The LL.M. in Comparative Law

Why this field of law continues to appeal to legal academics and practitioners alike

Many prospective students look to the LL.M. degree to provide specialization and an entry point into a foreign jurisdiction after completing legal studies elsewhere. Unlike Tax or Commercial Law, Comparative Law - at first glance- does not seem to hold the same practical focus that attracts practice-oriented lawyers.

However, graduate studies in Comparative Law can open up a world of opportunity and a new worldview for many lawyers, whether the focus is academic or practical.

Vernon Palmer, professor at Tulane Law School, says a broadened perspective is essential for practitioners working in today’s world.

“We have a global economy in the 21st century, and we must use a global legal framework to manage that economy,” says Palmer. “It's inevitable today that any practitioner will deal with problems in multiple jurisdictions.”

For lawyers interested in academia, an LL.M. or Master's of Comparative Law (M.C.L.) can be a further step toward expanding one’s knowledge and methodological toolkit. The Comparative Legal Thought LL.M. program at Cardozo Law School in New York, for example, attracts a few students each year primarily interested in going into academia.

Several other law schools, including UPenn, Chicago, Michigan, San Diego, Florida, and NUS also have dedicated Comparative Law LL.M. programs or concentrations (See the more complete list below).

At the McGill Comparative Law Institute in Montreal, the LL.M. program includes students interested in pursuing further academic work, as well those looking to apply a comparative framework to legal practice and/or policy.

“Many students are interested in learning at a graduate level with a view to go home or to an international setting to build on what they’ve learned in a comparative framework,” says Angela Campbell, director of the McGill Comparative Law Institute. “Students are looking at different policies, procedures and rules in an international context.”

Practical matters

Victoria Gordan, assistant dean at the University of Michigan Law School, finds a similarly diverse set of career goals among her Comparative Law LL.M. students, including those wanting to move into academia, private international practice, or jobs as government officials in their own countries.

Indeed, not only are the student’s goals diverse; so are their backgrounds. Most LL.M. programs have students who come from a Civil Law background and seek to gain knowledge about Common Law. Most LL.M. programs are also a diverse mix of nationalities. Michigan’s LL.M. program, for example, is made up entirely of lawyers from non-US jurisdictions.

“The program is inherently comparative legal studies because students are studying at a US law school, yet come from other countries,” explains Gordan.

The spectrum of Comparative Law methodologies varies from program to program. While some focus on the diversity and experiences of the student body or the stark differences between cultures and legal systems, other programs have developed complex comparative law methodologies.

At McGill, the “trans-systemic” approach pervades teaching and research. According to Angela Campbell, this approach inculcates “openness to ideas and familiarity beyond the immediate and the local, openness to learning about systems and rules with a view to be able to think about how these systems have developed, how jurists come to certain conclusions about specific problems.”

Therefore, students working with a comparative approach should ideally “be comfortable moving within and across different systems and rules,” says Campbell.

Comparing programs

So, what should prospective students look for in a program? Given the varied focus of Comparative Law programs, prospective students need to really investigate different programs to see whether the program fits their goals.

Lawyers going into academia may have different requirements for an LL.M. program than those looking to develop a specialization and return to practice or policy work. Some programs, like Cardozo, offer unique opportunities to take seminars abroad to experience a foreign legal system first-hand, or to write an in-depth research thesis.

Prospective students should also see whether Comparative Law is part and parcel of the curriculum throughout a law school, not solely a separate field of study. Claire Dickerson, a professor at Tulane, advises prospective students to “look for a program where Comparative Law is integrated into the curriculum on a systematic basis.”

Most importantly, prospective students may want to evaluate what types of methodology are in line with their career goals. Some students may be content with simply looking at differences between legal rules and procedures, while other students may benefit more from a holistic or trans-systemic approach which evaluates legal systems and traditions.

Whichever program one chooses, most LL.M. programs are already a step towards Comparative Law studies.

“The beauty of an LL.M. program is that students already come ready for Comparative Law, doing that just by enrolling, coming from different countries,” says Amy Sugin at Cardozo.

"Students should retain that perspective and share it, feel comfortable raising their hands and sharing how they do things in their home country,” adds Sugin. “That’s a teachable moment and educationally rich for everyone involved, professors and students alike.”

Image: "Apples and Oranges" by MicroAssist / Flickr (cropped and rotated)

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