The Value of an LL.M. in a Globalized World

How does learning another legal culture differ from learning “blackletter law”?

Globalization is changing the way lawyers learn. Traditionally, law was taught as a national subject, supplemented by comparative and international law. Lawyers seeking to specialize or enter academia pursued a Masters of Law (LL.M.). 

But as the legal profession evolves to handle global trade, transnational families, human rights, and social, economic, and environmental policy issues, many more lawyers are seizing the opportunity to pursue an LL.M. abroad. What are they learning besides substantive law?

1) Cross-cultural skills and perspectives

Pursuing an LL.M. abroad is, in itself, a defining move. As with other educational exchange, it develops adaptability, cross-cultural communications skills, awareness of other cultures, and perspective on one’s home culture. It may enhance foreign language skills. Moreover, lawyers studying with multi-national classmates build networks of professional contacts around the world.

For a lawyer preparing to work on transnational issues, the experience of establishing a professional identity abroad builds self-confidence. Earning an LL.M. abroad requires not only the ability to succeed in academic courses, but also an open outlook, multi-tasking ability, and travel savvy that will prove useful in transnational legal work.

Georgetown visiting law professor Carole Silver recently analyzed surveys of and interviews with graduates of US LL.M. programs, and observed that “the LL.M. serves as a form of common language for lawyers from different jurisdictions, a meeting place, of sorts.”

The LL.M. graduates surveyed believe that by taking a break in a legal career for LL.M. study, a lawyer changes the dynamic of his/her career.

This seems to be true wherever they end up. Lawyers who return home after an LL.M. will do so with a deeper understanding a foreign legal education system. If they plan to stay and work, graduate study is one way to adapt to their new legal environment.

2) Legal systems

The legal systems in the world – Civil Law, Common Law, Muslim Law, Customary Law, and mixed legal systems, among others – share common features and yet differ significantly. Within a given country, the legal culture is further defined by the type of government, the organization of the legal profession, and the roles that judges, lawyers, and other players in the legal community occupy.

In an LL.M. program drawing students from multiple countries, there will often be lawyers trained in a variety of legal systems. In classroom discussions, students and the professor experience the interface of legal cultures and identify areas for potential misunderstanding.

For example, a lawyer from a civil law system expects to grapple with the role of case precedent when she comes to study in a common law country. But hand-in-hand with learning about case law comes the need to learn about how judges are selected, the roles of the judge and lawyers during trials, rules of evidence and procedure, professional ethics, and styles of writing and negotiation. How are legal judgments enforced? These are all aspects of the legal system.

3) Features of legal practice

Lawyers studying abroad may encounter new contexts of law practice. This exposure may come through study, orientation visits, or internships. Large law firms and extensive use of technology in law practice are novelties to some LL.M. students. How private lawyers organize their practices as litigators, transactional lawyers, or in-house counsel has a cultural dimension.

Likewise, LL.M. study abroad exposes lawyers to host-country professional regulation. In the United States, for example, lawyers are licensed by the individual states, and there are court rules that address requirements for appearances pro hac vice and bar admission rules for foreign lawyers and legal consultants.

Special issues also arise in professional ethics when legal work has transnational dimensions. For example, lawyers may have differing interpretations of confidentiality in the digital age.

4) Legal education systems

LL.M. students typically have a rather short (nine-month) program, and often need to adapt quickly to differences in the legal education environment. What are the expectations of the professors for classroom performance? What are the norms, sources, and methods of legal analysis, research, and writing? What are the relative weights of the mid-term and final examination in grading?

Even something as simple as how important information is conveyed to students during the term can be very different for country to country. (It’s key to know whether to be looking for a notice posted in a hallway or on a course website!)

With global trends affecting clients and the legal profession, lawyers are likely to participate in educational and professional exchanges in increasing numbers. LL.M. study abroad is a good foundation for personal development, as well as for understanding these trends.

Jane E. Schukoske directs the Master of Laws program of the Law of the United States at the University of Baltimore School of Law and is the former Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in India.

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