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A Foreign LLM: To Be or Not To Be
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A Foreign LLM: To Be or Not To Be

Bar & Bench

By Richa Kachhwaha

In most areas of legal practice, an international dimension that did not exist two decades ago, has come up. With an upsurge in the interface of two chief legal systems – Common Law and Civil Law, there is a strong argument in favour of a Masters degree in law from abroad.

In recent years, law has become an increasingly global profession. In most areas of legal practice, an international dimension that did not exist two decades ago, has come up. With an upsurge in the interface of two chief legal systems – Common Law and Civil Law, there is a strong argument in favour of a Masters degree in law from abroad. 

Factors Favouring Foreign LLM 

Most LLM programs of countries like USA, UK, Australia, are geared to meet the demands of international education and, hence attract students from diverse backgrounds around the world. Legal professionals decide to pursue an LLM from abroad for a variety of reasons and in different phases of their careers. Therefore, one will find fresh law graduates, partners or associates of law firms, judges, corporate counsels and academicians pursuing an LLM. There was a time when candidates pursued an LLM from abroad only to familiarise themselves with another legal system or to establish themselves in the field of teaching. However, today there exists a variety of factors which favour a foreign LLM. We take a quick look at some of them:

1. To Enhance the existing knowledge-base

A masters program helps in getting a grip over an area that is too complex to be mastered in a first-degree course. In particular, specialized areas like Tax, Corporate Finance and Competition often require extra-grounding.

2. To Break into a new area of expertise

Professionals who are looking to change the focus of their career should opt for an LLM. A litigating lawyer who wants to switch to transactional work, would find a specialisation in the relevant areas of corporate law extremely useful.

3. To explore new employment opportunities

A quality higher education enables you to reach out to better employment opportunities. The networking prospects which a foreign LLM degree offers through the strong network of international alumni associations, is a useful way of connecting with prospective employers.

4. To market oneself

It is often felt that holding a foreign LLM degree conveys a different impression as opposed to possessing only an LLB or Bachelor’s degree from an Indian university. Undoubtedly, obtaining an LLM from a well-known university adds value to one’s profile.

5. To Learn the law and practice of other jurisdictions

With the advent of globalisation, lawyers cannot afford to restrict their perspective to just one legal system. An LLM from abroad offers the chance to learn the law and practices prevalent in other jurisdictions.

6. To Pursue academics

Those who are interested in teaching law, pursuing research, working on policy issues require an advanced degree. In this context foreign LLM, M Phil and PhD are considered better options than the Indian equivalents, which are still not of a high quality.

Quality of Higher Education: Abroad vis-a-vis India

Any discussion on pursuing higher education from abroad is incomplete without referring to the quality of higher education abroad as compared to that in India. Usually, the top universities or colleges of countries like USA and UK boast of experts and eminent thinkers as faculty members or guest lecturers. Additionally, high quality infrastructure, extensive legal databases and impeccable reputations offered by these institutions act as a lure for most Indian aspirants. Even the quality of classroom interaction is considerably high. On the other hand, it is widely felt that an LLM from an Indian university or law school is handicapped by poor facilities and lack of a structured curriculum, especially for new and upcoming areas in law. Although it would not be fair to make a generalisation, it is well known that LLMs offered even by the top Indian law schools or universities are not at par with the LLM programs offered by top Universities of US and UK. The reasons are not far to seek. The LLM curriculum of most Indian Universities, including the premier ones, is neither up to date nor has an international perspective. Further, if you are looking at enhancing your knowledge base in specialized areas like Corporate Finance, Intellectual Property, Banking, Internet and Technology, to name a few, you will be disappointed. Limited quality interaction with the Professors as well as a near absence of opportunities to interact with distinguished scholars and experts from India and abroad adds to the woes.

The world of LL.M. programs is staggering with more and more law schools in an increasing number of countries offering the degree. The process of deciding where to study is tricky and critical. Make a careful selection of the University/Law School from where you plan to obtain the LLM degree. At this juncture, it would be apt to mention the Masters degrees offered by some of the top universities of US, popularly referred to as the ‘Ivy League’(comprising Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University). An LLM from these universities is considered priceless since these institutions stand for academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, and social elitisim. The same applies to ‘Oxbridge’, a term used to refer Cambridge University and Oxford University of UK collectively, often with implications of perceived superior intellectual or social status. More recently, the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) has piped Oxbridge to become UK’s top-ranked higher education research centre. Quite obviously, an LLM from an Ivy League University or Ox-bridge/LSE will increase your marketability more than a similar degree from a foreign University of lesser repute and standing. The tough academic standards and the brand value of these Universities add weight to the LLM degree. Having said that, weightage is also given to the specific area of specialisation. For instance, University College London (UCL), not as highly ranked as Ox-bridge or LSE, is known to have the best Faculty and reputation in the areas of International Trade Law, WTO etc. Similarly, if you want to study Intellectual Property laws from USA, then a degree from a non-Ivy League yet top ranking IP Universities in the US like George Washington University (GWU) or Franklin Pierce Law Centre (FPLC) is recommended.

