LL.M. Programs in Transnational Law

A handful of law schools are offering interdisciplinary programs that teach students to navigate today's global society with a critical eye

Let's say a lawsuit arose pertaining to a United States retailer that contracted with a clothing factory in Bangladesh.

A lawyer who only understood American law or Bangladeshi law would likely have his or her hands tied in navigating that lawsuit. 

“[Lawyers have] to understand that it's not just about labor law in China or Bangladesh or corporate law in the US, but that the issue is in fact the global supply chain that now ties the retailers in the US and in Europe, the big department stores that purchase bulk of these products, with the thousands of suppliers in the so-called global south,” says Peer Zumbansen, professor of transnational law and director of the Dickson Poon Transnational Law Institute at King's College London (KCL). 

KCL is one of several schools in the world that offer an LL.M. program in transnational law, a cross-disciplinary field that aims to prepare students for a global economy and society where legal issues transcend national boundaries with increasing frequency. Other programs include the Transnational Dispute Resolution LL.M. at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom; the Transnational LL.M. program at Philadelphia’s Temple University; and the joint LL.M. between Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, which caters mainly to students from Africa who have the ability to influence policy at a high level.

But transnational law is not simply international law under a different name. Officials at the handful of transnational LL.M. programs around the world stress that their programs teach not only international law, but examine global legal mechanisms with a critical eye. 

“There have always been issues where transnational action laws are needed. But the problem is that most law schools don't teach these courses. They stick with the primary law curriculum,” says Lovell Fernandez, who teaches in the law faculty at the University of the Western Cape.

For example, Alexander Allen, a student at King's College London's program who is graduating this summer, says one case that interested him during the program was an alcohol law passed in Brazil in 2012. The law allowed the sale of beer at soccer matches in the country—a change in policy that coincided with the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which was held in Brazil. 

“Did public officials want to pass that law? Or was that something just for FIFA?” Allen says. “That's what transnational laws tries to recognize. The law is not just disseminated by public officials. It's also created by public actors as well.”

Other examples include examining why western representatives in an international court of law might vote one way on an international law, while non-western representatives may vote the opposite way, or recognizing that the US Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize gay marriage was affected by proceedings in Germany and Ireland. 

This kind of critical examination lends itself to almost every field of law, including commerce, banking, human rights and asylum law. 

“The idea of transnationalism is training someone who is an all-rounder,” says Jean d'Aspremont, professor of public international law at Manchester University. 

Even lawyers who plan never to leave their home countries often must contend with issues addressed in transnational law classes. 

“Say someone doesn't want to do human rights and just wants to be a family lawyer,” Zumbansen says. “Nowadays, even a family lawyer is often confronted with an issue where parents are from different countries, a child is born in a third country, and questions arise when a family dissolves about the rules that govern the situation.”

But although this discipline is applicable to so many fields and so many issues, many law schools shy away from teaching transnational law. 

“Law schools tend to envision their own students working in their own jurisdiction after they graduate,” Zumbansen says. “Lawyers are still being educated with a primary expectation that they will find a job in their home country.”

Zumbansen says that another criticism commonly hurled at law schools is that many programs don't encourage students to attain real-world experience before graduating. 

“The complaint has always been, long since the 19th century, that students graduate from law school and they've never seen a courtroom from the inside,” Zumbansen says. He says transnational law programs are working to combat that lack of practical experience by presenting students with complicated real-world cases. 

For KCL student Alexander Allen, transnational law has allowed him to combine his diverse interests, which include corporate law, finance law and human rights law, especially pertaining to China. When he finishes his LL.M., he will attend a language school in China to pursue his interests in that country. 

But although Allen credits the transnational law concept with allowing him to pursue these varied interests, Manchester’s d'Aspremont points out that the concept of transnational law is nothing new. The term first appeared in the 1950s, when law schools encouraged students to look beyond traditional frameworks and link international and national law. The term fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now back in vogue. 

“I don't think it's revolutionary at all,” d'Aspremont says. “I think it only means that these are programs with interdisciplinary elements.”

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