teaches students about the status and limitations of the law, but also the broader economic, political and social processes behind it.

On the Law and Social Justice LL.M. at Leeds, the core modules focus on the ideological and structural contexts that lead to injustice. “By drawing on contemporary, real-world issues, the course highlights how justice may be achieved through working in a holistic and interdisciplinary manner with law working alongside health, policy and social work,” says Mackie.

Edinburgh has its LL.M. in Global Environment and Climate Change Law. “The subject area has deepened and become more complex, covering European law, company law and constitutional law as well as human rights and trade law,” says Ghaleigh. “There’s nothing that is not impacted by climate change law anymore.”

Georgetown Law has an extensive array of course options that explore human impact on the environment and associated social justice issues. This includes the Environmental and Energy Law LL.M., which also explores land use and food law.

A key component of the curriculum involves experiential opportunities, from law clinics to internships across the DC area and working with the Georgetown Climate Center itself. “We are seeing many students base career decisions on what type of impact their work will have on broader goals of environmental and climate justice,” says Colangelo.

“The opportunities to generate social impact in a legal career are quite varied and include community lawyering and nonprofit legal organizations, public interest law firms, government agencies and academic institutions.”

Mackie at Leeds says that corporate-focused roles do not by any means preclude generating this impact. “These opportunities are available across the commercial and non-commercial law sectors,” he adds. “Students could choose to go down the commercial law path yet still further the sustainability or social justice agenda.”

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