legal career

What an advanced degree could do for your legal career


Graduating in law is an exciting experience. It takes a huge amount of work to get there, and it opens up a world of opportunities. For some people, however, it raises an immediate question: what greater opportunities might be available with an advanced degree? Some people may want to explore this right away. Others spend a few years in practice before getting to the point where they’re in a position to consider taking their career further. If you are passionate about law, there’s no better way to move forward. However, you will need to think carefully about how you want to do so, as there are several different options that you could pursue.

This article addresses those options, helps to clarify what advanced study involves, and looks at some of the contexts in which your advanced law degree could be used.

Academic or practical options

Although the electives you pick will have a significant influence on your career path, initial law degrees tend to leave graduates in a fairly flexible position, with various short-term learning options available for those who decide that they want to move between legal fields. At the postgraduate level, things are different, and you will need to make much clearer choices. The first and most important of these is whether you want to stay in academia or go into (or stay in) practice. If you choose the former, you will probably be looking at getting a Doctorate in Juridical Science (SJD), but possibly a Doctorate of Comparative Law (DCL). If practice is your focus, you would normally choose a Master of Laws (LLM), for reasons discussed below, unless you got your initial law degree outside the US, in which case a Master of Comparative Law (MCL) is the appropriate option.

What to expect

Whichever type of advanced degree you choose, you’ll find it quite different from your undergraduate studies. You will spend much more of your time on self-directed work, which means that you need to be proactive about setting your goals, realistic about setting out your schedule (allowing enough margin to account for risks such as computer crashes or needing days off due to illness), and hard working enough to see it through. You will have lots of sources of guidance available, but they won’t tell you what to do – instead, the onus will be on you to seek them out when you have specific questions.

Alongside this, most advanced law degree courses require you to spend at least a third of your time on structured work, so you will have to make sure that you can make those commitments. Perhaps most important is the opportunity to discuss and debate various topics with your fellow students and faculty members. This will improve your ability to apply your skills whether you are aiming to progress into practice, academia or a field adjacent to but outside law. You will find this part of the course significantly more challenging than it is at undergraduate level.

Taking the academic route with an SJD

If you’re interested in taking the academic route over the longer term, an SJD will prepare you for your future career in much the same way as a PhD could in another field. It will enhance your research skills so that you are able to study independently or head legal research teams in the long term. It will refine your ability to design studies and ask the right questions in interrogating areas of law. It will also prepare you to teach the next generation of law students. This latter aspect of the course is something that many students find challenging because it requires them to engage in an area in which they have no prior experience. You will need to cultivate a different type of authority from that used in the debating chamber or courtroom if you are to successfully engage with new college students and impress upon them the level of work required to get a good law degree, while still sparking their enthusiasm for the subject.

Studying for a DCL

Whereas an LLM in Comparative Law is aimed at people educated outside the US who want to be able to practice within the US, a DCL is focused on preparing students to carry out research or other scholarly work across more than one legal system. It therefore has relevance to US students as well as to those from abroad. Most people entering this type of degree program already have clear ideas about the type of work they would like to do. Courses include substantial research elements, which are often used as pilot projects for later, independent studies. Graduates in this area may also go on to carry out research on behalf of the government or corporations and third sector organizations that work internationally.

Developing a specialism with an LLM

The most common reason why people choose the LLM route is that it offers the opportunity to develop a specialism. Although you will have done this to an extent with the electives in your first degree, an advanced degree lets you take it much further, enables you to command higher fees, and makes you a much more attractive prospect to employers and clients focused on specific areas of law. It’s designed to give you the in-depth knowledge you need to excel in your chosen area, but this won’t simply be handed to you in class. Because you will need to sharpen up your research skills, you will be required to seek out a lot of it for yourself. Your course tutors will oversee this process, providing advice and guidance and introducing you to new techniques. You will also have the chance to test your skills in debate, and if you’re smart, you will take advantage of the excellent networking opportunities afforded by such a course, making valuable contacts who you can turn to in future when you have tricky problems to solve.

International law

What’s the difference between international law and comparative law? If you take an MCL, you will be studying the legal systems of different countries. By contrast, when you study international law, you will be learning about the laws established outside and between national jurisdictions. This can include maritime law and the law as it pertains to international airspace and space itself. However, it is primarily focused on treaties between nations, which can go right back to antiquity, and on supranational law, which emerges from the ceding of certain areas of legislative competence to multinational bodies such as the EU. Lawyers with this specialty may end up working for the government on foreign affairs, moving into the diplomatic service or working within corporations that trade internationally.

Constitutional law

As a child, you probably learned that the Constitution was a fixed set of principles, foundational, unwavering and rarely amended. The more time you have spent in study, the more you will have understood that while this may theoretically be the case, interpretation of it varies wildly. There are many areas of constitutional law that are hotly contested, and this makes it an exciting area for students with strong moral or political sensibilities. Constitutional law establishes the specific freedoms granted to individuals and states, so there are opportunities to engage with it in practice at multiple levels. A degree of this sort could give you the opportunity to work on some of the biggest issues affecting the nation.

