LL.M.s in Australia: Where East Meets West

International law students who head to Australia will find unique cultural and educational opportunities—but few jobs.

It's no secret that professionals of all kinds, including lawyers, from Europe and the Americas increasingly need to know more about Asia. After all, with booming emerging economies like India's and China's contributing to an ever-more-globalized world, the ties between different continents are only growing stronger.

But of course, moving to a country like India, China or Japan to study law poses a set of unique challenges, not the least of which are language and cultural differences.

That's where Australia comes in.

“We're the gateway between the east and the west in many regards,” says Cameron Stewart, a professor at Sydney Law School at the University of Sydney. “[In Australia,] you can experience a mixture of eastern and western culture in study.”

Stewart and other Australian law professors say that their programs hold an allure for students from all over the world who want to take advantage of that east-meets-west mentality. And Australian law schools are correspondingly eager to strengthen their ties to the rest of the Pacific Rim.

Brendan Edgeworth, professor and director of postgraduate studies at University of New South Wales law school, says his school is currently building a stronger connection with China. Particularly, according to Edgeworth, UNSW's LL.M. program offers a large number of courses that focus on Asian and Chinese law, as well an introduction to Chinese law that runs in Shanghai every year. Through that program, students can spend a month in Shanghai, pursuing coursework for two weeks and spending the rest of the time visiting local courts and law firms.

“We're very keen to engage with Asia and we've just appointed three academics who are Chinese, Mandarin speakers, who will introduce new courses related to China and Chinese business law in particular,” Edgeworth says.

Studying Australian law alongside Asian law also comes with a distinct practical advantage: developing expertise about two legal systems. Like the United States, the United Kingdom and parts of Canada, Australia operates under the common law legal system. But since Australia trades with civil law countries like Japan and China, lawyers and law schools in the land down under must examine and understand civil law systems as well. This means that LL.M. programs in Australia are often ideal for students interested in comparative law.

“Even the ones that focus on Australian domestic law still focus on other jurisdictions,” Stewart says.

“The study is completely non-parochial.”

Karolina Sibirzeff, a Swedish student with a British undergraduate degree, originally wanted to pursue her LL.M. in Australia because she wanted to continue her common law education. She didn't realize that Australia would be the perfect place for her to combine her interests in international criminal law with her interest in human rights.

"Australia is much more interested in human rights in southeast Asia, while Europe is very focused on the EU and the States," says Sibirzeff, who's currently studying at the University of Sydney. "It's not that they're more focused on human rights [in Australia], it's just a different area. Take the death penalty issue: in Europe you'd have to focus on death penalty in the States, but here it's focused on those issues in Indonesia and China."

Italian Paolo Lovato is another student who left Europe to pursue law studies at the University of Sydney--partly because he found that working in Italian law involved more and more interaction with people from Asia, and because an increasing number of Italian companies are moving to China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

But the allure of Australian law schools isn't only about cross-cultural study. It's also about the quantity and quality of the programs. There's no shortage of LL.M. programs in the land down under: Australia is home to 34 law schools, most of which have LL.M. programs-- including the “Big Eight” of top Australian universities, several of which rank among the top law schools in the world. In this year’s QS World University Rankings, the University of Melbourne ranked number eight, the University of Sydney ranked number 13, the University of New South Wales ranked number 15, and Australian National University ranked number 16.

Those high rankings and unique offerings translate to significant numbers of international students heading into Australia. Forty percent of the LL.M. students at the University of New South Wales hail from other countries, and half of students at the University of Sydney come from all the other continents to study in Australia.

Taking a break in the southern hemisphere

Besides its unique geographical position, Australia offers cultural opportunities that sets it apart from the rest of the English-speaking world. Australia has a reputation for its laidback lifestyle, year-round sunshine, beaches and unique interior landscape—a sort of British-influenced California.

And the cost of living doesn't hurt either. The Australian dollar is down right now, making the country an affordable place to live and study. To sweeten the deal, international students are often drawn by the multicultural nature of cities like Melbourne or Sydney, says Edgeworth.

“Wherever you are from in the world, you'll probably see some of your own culture in [Melbourne or Sydney]. The cities are like melting pots. They're very open to international visitors,” Edgeworth says. “[Students] don't feel completely alien in Melbourne or Sydney.”

The unique culture in Australia translates to another advantage for international LL.M. students: the opportunity to pursue an unusual specialization. For example, several universities, including the University of Sydney, offer courses in indigenous peoples law, while the University of Queensland, located in the port city of Brisbane, offers courses in maritime law.

Of course, Australia's unique culture and geographical position comes with a downside: the country's isolation from Europe and the United States.

"If you live in the States or the EU and move here, it's kind of a big step," Sibirzeff says. "It's hard to keep in touch with people because of the time difference."

But what about work?

Although Australia has plenty to offer students in terms of specialization opportunities and connections to other legal systems, international and domestic students should be aware that there is one huge disadvantage to the country.

“It's the same situation as you'll find elsewhere: it's a tough market for work,” says Stewart.

Students from overseas might have an easier time finding jobs if they can leverage language skills.

“I think some of the international students have a little bit of an edge to a degree, particularly if they're looking for work in an international market,” Stewart says. “Particularly if you can speak another language, like a southeast Asian language or Chinese as well.”

Australian visa requirements are more lenient than requirements in other English-speaking countries. too. Students who spend two years pursuing degrees in Australia--for instance stacking an LL.M. degree with another master's degree--can apply for a two-year post-study work visa. However, students who only study for one year will need an employer to sponsor them before they can make arrangements to stay in Australia.

Image: "Sydney opera house 2010" by Jacques Grießmayer - Own work. (cropped) Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sydney_ope...

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