Regulation. Geopolitical uncertainty. A paradigm shift in the realm of technology. These factors mean that lawyers often face increasingly complex work. Globalization continues at a brisk clip while a greater number of cross-border deals mean lawyers with commercial acumen are in high demand.
International clients are searching for more business advice, prompting law schools to offer a new type of specialist course that covers contracts, transactions, tax, trade, finance, banking and intellectual property.
LL.M.s in Commercial or Business Law—as well as related programs covering finance law, corporate law, and other topics—are multiplying at a rapid rate. The law schools of Harvard, NYU and Georgetown of the US have begun offering them. In Europe programs are run by Queen Mary, Durham, Tilburg and more law schools. Asia’s Chinese University of Hong Kong runs a Chinese business law program, blending legality and commerce to produce lawyers who help companies navigate the ambiguous business climate.
The specialist programs have been emerging due to a confluence of factors. For students, the courses provide marketable skills such as research and negotiation that are rarely taught on most undergraduate law degrees, says David Kershaw, director of the Executive LL.M. for working professionals at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Students can specialize in corporate and commercial law, or financial regulation as part of LSE’s LL.M. “This depth of understanding is invaluable to a practicing lawyer, enabling young associates to really stand out and enabling more established lawyers to enhance their understanding,” Kershaw says.
At LSE, the specialist courses typically cover UK and EU banking, corporate, takeover and financial law, as well as corporate governance and securities regulation.
Kershaw says: “Today corporate and business lawyers often perform the role of business advisors. They need to have both in-depth understanding of the legal rules and principles and policy choices that underpin them, and an understanding of the context in which these rules are applied and effects they have on market practices and behaviour.”
Helping corporate lawyers understand seismic technological shifts
One exciting new area of coverage is financial technologies and their impact on clients. Artificial intelligence, for example, is becoming an important tools for lawyers — they are automating negotiations over legal documents, for example, so as to become more efficient and productive.
Emilios Avgouleas, the International Banking Law and Finance Chair at the University of Edinburgh, says lawyers need familiarity with technology, not a mere understanding of it: “The shift in the technological paradigm brings challenges to legal research and practice.”
Topics including blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but is being used to create smart contracts, will be offered as electives by the Amsterdam Law School, according to Marc Salomon, dean of the Amsterdam Business School, which runs a joint Law and Finance LL.M. that also covers topics in business and commercial law.
The 12-month course was launched in September and is priced at €14,740 for students outside the European Economic Area. One reason for the roll-out is that employers say there is large demand for graduates who have a combination of legal and finance knowledge, according to Salomon.
He says: “Law firms need to add value to their clients. Clients and products become more sophisticated, so to keep up with that lawyers need to gain more specialized knowledge, to avoid legal advice becoming a commodity.”
Employment rates and starting salaries look healthy. According to salary data website Adzuna, the average commercial lawyer salary in London is more than £63,000. Commercial lawyer vacancies in London have gone up over 12% year-on-year. At time of press, there were 449 London commercial lawyer jobs on the site.
Career opportunities for Business / Commercial Law LL.M. grads
Graduates of LL.M. programs in Business and Commercial Law typically pursue a career in very competitive and complex fields: banking, finance and corporate finance law, bank regulation, global capital markets, and financial services technology. That’s according to Avgouleas, at the University of Edinburgh.
But he warns that these courses are not necessarily a golden ticket to a good job, saying: “Graduate destinations tend to be of a very high quality, though this also depends on other factors such the student’s prior background, appetite for hard work, and prior skills set.”
The specialist LL.M.s can be arduous as they cover a mind-bogglingly complex curriculum. Avgouleas says the amount of hard work required is “exceptional” to complete the 10-month Edinburgh LLM in International Banking Law and Finance (the school also runs an LL.M. in Commercial Law, among other programs).
The courses tend to be popular, too, so getting in won’t be a breeze. At Edinburgh class sizes are capped at about 27 students and are “heavily oversubscribed every year”, says Avgouleas.
But it seems likely that a growing number of lawyers will take them, as the business environment becomes increasingly complex.