Why Diversity of Thought Matters in LL.M. programs

LL.M. students are drawn from a wide array of practice areas and countries and backgrounds, adding significant value to the student experience

Following recent social movements, the corporate world is increasingly attuned to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. The legal world is no exception. Law firms have long struggled with diversity, especially at the senior ranks, which are overwhelmingly male and white. For such firms, an important part of the solution is identifying promising lawyers, providing training and promoting them.

This method suggests there is a special role for LL.M. degrees in tackling the lack of law firm diversity. That’s because these programs attract people who are already licensed to practice law and who want to further develop their expertise, skills and competencies. So in principle, it follows that greater diversity in LL.M. student ranks should translate into greater diversity among the upper echelons of elite law firms.

Partly for this reason, academic institutions are making a great effort to attract a broader intake of LL.M. students. But these efforts also reflect a recognition among law schools that diversity of thought enhances the learning experience through group discussion. That’s because LL.M. programs rely on case studies as their primary teaching method.

The case method is a participatory, discussion-based way of learning where students gain skills in critical thinking, communication, and group dynamics. Such skills are of increasing importance in a globalized world, since leaders of the legal profession need to understand law within the context of different legal systems and cultures.

“In an increasingly interconnected world, a diverse law school allows its students to learn to analyze issues from multiple perspectives, broaden their understanding, and obtain a cultural competence that will make them better prepared for their professions as legal scholars, international attorneys, and advocates for change,” says Ashley Sim, Assistant Director of Admissions, Graduate and International Programs at USC Gould School of Law.

The law school in Los Angeles attracts students from 40 countries each year, and they join a wider university community that has one of the largest international student populations among US universities.

USC Gould has achieved this level of diversity through active recruitment efforts. “We host numerous information sessions and recruitment events and attend a variety of fairs throughout the year, including many that are directed towards specific countries and regions,” says Sim. The school’s Scholarship Committee also offers generous awards that are targeted to attract students to increase inclusion and representation in the LL.M. class.

“And once they are part of our law school community, our academic and career advisors who understand the diverse backgrounds of our students support them toward successful graduation,” Sim says. “Because of such efforts, many of our students and alumni from our programs volunteer to serve as ambassadors and help us recruit new students into our programs.”

Managing varied perspectives

This feeds back into the case discussions, but that can also create tension, so law school professors have a job on their hands to manage so many varied perspectives in the LL.M. classroom. “Professors typically set a positive and welcoming tone from the beginning by laying out discussion guidelines such as reinforcing the importance of good listening skills and being courteous and respectful of others,” says Anitha Cadambi, Associate Director of Graduate Curriculum and Instruction at USC Gould. “They encourage students to continue reflecting beyond the classroom.”

Indeed, as educators, law schools want their classrooms to be a space for students to discuss sensitive topics centered around their own values and those of their classmates. It is a critical part of learning, says Cadambi. “These discussions are rich and informative as they usually concern another country’s laws, culture, or history.”

When it comes to this cultural and other dimensions of diversity such as ethnicity and race, social movements such as Black Lives Matter have made achieving higher levels of diversity an even greater priority for law schools, both in the here and now and further down the line.

“Long-term change requires awareness, transparency, resources, time, logistics, colleagues with expertise, students who are remunerated for their time, buy-in from senior teams, clear action plans, accountability and a variety of support systems and structures,” says Manvir Grewal, lecturer in law at the University of Westminster School of Law in London.  

A high proportion of LL.M. students at the University of Westminster are from a diverse range of communities, so Grewal’s most pressing concern is not how to raise the proportions, but how to support these students when they are enrolled in the program, and beyond after graduation.

“For me, the importance to attract a diverse range of people is to create a generation of diverse law students who not only understand complex legal constructs and can advocate with rigor, but show an appreciation of what law develops and how it develops in the historical, social, political, and economic context in which it operates,” says Grewal.

However, long-term change can never be guaranteed or ensured; the work of inclusion and belonging is continuing work, she says. “Quite frankly, you cannot take your eye off the ball.”

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