At the best law firms, active dealmaking and fierce competition for talent has driven up pay across the legal services industry. In corporate law practices in particular, there’s been a great expansion of evermore lucrative career paths for graduates of LL.M. programs, particularly those that specialize in this highly popular field and related areas like international business.
However, the frenzied pace of dealmaking that has turbocharged law firm recruitment has deepened concerns over lawyers facing burnout, especially those in the more junior ranks who do much of the grunt work, including people who join from LL.M. programs, hoping to one day make it to the partner level.
The rising rates of mental illness have driven a shift in focus among top law school graduates. Many now want to become general counsel at a leading international corporation, moving from private practice to in-house legal roles. This is one of many changes to post-LL.M. employment destinations that are being reported by law school career departments in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Making partner continues to be an aspiration for many hardworking law school graduates,” says Val Myteberi, associate dean for graduate programs at Cardozo Law in New York. “At the same time, that path to partnership has become more difficult, especially as more companies are growing their in-house legal departments and shifting power internally rather than relying on an outside firm.”
The role of the general counsel has also evolved: they play a more sophisticated role in businesses, counseling executives in strategic meetings and preempting problems to inform decisions — something that is luring an increasing number of LL.M. students in-house. “This new scope offers enormous opportunities for lawyers to really have a seat at the table and be seen as creative leaders and business decision-makers at the highest levels,” says Myteberi.
Big salaries, long hours
But a big factor in the shift in post-LL.M. employment destinations is simply the heavy workloads and long hours, which have led a growing number of associates at law firms to quit, despite ever higher salaries. “For LL.M. graduates, the work-life balance is increasingly important,” says Carmen González León, Associate Directors of Employer Engagement at ESADE Law School in Spain. “They are now placing a higher value on flexible working policies at big law firms.”
Still, Big Law continues to have its grand appeal, and the doors are wide open for LL.M. students who specialize in corporate law. “It appears that there will continue to be significant demand for smart, creative, hard-working lawyers, especially those with appropriate knowledge and skills that can be helpful in cross-border deals,” says Professor Geoff Krouse, Assistant Dean for Alumni and Development at Duke Law School in North Carolina.
Lawyers who can lead these complicated transactions are and will continue to be in high demand. But, increasingly, LL.M. students are interested in careers that make a tangible difference to society. And, the post-LL.M. job opportunities that involve ESG (environmental, social and governance) legal work, or sustainability more broadly, are increasingly numerous.
“ESG legal work is in demand in law firms, consultancy firms and businesses,” says Margaret Young, a Professor at Melbourne Law School who specializes in public international law. “Learning about ESG also helps lawyers play their part in improving the environmental and social accountability of business on big global challenges like climate change.”
The same sentiment is echoed by Sara Colangelo, Director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law in Washington D.C. “Significant opportunities are appearing in big law settings, with firms either tapping environmental and regulatory/compliance attorneys to provide ESG guidance to clients, or creating independent ESG practice groups,” she says.
Many in-house attorneys in traditional business roles must now consider dimensions of ESG, as well. Another big shift has been the increase in demand for digital lawyers who can use innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the delivery of legal services.
“It is more and more important that lawyers develop familiarity with e-discovery tools and AI systems for contract drafting and review, contract analytics, and litigation prediction,” says Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean of International programs at New York’s Fordham Law School.
These tools will become increasingly commonplace and will enable lawyers to complete certain tasks more quickly than in the past. “Machine learning and the law are natural partners as they both rely heavily on precedent,” noted Jaeger-Fine.
What does the future hold for post-LL.M. career paths?
Looking ahead, to 2022 and beyond, law schools are optimistic about the post-LL.M. career opportunities for their graduating classes, particularly for those with experience in international legal practice, with the legal landscape having been transformed by of globalization during the last few decades.
“Today’s legal environment is increasingly global, with more and more employers recognizing the value of overseas training and experience,” says Claire Lee, Associate Director of Professional Development for the American Law, Banking and Finance, Intellectual Property, and Tax LL.M. programs at Boston University School of Law.
She says: “Highly-qualified LL.M.s with background and experience in the practice areas that are heating up should remain marketable, especially to employers in larger cities, who have substantial practices with overseas investments and/or clients.”