[Update September 2018: Read LLM GUIDE's new article, LL.M.s in Business / Commercial Law: Helping Lawyers Manage Complexity]
Business Law touches on everything from contracts, transactions, bankruptcy, and taxation to banking, trade regulation, competition, finance, and intellectual property. Given the importance of these areas to national and international business, it's no wonder why so many lawyers study and work in the field.
But why do some lawyers opt to spend another year studying for an LL.M. in Business Law (also known as Commercial Law)? What do these programs offer?
For one, many business-related LL.M. programs focus on International Business Law, which is seldom taught extensively in primary law degrees. Many lawyers also pursue these programs to improve their legal English, learn more about comparative business law practices, develop marketable skills (like research and negotiation), and get exposure to foreign law and lawyers. All of this makes them more valuable when they return home.
"The LL.M. should go beyond the parameters of broad law school curricula that focus on passing the bar or other qualifying exam," says Spyros Maniatis, director of the Center for Commercial Law Studies at Queen Mary University London.
"It provides a chance to delve into the detail, but also appreciate the context of a specialist field from an international and comparative perspective," says Maniatis. "With a law degree students learn the language of the law; with a good LL.M. they can pick up its nuances."
A Business Law LL.M. can also deepen a lawyer's awareness about the links between business and other fields of law - even those that might seem unrelated at first.
"People come here wanting do one thing, says Padideh Ala'i, a professor at American University, Washington College of Law (WCL). But I keep telling my students, that's not how the world functions; it is not so clear-cut."
"Environmental laws affect business. Human rights laws affect business," says Ala'i. "This distinction between business and non-business hasn't been good for the world."
WCL is one of several law schools offering an LL.M. program with a strong Business/Commercial Law focus; others include Harvard, NYU, Georgetown, Queen Mary, LSE, Edinburgh, Durham, Tilburg, and NUS, to name just a few. The PALLAS Consortium, as well as the universities of Leiden, Lund, Amsterdam, Lausanne, Manchester, and Vienna all offer European Business Law specializations, while the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Chinese Business Law program closely examines regional business laws.
Another unique program is the Master of Law and Business (MLB) program in Germany - a partnership between Bucerius Law School and the WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management.
According to MLB Dean Clifford Larsen, the program emerged partly from the realization that "clients of law firms are demanding lawyers that understand business concepts," just as business people were recognizing critical gaps in their legal knowledge.
"We are different from an LL.M. program in that we want to have both groups together in all of the courses," says Larsen. "They learn a lot more from each other that way."
"It's like having a medical student in the class with a patient, in the sense that lawyers are confronted with the ideas and perceptions of the business people in the law courses...It helps you understand how your clients think."
Return on investment?
But do law firms and other employers actually value these experiences and skills when it comes time to hire graduates of these programs.
Professor Ala'i at WCL says that many firms look at an LL.M. as a must when hiring someone to work in one of their foreign offices. Along with demonstrating language competence, the degree familiarizes foreign lawyers with how US firms operate and deal with business clients.
"An LL.M. is crucial because law firms know they'll have lawyers working in their own country, but (with an LL.M.), they now also have an understanding of what's here and how international transactions work," says Ala'i. "It's becoming increasingly marketable."
In terms of landing a job in the United States, however, a Business Law LL.M. is no silver bullet.
"Unfortunately, law firms continue to look at LL.M. students not as people, but as countries," says Ala'i. "There's almost a presumption that they look at you primarily as how useful are you going to be in the context of the country where you got your primary degree."
According to Spyros Maniatis at Queen Mary, doing an LL.M. can have other benefits.
"In my student days, an LL.M. was not necessarily a requirement; it was more of an eye-opening experience," he says. "I think today more people do it to build up a specialist area for themselves. This is partly how the LL.M. has changed: it is not only an educational experience; it is becoming a professional tool."
"When you go to a law firm, you have to go through all the departments and learn something about everything," says Maniatis. "At the end of the day, if you have a good LL.M. in a particular area, you will, hopefully, end up working in this field."