Niche LL.M.s: Law Schools Embrace Cross-Disciplinary Teaching

Law schools opt for depth rather than breadth, creating specialist courses in everything from intellectual property to healthcare law

The LL.M. degree was created to provide aspiring lawyers with a broad base of knowledge to succeed in any number of sectors. Increasingly, however, LL.M. degrees are going for depth rather than breadth. From intellectual property to environmental law, and from healthcare to technology, there has been an explosion in the number of niche LL.M.s in recent years.

In many western countries, including the US and much of mainland Europe and the UK, aspiring lawyers are encouraged to complete a first degree of law, such as a JD or an LL.B., which generally takes three years to complete and is a generalist degree. That leaves many graduates, who have a solid grounding in the main areas of law (civil, public and criminal), wanting to specialize in one area.

“At the three-year bachelor level, students are trained largely as generalists, and many then choose a more specialist one-year LL.M. degree that suits their interests,” says Mireille van Eechoud, director of the Amsterdam Graduate School of Law.

Driving the rise of niche LL.M. degrees is the increasing complexity and dynamism of the law as legal systems respond to the globalization and digitization of society. “The sheer volume of laws, regulations and cases is incomparable to what it was a few decades ago, due to global communication networks and the rise of internet-based business models,” says van Eechoud, a professor of information law.

Christoph Schalast, professor of mergers and acquisitions and European integration at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, says that lawyers need a specialist education to stand apart from the pack, because of the proliferation of laws. In Germany, for example, there are 150,000 laws in force. “The specialization of law is growing and increasing,” he says. “In Germany, it makes you more employable.”

To meet this need, law schools are diversifying their offerings. At Amsterdam Graduate School of Law, for example, all English language LL.M. programs have a degree of specialization. For example, the LL.M. in International and European law offers four different tracks in such subjects as international trade and investment law.

A shift to cross-disciplinary learning

The gold standard of legal education is now cross-disciplinary learning, which lends itself to law schools embedded within parent institutions. LL.M. courses are often a collaboration between different departments that share knowledge, resources and networks.

“Within law programs, students can benefit from being part of a research-intensive and broad university with excellent facilities,” says van Eechoud.

One example is the LL.M. in Law and Finance, a joint effort between the Amsterdam Law and Business Schools. The course combines the economic and legal side of financial markets. Students learn to apply finance tools to legal analysis, practice and policymaking, and many go on to advise companies and policymakers on financial regulation.

“The growing complexity of regulating behavior drives both the development of specialist fields and the cross-disciplinary collaboration needed to address complex problems,” says van Eechoud. This translates into cross-disciplinary courses at law schools, which are incorporating content from the domains of behavioral economics, psychology, media studies, criminology and technology.

Can a specialist LL.M. make you more employable?

Van Eechoud believes a specialist legal education can make LL.M. graduates more employable, but not if it exists in isolation. “In-depth understanding of specialist fields should always be combined with a solid grasp of broader legal doctrines,” she says. “There are few legal professions where general knowledge suffices to do the job well, because the law has become so complex.”

The Frankfurt School’s Schalast relates an example from his own medium-sized law firm that focuses on deals. In recent months, he hired a young lawyer with an LL.M. degree in European and anti-trust law, reflecting key changes in deal-making.

Schalast adds that the German legal education system, which is similar to Austria and Switzerland, lends itself to niche LL.M. degrees, since students tend to receive a broad education, learning about everything from constitutional to administrative law. “It’s very broad; you are educated in every field of law,” he says.

“We are all educated to become judges,” he adds, “but only about one percent of candidates have the opportunity to actually become a judge. So, many students then opt to do a specialist LL.M.”

For example, he runs an LL.M. program in M&A. Around 55 percent of the content is legal, 35 percent is economics and 10 percent focuses on soft skills, such as negotiation. “Our programs are not really only about the law,” says Schalast.

Given the benefits, this type of cross-disciplinary legal education seems likely to proliferate further. Ultimately, however, legal knowledge on its own is not enough to succeed in today’s dynamic and diverse legal markets. Analytical, problem-solving and communication skills are also a vital component to success. Law schools must also help students develop the right attitudes — promote high ethical standards.

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