Down the drain?

LLMs are hard work, expensive and add little value to your CV. Make sure a course is relevant to your future before you sign up, says Jonathan Ames

Fifteen years ago, bright young things in the business world were tripping over themselves to bag an MBA. Then the financial crisis tsunami struck and business schools ­weathered a firestorm of criticism for the allegedly cavalier and buccaneering philosophies they had indoctrinated in their students. Suddenly, people kept quiet about their MBAs.

Today the fashionable postgraduate degree is an LLM, with a host of courses sprouting up at UK universities in the last eight or so years. Whether the same rollercoaster ride awaits the legal equivalent of the MBA is unlikely – it is difficult to imagine a year studying detailed case law triggering another banking crisis – but questions remain over the market value of expensive programmes in tight economic times.

Because it’s worth it?

Unless one is an academia junkie, poring over text books purely for the love of learning, then there are only two reasons to cough up the £10,000 to £12,000 in fees and devote long hours of study to gaining an LLM – it will either get you a better job or improve your existing ­standing in a law firm or legal department. Indeed, according to recruitment specialists and even employers themselves, there is
doubt over whether the postgraduate degree makes a jot of impact on ­reaching either goal.

Some of the leading providers of LLMs are alive to the criticisms and have embarked on consultation programmes with global law firms to assess what employers really want from postgraduate degrees, and doubts over the market value of the courses have not prevented a
few from launching into an already crowded field what they claim are innovative and cutting-edge ­courses.

But the providers have a hill to climb. “LLMs are pretty much ­hopeless unless they’re undertaken in a highly specialised field,” says Nick Root, the lead partner at recruitment consultancy Taylor Root. For him and other legal recruiters, the only LLMs worth considering are those that are highly specialised in specific practice areas, such as intellectual property (IP), competition or environmental law.
Root continues: “If you’re a corporate or general banking lawyer and you do an LLM, quite frankly it’s neither here nor there. But
some ­people just like academia and fancy doing it.”

Iain Millard, manager of the London private practice team at ­recruitment consultancy Chadwick Nott, says: “Specific, practice-
area-orientated LLMs have merit – they’re seen by employers as adding value. But more generic LLMs, where people take a variety
of modules that they think are quite interesting, I’ve never seen much value in that. I know that general banking and finance LLMs seem quite popular, but I’ve never known any client law firm remark that having done so has improved a candidate’s undergraduate­credentials.”

The recruitment specialists point to a dangerous student psychology that is arguably being exploited by law schools. In the
highly ­competitive market for training contracts, it is accepted wisdom that a 2:2 undergraduate degree is going to cut little, if any, ice with top-tier or even mid-ranking commercial law firms. Therefore, those students who have turned in mediocre ­performances at undergraduate level are tempted to assume that ­bagging a reasonable-quality LLM will gild an average lily.

They are woefully misguided, says Root. “If you have average A-levels and an average degree and you think doing an LLM is going to claw you back, don’t bother. It’ll be a complete waste of time.”

Both he and Millard maintain that top law firms still focus on the core ingredients of As at A-Level and a top undergraduate performance, and that an average academic background cannot be overcome by an LLM. “And yet,” says Root, “that’s what most people do LLMs for. They think to themselves, ’I’ve got a crap 2:2 degree, I’m never going to get articles with this, I’ll do an LLM because that’ll make a difference.’ But it won’t.”

Firm opinions

The view from leading law firms is not much more encouraging.

“LLMs don’t make a huge difference when we’re looking at CVs,” says Faye Wimpenny, graduate recruitment manager at London-based ­global law firm Linklaters. “In general, most masters’ degrees don’t vastly ­differentiate people.”

Still, Wimpenny has some sympathy for students who sign up for LLM courses – especially those who attended what they see as
a second-tier university at undergraduate level because financial ­constrains meant they had to stay living at home.

Wimpenny says: “From speaking to students about why they have chosen to do an LLM, what they’ve said is, ’I got into an okay university or I stayed at home to cut costs while at university. And as it’s not the most prestigious establishment, I decided to do an LLM at Oxbridge to upgrade the quality of universities that I’ve been studying at. I wanted to be able to prove that I could get into that level of university’.”
But, claims Wimpenny, that approach is also misguided, at least as far as Linklaters is concerned. “We don’t put any differentiation on whether someone has got a good degree from Oxford or whether they’ve got a good degree from Leeds or Manchester. We’re looking for the ­consistency in the academics and generally strong performance, not necessarily the university the degree is from.”

Changing course

To be fair, leading LLM providers are alert to the criticisms, and some have consulted with the marketplace to make their offerings more ­relevant. The law faculty at King’s College London, for example, has just comprehensively reviewed its five-year-old programme.

“This review has reinvigorated the programme,” maintains Martin Laing, the law school’s business manager. “It’s made us speak to law firms and students and hear what they’re saying. And the message we get is that global law firms want – in addition to the specialist legal knowledge that LLMs have traditionally provided – teaching to deal with how to problem-solve in hard, analytical, legal commercial ­settings. And they want us to give students confidence in navigating between different legal jurisdictions.”

