LL.M. Programs in Australia

Exploring the legal masters options for international and domestic lawyers Down Under.

When international students consider the different places to do an LL.M., they sometimes forget about Australia in favor of North America and Europe. But when looking at the quality options available Down Under, it's hard to explain this oversight. 

The Group of Eight universities, for example, all offer LL.M. programs. This group – sometimes known as “Australia’s Ivy League” – is made up of the University of Melbourne, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia National University (ANU), Monash University, University of Queensland, University of Adelaide, and the University of Western Australia.

Add to this impressive list the other research universities like Macquarie, La Trobe, and Queensland University of Technology, and you have as many internationally recognized LL.M. options in Australia as in, say, Canada.

It's possible that international lawyers may be discouraged by Australia's competitive legal job market. While it's true that - similar to the United States - Australian law schools are turning out far more grads than local law firms can hire each year, most students who come to Australia for an LL.M. already have a first law degree, and will return to their home countries afterward.

"My impression is that vast bulk of our international students know what they want to do in their home country," says Cheryl Saunders, associate dean at Melbourne Law School of the increasing numbers of international students who enroll in her school's Masters programs.

"This is an important staging post along the way, sometimes because their ultimate career destination actually values the international experience that you get,” says Saunders. “Sometimes they may be coming to us from a civil law country to deeply understand common law."

Sydney Law School Dean Gillian Triggs confirms that getting a better understanding of common law is indeed a big draw for international students, as is the variety of specializations offered at most of Australia's top law schools.

"Basically, they are interested in common law methodology, but mainly interested in specializations," says Triggs.

One specific concentration of growing interest, says Triggs, is Asian Law, a thematic strength that Sydney Law School has developed in recent decades.

"The axis of the world seems to be shifting across into the Asian region,” says Triggs. “A lot of really good, ambitious, and talented Europeans and North Americans are saying, 'we've really got to come to terms with Asia, and we have to learn more about it, and Australia is a pretty user-friendly place to do that.'"

Most Australian law schools offer a wide range of specialized LL.M. programs, usually a mix of usual concentrations and unique offerings that play to the university’s location and strengths. Take, for example, the University of Queensland in Brisbane, a major port and Australia’s third-largest city after Sydney and Melbourne.

“We’ve got the classics, if you will: tax, litigation, estate law, etc.,” says Chris Trott, a marketing officer for the University of Queensland. "But we also have the courses and specializations that make Brisbane a more relevant place to study the LL.M.,” such as energy law, maritime law, and trade and transport law.

Meanwhile, UNSW Law in Sydney offers interdisciplinary programs, like the Masters of Business Law and Master of Law and Management together with UNSW’s Australian School of Business, or the Master of International Law and International Relations together with UNSW’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Another unique aspect of Australian law schools is that many domestic lawyers in Australia also pursue an LL.M. - more so than in North America and Britain. This means that international masters students will often study side-by-side with many domestic Australian lawyers.

"The masters program in Australia was developed initially for the domestic market, very unlike other jurisdictions," says Gillian Triggs at Sydeny Law School. This is one reason why many Australian law schools continue to offer a wide variety of LL.M. specializations: to appeal to mid-career domestic lawyers.

"Despite the fact that (Australian) lawyers have done a five-year program or a law degree combined with one other major degree, even when they are in practice, they very much want to do the masters degree because they see it as giving them a specialization and a particular advanced training," says Triggs.

Australian lawyers typically join postgraduate programs in their late twenties, usually with around three to five years of work experience, and often with the financial support of their employers.

At the ANU in the Australian capital of Canberra, around 40-50 percent of LL.M. students work for the Australian government. Like with other LL.M. programs in Australia, ANU’s courses are taught in very short, intensive intervals of a few days, which is ideal for working government lawyers, as well as lawyers who fly in from around the country.

“For the young government lawyers, by coming to complete a Masters degree at the ANU, it means they have a number of career options when they hit their thirties,” says Donald Rothwell, who heads the LL.M. programs at the ANU College of Law.

“They can continue in government service; they can seek employment with a large law firm,” says Rothwell. “But also, depending on their area, it might provide them with options internationally.”

Around ten percent of ANU Law’s masters students come from abroad. Some come from neighboring countries in the South Pacific, like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands to join ANU’s Law and Governance program; others come from Europe, North America, and Asia – typically for a specialization.

Rothwell says that studying law in Australia offers a unique perspective on international law unique from law schools in North America and Europe.

“We are a country which builds upon and looks to legal practice from around the world,” says Rothwell. “One element from international legal studies as it is undertaken at the ANU is that students are exposed to many different lines of thought in a very global sense, without getting a dominant Euro-centric or North American perspective that you might get if you study in other parts of the world.”

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