No doubt about it. It's been a tough year for lawyers in the world's financial centers. As big clients cut back - or topple - a day doesn't seem to go by without at least one Wall Street or City of London firm announcing layoffs by the dozen.
While it's not the first economic downturn the world's lawyers have faced, it's probably the most dramatic in generations. Whether modern capitalism is truly on the ropes - as some magazine covers might suggest - is yet to be seen. It is reasonably clear, however, that global finance has entered a period of change and, possibly, reform.
So what if you're a lawyer looking to do an LL.M. in Finance or Banking Law? On one hand, a dismal job market could be the perfect opportunity to get another qualification. On the other hand, if you have a job, why give it up to study a subject that is so much in flux?
"If I were a betting man, I would guess that the financial crisis will lead to more regulation," says Sean Griffith, professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York. "Whenever there is more regulation, there is more work for a lawyer."
"Perhaps the investment banker can't say the same thing, but I think we can be optimistic about the future."
Griffith teaches on Fordham's LL.M. in Banking, Corporate and Finance Law. It is one of several LL.M. programs worldwide where lawyers can take a year of courses related to specifically to financial law, like Mergers & Acquisitions, Securities Regulation, Banking Regulation, and Investment Banking.
Other strong finance-focused LL.M. programs include those at Georgetown, Boston University, Columbia, Stanford, Melbourne, National University Singapore, Warwick, Manchester, and few of the University of London schools (a longer list is below).
Along with their focus, another advantage of finance-oriented LL.M. programs is that they attract lawyers from all over the world. According to Griffith, this helps give students a taste of what is becoming an increasingly global field, due to the many sources of international capital and the emergence of different financial models.
"One question that a disinterested observer might ask is, does the US have the best financial regulation, or are there other models we ought to consider following? What center will emerge as the next center of finance and capital in the next century? Those questions are both open. Foreign law students have a unique perspective on both of those questions that can enrich all of us."
International scope and dealing with change are also two aspects of the International Finance Concentration within Harvard Law School's LL.M. program.
"People in finance are being thrown changes from the regulatory system everyday," says Hal Scott, co-director of the International Finance Concentration at Harvard. "You're going to need lawyers to be on top of that; to tell you what it means and how it works. And, of course, you are going to try to influence the process."
Through a year-long seminar, an extensive research paper, and a series of high-profile guest speakers, students in the Harvard International Finance Concentration are exposed to the broad range of perspectives, regardless of whether they go to work for a law firm, corporation, auditor, or government finance or justice ministry.
"It gives both public and private perspectives on these issues," says Scott of the program. "It's not narrowly legal; it's finance and law, and concentrated to a great extent on policy issues, maybe more so than on legal practitioner issues."
As with other legal specializations, it is difficult to say just how much of an edge an LL.M. degree gives lawyers who are looking for a job. Obviously having a Harvard degree on your resume can never hurt, but what about a specialized LL.M. in finance?
"Employers are increasingly looking for people with specializations and distinctive profiles - the generalist is no longer sought after," says Raphaela Henze, managing director of the Institute for Law and Finance (ILF) at Goethe University in Frankfurt.
"Several things will be restructured, and to do all this properly, you need highly-educated legal and financial experts," says Henze. "If you picture yourself working in the financial sector either as a lawyer or consultant, in a bank or in an auditing firm, earning an LL.M. in finance would definitely be a good choice."
But even if long-term career prospects look good for specialist lawyers, Henze warns prospective students about a reality that corporate, finance, and banking lawyers already know too well - the long hours.
"You should also be aware right from the beginning that what awaits you is not a nine-to-five job," says Henze. "Jobs in this sector are extremely demanding and spare time can be rare."
But despite the notoriously long hours and the occasional economic crisis, the rewards - monetary and otherwise - of working in financial law continue make it one of the most common career paths for young lawyers.
Added to that, now there's the draw of working in a rapidly changing field of law and sector - an excitement that Sean Griffith detects in his classes at Fordham.
"If you are a corporate law or business law teacher, these are interesting times," says Griffith. "There's plenty of room for evolution and even revolution in this area. You just open up the newspaper, and there's something to talk about in class."
Photo: Antonio Morales García / Creative Commons