Laing maintains that King’s generalist LLM remains popular, but that the faculty is placing more focus on specialist ’pathways’, such
as international financial and international commercial law, IP, ­competition and European law.

That approach is being mirrored by the law faculty at fellow ­University of London college, the London School of Economics (LSE).

Although LSE also offers a core generalist LLM, Stephen ­Watterson, the course’s head of admissions, points out that students
are increasingly bolting on specialisms, including banking law and financial regulation, European law, IP, tax and public international law.
Despite being such a top-ranked programme and its LLM to ­specialist areas, the LSE appears somewhat detached from market opinion. Watterson says he is “unaware” of the law department liaising with employers to assess current law firm and corporate legal ­department requirements. “I’m not in a position to assess the value of the course in the jobs market,” he says, as to do so “requires data that we do not have access to”.

Back at King’s, Laing accepts the point that some students will use LLM courses to try to varnish a meagre undergraduate performance, but he maintains that such criticisms do not apply to the top providers. “We’re looking to attract the top students in the first place,” he says.

Edging ahead

At the College of Law, which four years ago launched an LLM in ­international legal practice in conjunction with the International Bar Association, administrators also defend the value of the postgraduate degree. “There’s no substitute for a very solid CV,” acknowledges Sarah Hutchinson, the college’s business development board member. “But the jobs market is currently so competitive that if an employer’s got two solid CVs in front him but one candidate has shown the initiative, drive and commitment to get an LLM in international legal practice, then that candidate has demonstrated an interest and commitment to that practice area.

“So an LLM won’t raise a weak CV, but what it will do – bearing in mind that so many CVs have an identikit feel about them – is make
a CV stand out as being something that demonstrates interest, ­commitment and a skills level that the employer wouldn’t get from
a typical UK-trained lawyer.”

Although some employers are sceptical about the value added by an LLM, Linklaters’ Wimpenny does agree with some arguments for it. “Undergraduate law degrees in the UK are very much about the theory of law,” she explains, “while most LLMs are becoming geared to be much more niche and tailored, so people get actual case law experience. And more LLMs are becoming vocationally focused – they’re ­increasingly focusing on people who have done the GDL [Graduate Diploma in Law], then the LPC [Legal Practice Course] and then want to enhance their studies. And that’s where it adds more value – people end up having more formal legal knowledge that way.”

At the coalface of legal practice, the overriding advice regarding LLMs is to specialise as much as possible. Indeed, Millard points out that one of the best specialist options does not even involve an LLM. In the IP field, the Intellectual Property Lawyers Association’s diploma, which is now run by Oxford University, is seen as a highly useful method of bumping up young IP lawyers’ CVs.

The course involves two weeks of residential study followed by five Saturday workshops and includes four pieces of assessed coursework, culminating in a final exam. “It’s a specific course designed to increase educational value for IP lawyers and is therefore something that law firms will send their lawyer to do,” explains Millard.

So are students wasting their time and energy – not to mention their money – by scrambling to get aboard the LLM bandwagon? For ­Millard, that question only scratches the surface of a more profound problem. “It’s ridiculous the number of people who are allowed to go to law school given the number of training contract places available,” he argues. “And institutions that provide legal education are milking ­people for quite a lot of money and creating false expectations in terms of a legal career. It’s unfair.”

What you get for your money

The College of Law (CoL)

The CoL runs two LLM streams – an LLM in legal practice and the LLM in international legal practice, a joint venture with the International Bar Association (IBA).

On the latter course – which is run entirely online – students take six out of 10 modules and can take up to five years to complete the degree, although the average is two years.

The degree focuses on transactions and disputes in the context of international trade, drawing on input from IBA-member practitioners around the world who add their jurisdiction-specific perspectives. According to the CoL, the course is innovative because “it is almost entirely practice-orientated”. As a result, “graduates are more employable. They hit the ground faster when they get a job or return to their existing practice.”

The CoL’s LLM in legal practice involves taking six modules out of 13 and focuses on English law and practice rather than being international.

Fees: £10,820 for the online international course; £12,000 for the face-to-face course.

King’s College London

King’s LLM course is a standard year full-time, with part-time options. It consists primarily of coursework, with time allocated to a dissertation depending on the specialist pathway followed.

King’s promotes the flexibility of its LLM, allowing students to tailor their pathways, the most popular being international financial law, international commercial law, intellectual property law, competition law and European law.

According to the law faculty, “placing more focus on specialisms stimulates a much greater chance of creating a cohort or community”.
Fees: £9,800 for home students; £14,200 for overseas students.

London School of Economics (LSE), University of London

As with King’s, the standard full-time LSE programme runs over 12 months, with part-time options taking either two or four years.

The university offers a general LLM with the option of a specialism from “a diet of courses”, which enables students to graduate with a specialist LLM. The specialisms are: banking law and financial regulation; corporate and/or commercial; corporate and securities; criminology and criminal justice; European law; human rights; information technology; media and communications; intellectual property; international business; labour law; public international law; public law; and taxation.
Fees: £12,144 for home and EU students; £17,712 for overseas students.