Postgraduate Law Diplomas and Certificates: An LL.M. Alternative?

More law schools are offering shorter and focused qualifications for working lawyers

For many lawyers, taking a year out for an LL.M. can be a career boost in a number of ways. Many other lawyers, however, might not have the time, money, or need for such a deep academic experience.

Shorter postgraduate law certificates and diploma programs are meeting a growing demand for more flexible and focused legal education. These programs tend to deliver less than an LL.M. in terms of broad curriculum, prestigious title, networking avenues, or research experience, but many working lawyers don’t need these anyway.

There are different types of postgraduate law diploma and certificate programs. Several UK law schools offer a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which is primarily for non-law graduates as a first step toward transitioning into the legal profession. Similarly in Hong Kong, a Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) is required to continue training as a barrister or solicitor in Hong Kong.

But the focus of this article is on specialized certificate and diploma programs that offer lawyers (and sometimes non-lawyers) a deeper view into specific areas of law. At the moment, these programs are most commonly found in Britain, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Ireland.

Examples include Oxford’s Postgraduate Diploma in Intellectual Property and Practice, the National University of Singapore’s Graduate Diploma in Maritime Law & Arbitration, and Queen Mary, University of London’s (QMUL) Postgraduate Diploma in International Dispute Resolution with concentrations in mediation or arbitration.

QMUL’s program primarily attracts experienced lawyers who are already working at law firms in London, which makes the school’s diploma program distinct from its LL.M.

“The LL.M. is primarily sought after by students not yet employed,” says QMUL law professor Stavros Brekoulakis. “They want to improve their employability.”

“The postgraduate diplomas, on the other hand, are for people already employed by a law firm who want to develop a specialization, move to a different department, acquire a theoretical background, or advance their progress within a law firm,” says Brekoulakis.

Along with the International Dispute Resolution program, QMUL offers over a dozen other specialized diploma programs that require students to take two modules and write a dissertation over two years, rather than the four modules plus dissertation needed for the school’s LL.M. program.

A similar practice of offering a wide range of specialized diplomas is common in Australia. Some of the largest law schools in Australia – including University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Australia National University, and the University of Western Australia – offer many of their LL.M. specializations also as shorter "graduate diplomas."

Rónán Kennedy, who teaches on both the LL.M. and postgraduate programs at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, says that the tough marketplace for legal jobs may have something to do with rising demand for certificate and diploma programs.

“Jobs are so much more difficult to find, that people are going to be keen to hold on to what they have, but also move into new areas of practice," says Kennedy.

NUI Galway offers postgraduate certificates in Information Technology Law, Intellectual Property Law, and E-Commerce Law, as well as both a diploma and certificate option in Commercial Regulation and Compliance. The programs mostly draw local working lawyers from around Galway.

"People are starting to move out of areas they might have worked in for ten or fifteen years,” he adds. “Things like intellectual property and IT-related areas like data protection are becoming much more lively. People are looking to re-skill, and move into different areas."

It is unclear how the market for shorter, flexible law programs will develop over the coming years, or if they will spread more internationally to North America and continental Europe. It’s not unimaginable if one considers the development of business education globally.

Hundreds of business schools now offer open-enrollment courses for jet-set managers and executives. And while some law schools may not go exactly that route, many seem to be responding to a growing need for flexible education options for working lawyers.

Another area of certain future growth is distance learning. The University of Edinburgh Law School launches its first online postgraduate law certificate program this fall. The school has long offered distance learning LL.M. programs, but a shorter course can be a good introduction for those still apprehensive about the online format.

"The postgraduate certificate was designed to give students an entrance step," says Graeme Laurie, who directs the new online certificate program at Edinburgh. "It's a flavor of distance learning, since they come in with a lot of prejudices and fears that they will be abandoned or not receive technical support."

Laurie also says a shorter program is also a way for students to “dip their toes” into postgraduate education, to see if they are able to manage their time effectively, and complete the coursework, preparation, and participate meaningfully. If so, they have the option of continuing on to complete the LL.M.

"Flexibility was a key driver for introducing this new option," says Laurie.

A similar motivation prompted the postgraduate diplomas and certificates at NUI Galway. According to Rónán Kennedy, a shorter, flexible, and focused option “gives people who cannot afford - for whatever reason - to give up their day job, some sort of opportunity to engage in education."

Below we have listed some of the law schools offering specialized postgraduate law certificate and diploma programs - sorted by specialization. These do not include CPE/GDL, PCLL, or similar programs.

Business Law / Commercial Law
Lancaster University
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
Deakin University
La Trobe University
Monash University
Queensland University of Technology
University of Adelaide
University of Sydney
University of Witwatersrand

Competition Law
King's College London (KCL)
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) University of London - International Programmes
University of Melbourne

Computer / IT Law / E-Commerce
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
NUI Galway

Criminal Law / Criminology
University of London - International Programmes
Griffith University
Queensland University of Technology
University of Sydney
University of Western Australia

Dispute Resolution / Arbitration
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
University of Melbourne
UTS Sydney
University of Cape Town

Employment Law / Labor Law
Monash University
University of Melbourne
University of Cape Town
University of Witwatersrand

Environmental Law
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
Australia National University (ANU)
Macquarie University
University of Sydney
University of Witwatersrand
University of Calgary

European Law
King's College London (KCL)
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of Leicester
University of London - International Programmes

Health / Public Health
University of Dundee
University of Manchester
Griffith University
Queensland University of Technology
University of Melbourne
University of Sydney
University of South Africa (UNISA)

Human Rights
Lancaster University
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
Griffith College Dublin
Monash University
University of Melbourne
University of Witwatersrand

Intellectual Property / Copyright / Patents
Brunel University
King's College London (KCL)
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
University of Manchester
University of Oxford
NUI Galway
Monash University
University of Melbourne
University of New South Wales (UNSW)
University of Technology Sydney
Indira Gandhi National Open University
University of Pittsburgh

International Law
University of Lancaster
University of London - International Programmes
Griffith College Dublin
Australia National University (ANU)
University of Melbourne
University of Sydney
University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
University of Witwatersrand

Maritime Law
University of London - International Programmes
National University of Singapore (NUS)

Regulation
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - International Programmes
NUI Galway
Deakin University
Monash University

Taxation
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
University of London - Institute of Advanced Legal Studies
University of Melbourne
University of Sydney
University of Stellenbosch
University of Witwatersrand


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