Pursuing an LL.M. Without a Background in Law

Pursuing an LL.M. Without a Background in Law

A handful of LL.M. programs around the world offer non-law graduates the chance to learn about legal matters.

Emma Sheffield studied international relations during her undergraduate degree, and she currently works in the field of genocide prevention. Specifically, she gathers testimony from and conducts interviews with Holocaust survivors.

But Sheffield hopes to work with survivors of contemporary genocides, and for that, she needs an understanding of international law.

"In order to go out and gather research in a field, it has to be able to stand up in court," Sheffield says. "That's a necessity these days. With the Holocaust, that angle is not so fierce, because obviously so much time has passed. It's a different mentality towards convictions now. Sooner or later the ICC [International Criminal Court] will try these people, for contemporary situations, and the evidence you're gathering needs to be able to stand up in tribunals."

That's why Sheffield is pursuing an LL.M. in Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham, one of several schools that allow students with non-law backgrounds to pursue an LL.M.

Schools that accept students non-lawyers tend to place restrictions on the kind and number of non-legal students they accept.

For example, La Trobe University in Melbourne accepts students with a commercial background into its global business LL.M., while the University of Edinburgh accepts some history, international relations and politics students into its International Law LL.M.

St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami offers an Intercultural Human Rights LL.M. to teachers, activists and governmental workers, along with lawyers.

Other schools require that non-law students demonstrate an interest in law. Bucerius Law School in Hamburg offers a dual master's degree in business and law to students from any academic background, but applicants must first demonstrate their legal knowledge.

The European Master in Law and Economics (EMLE), an Erasmus program, accepts students with law and economics backgrounds, but will consider students with business administration or social science backgrounds provided that those students have taken classes in law and economics. London School of Economics requires non-law applicants to pass a conversion course to matriculate at their LL.M. program.

Officials at these schools say that students from non-law backgrounds choose to pursue LL.M.s for a variety of reasons.

"We probably have people from every degree program from the arts and humanities degrees during the LLM," says Sangeeta Shah, co-director of the University of Nottingham's LL.M. programs. "The most common degrees are history, journalism, politics and English, as well as people who have been out working in the world."

The University of Nottingham's programs tend to attract internationally-minded professionals who have worked for the United Nations or other governmental organizations, who want to learn the legal issues surrounding their chosen careers, as well as to make themselves more marketable.

Emma Sheffield says that in her career so far working in human rights, conflict and post-conflict, she constantly needs information about the law.

"For me it's invaluable. Just because you're not a lawyer doesn't mean that you don't have to deal with the law every day, all the time," Sheffield says.

Portsmouth University, which offers a general LL.M., an LL.M. in corporate governance and law, and, beginning in fall 2016, an LL.M. in alternative dispute resolution, tends to attract students from a different background: the business world.

"One big reason that we see is to gain a specialist expertise in a given professional area," says Joanne Atkinson, principal lecturer at Portsmouth. "For example, with the corporate governance masters, non-law grads tend to be people with a background in business or finance, or they're people who are already working in big organizations and want to take the next step up, and want to gain the accreditation that will allow them to proceed to the next stage in their career."

Portsmouth officials actively encourage non-law graduates from all walks of life to apply to their programs; these students simply must take a one-module law course upon matriculation into the program.

But officials from other schools often add stipulations to their policies on admitting non-law grads.

Sangeeta Shah says that Nottingham tends not to accept science students into LL.M. programs, since the degree relies heavily on essay writing and many students with a science background don't have as much writing experience. She also says the school tries to avoid accepting any non-law graduates into its commercial law LL.M. program.

Some schools don't accept non-law students into their LL.M. programs at all, but instead allow non-law students to apply to similar master's degrees. Jason Rudall, program manager of the Graduate Institute's LL.M. program in Geneva, says that his school will only accept law students into its LL.M., and that non-law students should instead pursue the Master in International Law or the Master in International Affairs, a program that allows students to complete a minor concentration in law.

Rudall also says that although the institute technically accepts non-law students into its Master in International Law, it has accepted fewer and fewer of these types of candidates in recent years.

"Applications have become stronger, as it were, and the quality has become better and numbers have increased, [so]we have been able to select students with a law background," Rudall says.

"It's been exceptional that students from a non-law background have been admitted to that program lately."

But despite these restrictions, officials also say that non-law students can often excel in LL.M. programs, and that they often enrich the classroom for other students as well.

"The ways that they improve the classroom is that they tend to be the students who think outside the box," Nottingham's Sangeeta Shah says. "They don't think in terms of rigid laws. They think, this is where I need to get, let me figure out how to do it. They tend to be creative thinkers. Not that law students aren't creative thinkers, but it just enriches the classroom. It makes it a better place."

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