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LLMs: What are they good for?

|Written By Matt Powell

A 2009 study by the Financial Times showed a general increase in the number of students interested in pursuing an LLM.

The study attributed the numbers to the slower economy, which led to some job losses but has allowed those lawyers the time necessary to complete the program. Schools south of the border like New York University and Northwestern University saw a 20- to 25-per-cent increase in LLM applications last year. 

As with any other master’s program in the academic world, an LLM is not a bad thing to have and may help you further your career. The post-graduate degree can help lawyers further specialize in an area of law in which they have practised. It can open doors to teaching, professional research, and policy work. The overall consensus of those interviewed for this article is that you have to enjoy being in school to do well in an LLM program. If this is not you, you probably should not read any further.

For those still with us, Canadian Lawyer 4Students has some perspectives from LLM grads, professors, and practising lawyers for prospective and current LLM students. Be warned — it is nothing like your LLB, but it can open doors to career choices you may not have considered yet.

An LLM is a one-year, full-time professional degree that is internationally recognized according to the LLM Guide — Master of Laws Programs Worldwide. Some schools offer part-time programs that take longer than a year to complete.

Graduate schools design law programs that will attract students who have completed an LLB or a JD, and want to specialize in a specific area of the law in a research-based, academic program. A number of schools, like the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, offer both research-intensive and coursework-intensive programs. Research, or thesis-based, studies will be geared more toward advancing research in a specialized area of the law, while coursework-oriented students want to specialize in specific areas of the law and expand their understanding of legal processes, according to Hester Lessard, a professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law.

Ari Kaplan, who holds an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law School and is a partner at Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto, emphasizes that students who choose to do their LLM can truly benefit from the collection of experiences within the classroom. He chose to do his master’s immediately after being called to the bar in 2000, but went part time and completed his studies in two years. “I knew I wanted to focus on pensions and benefits law in my practice, so making the jump into a master’s program was fairly easy because of that,” he says. “Put it this way, if you don’t like school, you probably shouldn’t do an LLM.”

Doing an LLM can open up new career possibilities within the legal profession. If you are like Kaplan, doing an LLM will require a focus on a specialized area of the law, and then practising it, and having the option to teach. He continues to practise and also teaches law at the University of Western Ontario and U of T.

But, if you are like UBC professor Doug Harris, doing an LLM is a step in a new direction towards the academic world. Harris currently teaches property law and researches the role of property law in the transformations of urban centres. He was called to the bar in 1994, but returned to school and received his LLM from UBC in 1998. He joined the faculty at UBC in 2001. “I practised private law for a while, but decided it wasn’t a path I wanted to take, and doing my LLM pushed me in the direction of teaching, which is something that fit me a lot better,” he says.

Like Lessard, Harris believes LLM programs are the first step to teaching law, the next being a PhD. He says master’s programs open up new opportunities for students to do something else with their legal training, and that many of his students are lawyers who have practised law for a number of years before heading back to the classroom. “Some of my students have already practised for a lifetime,” he says. “I had a few students last year who could have retired had they chosen to, but jumped to an LLM for a number of reasons. These kinds of students really add to the classroom environment because of their number of experiences in the legal world.”

Kevin Rowe, an Osgoode LLM graduate who practises trust law with CIBC Mellon Trust Co. in Toronto, agrees that mature students add to the classroom environment through their sharing of experiences. “I waited quite some time before going back to do my LLM where I focused on trust law, and I found that a lot of my classmates were in the same boat,” he says. “There was a significant number of students who had jumped right into their LLM, but a lot like me who had practised for a number of years before going back to specialize in my area of law.”

Rowe admits that mature students like him are a significant resource to students who have not had any professional experience. He also emphasizes the importance of committing yourself to the program, echoing Kaplan’s sentiment about the theoretical focus of the program. “You have to really make space in your life to do the program, especially if you are already working,” he says. “There is a lot of reading, and you need to learn how to make time for that — you really have to like school to do well in an LLM program.”

From a recruitment perspective, however, an LLM will not necessarily help you get a job with a firm over someone with only an LLB. According to Danya Cohen, a legal recruitment consultant at Toronto-based RainMaker Group, having an LLM does not always give you an advantage, especially when it comes to private practice. “From a recruiter’s perspective, it doesn’t affect the hiring process at all,” she says. “LLMs are so theoretical that it doesn’t really affect the practical side of law, which is learned in an LLB.”

She too, however, has noticed the increased interest in LLM programs because of the current economy, noting that job cuts in the legal community have allowed a number of people to go back to school to focus their practice, or turn to academics. “These programs truly help lawyers specialize in an area of the law,” she says. “And in today’s markets where intellectual property and securities law are becoming increasingly important, there’s definitely room for people to specialize in those areas. To become experts per se.”

Marketta Jokinen, director of professional recruitment at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Vancouver, agrees. She believes LLMs are rarely linked to benefits in private practice because of their theoretical roots. “I don’t think recruiters look at people with [an] LLM as better practitioners than those without one. If you’re passionate about specializing, it’s a great thing to do, but it doesn’t really help you in terms of private practice.”

On the other hand, Linda Reif, associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, thinks LLM grads can be beneficial in practice, especially those who go on to work for boutiques and larger firms.

She has noticed a recent influx of students choosing to specialize in IP law, as the area of law is becoming increasingly important and knowledge-intensive in today’s digital world. Reif believes specializing in an area of the law can benefit a larger firm because there is more room for specialization. There is also the financial backing to support a lawyer with expertise in a particular field. “I think graduate students represent people with superior academic initiative, which in turn, relates to the way they research and solve problems,” she says. “If you want to teach, [an LLM] is a good place to start, but in practice, there are definitely benefits too, especially in larger firms.”

Eric Adams is a 2009 UBC LLM graduate practising insurance law with Dutton Brock LLP in Toronto. He says his LLM degree is especially helpful in his work. Adams’ thesis covered the theories of causation law, which in simple terms describes how insurance policies define accidents, and the causes in between. He thinks his master’s has helped him develop his specialization because his area of the law situates around policy arguments, which he thinks he developed in his theoretical LLM courses. “I think the value of an LLM is completely dependent on the area of law you choose to pursue. Those streams that require more understanding of how to analyze policies, like insurance and coverage law, fall into that category because they are fact-driven, and very theoretical,” he says.

That being said, particular areas of the law are becoming progressively more interesting to students, especially as graduate programs continue to grow in popularity. Lessard says more students at UVic are focusing their research on environmental and aboriginal law. It makes sense considering the school is close to a number of aboriginal communities throughout B.C. At UBC, Harris has observed a similar trend with an increase in the popularity of such areas. On the other hand, he thinks interest in IP and copyright law will grow as the digital age continues to evolve.

The increased interest has led the University of Windsor to introduce a graduate program. On Dec. 9, 2009, the faculty council approved a thesis-focused LLM program to start in 2011-12. The law school will have to wait until the university’s senate gives final approval to the program to start designing it. “We are ready to move to the next level of legal academics,” says Chris Waters, Windsor law’s associate dean. “Our faculty have a lot to offer, and we look forward to getting approval to go ahead with designing the program.”

An increase in admissions last year shows how important LLM programs can be. More lawyers went back to school last year, possibly because of a slower economy, less hiring, and even some job losses. However, the benefit is dependent on your aspirations and goals as a legal professional. An LLM could help you land a job in academia, or a career with a large firm practising in your chosen area of the law. You could do both. Either way, having an LLM will never disadvantage your legal career. Besides, what’s wrong with adding a few letters to your credentials?

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