What is an LLM?
An abbreviation for the Latin Legum Magister the Master of Laws is a postgraduate law degree giving a student the opportunity to progress their knowledge in a specific area of law beyond the level reached in their undergraduate studies. Most institutions offering a Master of Laws program require students to have previously obtained an undergraduate law degree. In the UK and most Common Law jurisdictions this is the LL.B (Bachelor of Laws) degree, whilst in the US it is the Juris Doctor (JD) qualification. Some organisations will allow entry on to their LLM courses if the applicant has achieved a non-legal undergraduate qualification, but can show that they have considerable practical knowledge of the area to be studied together with a general knowledge of the legal system and its practice.
The acquisition of a Master of Laws does not allow the holder to practice as either solicitor or barrister in the United Kingdom. Since the majority of law students intend to enter the legal profession, it could be suggested that the LLM is of little or limited relevance as part of the legal education of the practitioner. The very specific nature of most LLM programs however, means that undertaking the qualification will demonstrate to prospective employers not only the academic ability of the candidate, but also their greater knowledge of individual or specialised areas of law. In addition a great number of LLM courses are suitable for currently practicing lawyers enabling them to expand and focus their knowledge and therefore their employability. With the growing importance of European Union Law and legislation on the UK legal system there are a growing number of European Law LLM programs available. The College of Law, for example, has recently introduced a Master of Laws in international legal practice in conjunction with the International Bar Association and several leading international firms which is designed to give students the knowledge required for cross border corporate dealings.
The LLM is an internationally recognised qualification, in contrast to most undergraduate law qualifications and can therefore, in certain circumstances be used as a stepping stone to practice in a country where the student's undergraduate qualification is not recognised. In the US, for example, it is possible that an LLM obtained from a law school recognised by the American Bar Association can allow the holder to undertake the bar examination without the need to obtain the JD. It should be noted however that this is State specific and prospective students should check the requirements of the State in which they wish to practice.
Since the areas of law covered by each LLM can be widely different, so the study approach taken by each institution can also differ. In the main LLM students are required to undertake a number of modules, each assessed individually by the course tutors and a final dissertation which is likely to be research based and will be worked towards throughout the entire course. The weight of each of these components will vary between courses and to a certain extent will be dependent on the subject areas covered.
Whilst the general focus of this description of the LLM has been to demonstrate its worth to the prospective or current legal practitioner, it should not be forgotten that the LLM is an academic qualification and is of great importance to the student who has a solely academic interest in the law and who has little or no intention of ever entering into the legal profession. The LLM is a step closer towards PhD and the understanding and development of law from a perspective outside the limitations imposed by practice.