LL.M. Programs Provide Tricks of the Trade Law

Heightened geopolitical tensions have made the need for trade law specialists more acute than ever

With the increasing use and amount of retaliatory tariffs in trade wars, and other protectionist measures by countries, more and more companies are in need of good trade lawyers to either mitigate the negative impact or advocate the interests of companies impacted by the unfair trading practices of foreign competitors. 

This is welcome news for global commercial lawyers who have seen demand for their services along with their pay soar, and, increasingly, those studying to become one at a law school.

“There is a growing need for trade lawyers to help clients navigate and comply with the increasingly complex multilateral regulatory network of international and domestic trade laws,” says Brian Peck, executive director of the Center for Transnational Law and Business, at USC Gould School of Law.

The school in California offers the LL.M. in International Business and Economic Law degree program. It provides training to develop a global perspective and interdisciplinary skills that will enable students to understand and integrate relevant laws, policies and business best practices that shape international commerce and trade.

“We expect to see an increase in interest and applicants for the program when the pandemic is no longer affecting application decisions,” says Peck.

It’s the most exciting time to be part of the trade law field, says Padideh Ala’i, director of international and comparative legal studies at American University, Washington College of Law. It runs a summer course on World Trade Organization law in Geneva, Switzerland, along with courses in US economic sanctions and export controls, trade remedies law and intellectual property, which are available to LL.M. candidates.

Ala’i says the school in Washington DC was “overwhelmed” this summer by students from all over the world who wanted to learn more about trade law. “Law students observe the trends in legal markets and are aware that international trade and compliance lawyers are among the most sought-after specializations in international law firms,” she says.

It is also of interest not only to those interested in trade, but increasingly to environmentalists, human rights activists and health law professionals and those interested in international development as well.

“The strategic importance of trade has become a dominant feature of world politics,” says Ala’i. “Where historically the major world powers fought about arsenals of warheads, today they fight over the tariffs for shrimp and washing machines.”

All these heightened tensions have made the need for trade law specialists more acute than ever, she says. “Most transactions, commercial law related regulations, and the settlement of many disputes have a trade law component, which makes trade lawyers an essential part of any legal team.”

An urgent need for trade law specialists

Whenever there are changes in the regulatory environment, such as trade sanctions against China, or other kinds of challenges affecting supply and demand in the global marketplace, such as the Covid pandemic, there is an urgent need for qualified lawyers to help business to adapt to these changes.

For example, both the pandemic and the trade sanctions have triggered a re-alignment of supply chains with many US companies trying to source less from China and more from Vietnam and other countries in Asia. Others are re-shoring part of the production process or sourcing closer to home, in Canada and Mexico.

This not only requires new contracts with suppliers, new payment arrangements like letters of credit, new shipping and insurance contracts, but also savvy navigation of opportunities presented by trade laws.

“The career opportunities for graduates with solid education in international business and trade law are legion, whereas career opportunities for graduates without those skills are increasingly few and far between,” says Frank Emmert, executive director of the Center for International and Comparative Law at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law.

He is also director of the World Trade Law LL.M. track, and says students learn to exploit these opportunities in courses on International Investment Law, European Union Law, and others. “Every year, it is becoming clearer that pretty much all business has become international, and that even small and medium size firms cannot thrive anymore unless they are able to make use of international opportunities,” says Emmert, highlighting the breadth of career opportunities.

The school’s LL.M. in World Trade Law is delivered in partnership with the World Trade Center Indianapolis, and every student in the program has to complete a six-month internship at the WTC.

During the internship, the students are working with real-life clients, and they handle trade cases from start to finish, meeting dozens, if not hundreds of trade lawyers, business executives, government regulators, and other valuable contacts. “The typical participant in this program signs an employment contract before graduation,” Emmert says.

Securing a post-LL.M. career in trade law

To succeed in this area, one needs a thorough grasp of the traditional legal principles, but also a finger on the technological pulse — this became crystal clear during Covid. “The trade system was deep rooted in hard copy documents but the pandemic has now forced the issue of electronic alternatives,” says Anna Mari Antoniou, a lecturer in maritime and commercial law at the University of Essex School of Law in the UK.

With the 2008 financial crisis and Brexit in the UK, Antoniou says it became clear that law schools must be covering both the legal foundations of trade but also keep students looking forward, honing their ability to adapt as crises unfold.

For example, students on the LL.M. International Trade and Maritime Law at Essex can choose from a plethora of traditional modules such as Sale of Goods, Carriage of Goods by Sea and Marine insurance, but must also take as compulsory the International Trade and Maritime Law module.

“What students need to be looking at and predicting, is what the business will look like in five-10 years’ time,” she says. “So a top trade lawyer now needs an excellent legal foundation but also a forward looking outlook. Success is a matter of combining and balancing the legal principles with the commercial reality.”

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