An Enriching Experience

One of the major effects of globalisation has been an increasing demand for cross-border legal services which factor in a wide-array of national as well as international legal systems. Indian legal landscape has also undergone a dramatic change in last twenty years, with transnational legal issues becoming all-pervasive. Today’s lawyers represent clients both domestically and internationally in a variety of trans-border transactions. In this backdrop an exposure abroad is valued by Indian law firms.

More importantly, an overseas academic stint gives you the chance to experience cultural and linguistic diversity. The post-graduate programs abroad attract a culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse body of students from across the globe. By sharing common facilities and benefits (both formally through the college/Faculty and informally through various students’ associations) you can be assured of an unparalleled college life experience. Infact, many of the benefits of pursuing a foreign LLM can be intangible. For some it is an intellectual exercise, while for others the appeal lies in the prospect of interacting with eminent faculty members, or building a lifelong network. But perhaps the single most appealing factor in favour of a foreign LLM is that it imparts an international dimension to one’s outlook and thinking, which in turn paves the way for personal as well as professional growth.

The Flip Side 

1. Expensive affair

The pursuit of an LLM program from abroad requires commitment of money as well as time. The financial cost of an LLM degree from abroad is particularly high. An LLM aspirant has not only to worry about the direct cost, viz., tuition fees, student fees, etc., but also the indirect costs, viz., the cost of living. Since most LLM programs abroad are for a period of one year, a substantial indirect cost of a full-time LLM program from abroad is the “opportunity cost” or the money foregone or loss of earnings which one would have earned while working for that duration. Moreover, student loans with low interest rates and no security are hard to come by. Financing a foreign LLM thus becomes difficult.

2. Not a shortcut to success in Indian market

Remember that possessing an LLM from abroad is not a guarantee of success in the Indian legal market. To have a better understanding of employment prospects in India, LLM aspirants should realize and appreciate that in addition to an LLM degree from abroad, their work experience and educational credentials prior to the LLM also play a crucial role in getting the desired opening.

From an Indian law firm perspective, a foreign LLM degree may not help if you choose to come back to India immediately after the LLM program. A foreign LLM will be useful if it is also coupled with work experience from an international law firm. Similarly, the foreign LLM may have some value for an MNC or an LPO in India, but even there, a lot will depend on the work experience gained in India prior to the LLM. A decade ago a foreign LLM was considered unique. But today a stand-alone LLM degree is not enough. In order to fully capitalize on the LLM, gaining admission to the Bar in the country from where the LLM degree has been obtained is strongly advised. At the other end of the spectrum, for the majority of lawyers interested in the practice of law (litigation), pursuing an LLM from abroad is neither appealing nor a feasible option. A foreign LLM may enhance one’s legal knowledge or acumen, but it does not help a lawyer who plans to establish a litigation practice. What it helps is the ability to think logically and interpret well.

3. Breaking into foreign market not easy

Of late law schools of US, UK and Australia have become aggressive in recruiting LLM students from abroad, including India. Some law schools/colleges also try to convince the foreign students that jobs would be available in those countries once they complete the degree. A word of caution! Foreign LLM students face stiff competition in the foreign market as they compete with students who have obtained their first degree in law (equivalent of LLB) from that country. Unless foreign students find an opening which allows them to leverage their specific skills, the foreign LLM students are at a disadvantage when looking for jobs in the foreign jurisdiction.  

Endnote

There are divergent views on the utility of a foreign LLM. The apparent advantages include gaining exposure to a foreign legal system thereby making oneself more marketable; establishing international professional references; and getting the opportunity to sit for the Bar and gain admission to practice in foreign jurisdiction. The increasing complexity of the legal landscape and the need to stand out in an ever-growing body of lawyers has led to an increased demand for foreign LLMs in the recent years. And this trend continues unabated…

Richa Kachhwaha holds an LL M in Commercial Laws from London School of Economics and Political Science. Currently, Richa is involved in legal writing and editing with over years 7 of experience. She is also a qualified Solicitor in England and Wales. 

NB: The copyright of this article vests with the author. An old version of this article had appeared in May, 2010 issue of Lex Witness.