Environmental law

An increasingly popular area, and one that offers an increasingly broad range of career opportunities, environmental law is a body of law that also incorporates regulations, common law and specific agreements concerning the management of the natural environment. Traditionally, it was used first and foremost to establish the protection of living things (including humans), but today it is more common for it to be focused on the protection of ecosystems and the natural environment, based on our improved understanding that species cannot flourish in isolation. It includes the preservation of air quality and waterways, as well as legislation aimed at tackling pollution, preserving resources and ensuring that development is carried out in a sustainable manner. Although many environmental lawyers go on to work in the third sector, there are also opportunities in government and within corporations that are concerned with staying on the right side of the law in complex areas.

Human rights law

Since its origins in the mid-20th century, human rights law has made a dramatic difference to areas such as labor relations, accommodation, healthcare, and the protection of children and minorities all around the world. Some of its most important elements are a subset of international law, but not every country is signed up to every part of those, and the US has its own way of managing many human rights issues. Here, the study of human rights law incorporates a focus on political, social and cultural rights, economic rights and civil rights. It is closely related to ongoing work around equality and diversity. Human rights lawyers are often involved in policymaking, so an advanced degree of this sort could see you working at the very top level in government, in the commercial sector or in the third sector. It doesn’t tend to focus on the rights of individuals, but rather on groups of people who may face discrimination or outright exploitation in relation to a particular shared trait, such as a type of disability.

Commercial law

Also called trade law or mercantile law, this is the system of laws and regulations that facilitate trade. It is aimed at making sure that companies can interact as freely as possible, but within a framework that ensures a degree of fairness and helps to protect smaller enterprises from exploitation by large corporations, as well as protecting customers. It addresses issues such as safety, the correct listing of ingredients on food products, and the protection of customers’ personal data. Commercial law tends to be highly political, not least because big companies try to curry favor with politicians by donating to their campaigns, and as such it is continually subject to change. This means that there’s a lot of interesting history to explore as an advanced student, and that you’ll need to be ready to keep up with developments once you graduate. The best commercial lawyers don’t just react to change, but also anticipate it, putting them in a stronger position to help their clients.

Tax law

One of those areas of law in which you can guarantee that there will never be a shortage of work, tax law, also known as revenue law, is built upon a massive body of rulings that go back for centuries and are, in some cases, considered to be open to interpretation. Students have to become fluent in matters of federal, state and local taxation, as related to individuals and businesses. Property taxes and customs duties are sometimes treated as specialist niches, as most graduates from this type of program, while developing a good general overview, focus on just one area. If you plan to take an LLM in tax law, it’s a good idea to be clear about the area you’re most interested in at an early stage, though you will have some chance to explore and change your mind. Focusing your research in one area will help to strengthen your credentials after you graduate and move on to the next stage of your career, putting your expertise to use in practice.

Copyright law

The rapid development of AI technologies that crawl the web for training resources, the diversification of social media, and the highly publicized disputes over rights to people’s likenesses and personal data mean that copyright law is a swiftly expanding field. Existing experts in the field have their work cut out for them trying to keep up, and there is a lot of interest in new postgraduates whose training has taken full cognizance of the present media landscape. Like tax law, copyright law covers a vast area, and it’s helpful to find a point of focus within it so that you can structure your research in a way that will be useful to you later. Because it’s such a rapidly evolving area, you will need to be committed to keeping up your learning over the long term, and be prepared for potential paradigm shifts as content creators and the creative industries explore the possibilities of new models.

Becoming a judge

Unlike other areas of legal practice, becoming a judge is an option available to Americans who don’t have undergraduate degrees in law. Many judges have a background in history, economics or politics. The advanced degree required in this situation is a Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD), following which you would have to pass your bar exam and gain experience as an attorney. Some educational institutions offer an accelerated version of the JD, which helps to fast-track students onto the judicial circuit. However, there are never any guarantees, because ultimately judgeship depends on being called to serve. This is more likely if you obtain commendations during your studies and are able to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the necessary professional skills and ethics.

Choosing the right law school

If you’re going to invest your time and money in an advanced degree, you need to be confident that you’re choosing the right law school. Although some schools are seen as more prestigious than others, this is not an area in which one size fits all. Some schools have strong reputations in particular areas, while they’re not as highly regarded in others. Some are better in areas such as inclusivity or student support, which could influence how well you are able to engage with your studies. You might also be influenced by the reputations of individual staff members involved in delivering a particular course.

While some people still attach a lot of importance to on-campus study, it’s worth noting that there are also ABA accredited online law schools, which can be a more practical option if, for instance, you can’t find a course that suits you locally and you want to keep on working with your established client base. Studying in this way can also save you money. The University of Cleveland offers an online JD at a very competitive rate, and you’ll still have access to classroom discussion along with mentoring and the opportunity to choose from an impressive range of electives.

Taking an advanced law degree is a big commitment. There’s a lot of hard work involved and there are no shortcuts. With the right attitude, however, you could graduate in just two or three years. The work is as stimulating as it is challenging, and you’ll find that it really sharpens up your thinking, pushing you to grow as a person. With the experience of one degree already under your belt, you’ll find that you can engage with the learning process much more effectively and get more out of it, so that by the time it’s done, you really feel ready to put your new knowledge and understanding to use.

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