Master of Laws (LLM Degrees) | Top Universities

For aspiring lawyers, a graduate law degree is a common way to learn the specialized skills and knowledge needed to compete for professional roles in the sector. Although a graduate degree is not a necessity for all legal careers (outside of the US at least), those who study law at graduate level may find it easier to circumvent the entry-level jobs market in favor of more specialized law careers and competitive training contracts in legal firms. 


Types of graduate law degrees

In English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and the UK, the most common graduate law degree program is the LLM degree (Master of Laws), which is internationally recognized and takes one year of full-time study to complete. Although an LLM degree is not compulsory to be able to undertake legal practice training, it is often chosen by students wishing to improve their knowledge and employability within a certain area of law.

In the US meanwhile, the first professional law qualification offered in the country is the JD degree (Juris Doctor), a graduate-level program taking three years of full-time study to complete, in addition to undergraduate study. Some JD programs can also be completed in combination with another master’s degree (e.g. public policy), but these will take longer to complete. If you’re hoping to study law in the US, remember that the application process can be lengthy, meaning that forward-planning (ideally 18 months ahead of your start date) is a must. As well as being offered in the US, the JD degree is also available at universities in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Japan.

Other types of graduate-level law degree on offer include a law PhD (Doctor of Laws), offered worldwide, or a JSD (Doctor of Juridical Science), which is offered mainly in the US. Both advanced qualifications are directed mainly at students pursuing careers in academic research.


Entry requirements

To be eligible to apply for the JD degree offered in the US, you’ll often only need an undergraduate qualification, which can be in a broad range of subjects. However, LLM degree candidates are often required to hold an undergraduate law degree (e.g. the LLB – Bachelor of Laws) or extensive related work experience. In some instances, an unrelated undergraduate degree will suffice. If this is not the case, you can also consider undertaking a one-year law conversion program such as the Graduate Diploma in Law/Common Professional Examination (GDL/CPE).

Some top law schools in the US and Canada may also ask candidates for LSAT results. The LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) is a type of admissions test used to assess candidates’ suitability for law school. A high score in the LSAT could also land you more financial aid!


Course structure

The JD law degree remains the standard professional law qualification in the US, enabling graduates to take the US bar exam. But if you’re looking to build your international credentials, you may be better suited for an LLM ‘Master of Laws’ program, with a more global focus and application.

Undertaking a either a JD or LLM program should allow plenty of scope for specialization and focused research within a particular area of personal and professional interest. Depending on what your interests and career prospects are, you’ll be able to specialize in a huge array of legal areas, from human rights to labor law. The LLM in particular is highly regarded for its freedom of specialization, while also providing a widely recognized professional qualification.

If you’re looking to study law outside of the traditional LLM route, a growing number of universities – particularly across Europe – are introducing more specialized graduate degree options and joint degrees within law. The University of Oxford, for instance, offers specialized master’s degrees in dual subjects such as law and finance, criminology and criminal justice and international human rights, while other leading universities offer varied LLM degree specializations appealing to the needs of the local environment. One example of this is Hollywood-based UCLA, which offers an LLM in entertainment, media and intellectual property law.

To learn more about the areas of law you can focus on, click on the ‘law specializations’ tab above.

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Master of Laws (LLM) specializations

It’s an exciting time for students undertaking graduate law degrees, as contemporary technological developments continue to drive shifts in legislation, disrupting traditional legal models and opening up new fields of expertise. Policy changes and increased government funding for priority areas such as internet security, international politics and environmental policy are driving demand for experts in these fields, offering a unique chance for graduates with the right skills to play a part in shaping the future of these areas.

Legal programs which are well-attuned to contemporary market needs should give students the chance to gain an understanding of emerging markets, as well as preparing them for continued changes and challenges within the sector. Some of the industries and issues you could choose to focus on include:

Banking and finance law

This specialization will allow students to gain insights into the legal foundations and principles of banking, finance and financial services law, both internationally and domestically. Issues will be explored from a range of perspectives, including practical, regulatory and policy. Although all programs differ, it’s likely you’ll cover topics such as monetary law, financial regulation, central banking, securities law, transaction law, corporate finance, insolvency, electronic banking, EU/international law and business ethics. Many universities also now offer new modules exploring reforms and regulations introduced as a result of the recent financial crisis.


Environmental and natural resources law

Increasing awareness and prioritization of environmental issues has made environmental law a key area in both domestic and international law – and this is reflected in the growing provision of relevant law degree specializations. This specialization is focused on legal issues relating to contemporary environmental issues such as global warming and the protection of natural resources from exploitation. But the topic is also intrinsically linked with areas such as human rights, economic development trade and intellectual property rights.

Human rights law

An area of law which spans all continents, this specialization is concerned with the protection and promotion of human rights – internationally, regionally and domestically. Within this area there are many branches on which to focus, such as socio-economic rights, and the rights of women, children or refugees, and some universities offer programs specialized in a particular field of human rights. For instance, the University of Pretoria in South Africa offers an LLM in Human Rights & Democratization in Africa. This uses case studies of human drawn from across Africa, enabling students to graduate with a solid understanding of contemporary issues in the region, as well as practical field experience in countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Somaliland.


International and comparative law

The continued growth in the globalization of trade, business and employment means international law is another field of sustained high demand. This specialization can cover a wide range of areas, including not only trade legislation, but also topics such as human rights and crime, all approached through an international lens. Because of its broad focus, international and comparative law is increasingly available as an entire program in its own right, offered by the likes of Harvard, UCLA and UCB. NYU also offers a combined JD-LLM degree in this area, linking the more US-centric JD degree with the international focus of the LLM.

Other law degree specializations include: bankruptcy law; civil rights law; constitutional (state) law; corporate and commercial law; criminal law; education law; ethics; family and juvenile law (divorce, child custody, etc.); health law; human rights law; immigration law; intellectual property and technology law; labor and employment law; maritime law; military law; personal injury law; public policy; real estate law; sports and entertainment law; tax law.

See the full list of social sciences subject guides


Graduate law careers

Employment levels of law school graduates are hesitantly rising worldwide, with law firms becoming more active in their hiring once again following the global financial crisis. However, due to a steep rise in the number of undergraduate-level law graduates, in many nations the employment rate is still struggling to keep up with supply, so finding graduate employment is still fairly competitive.

For specialized LLM or JD holders, standing out from the crowd should be much easier. While a graduate law degree doesn’t automatically guarantee you’ll secure a training contract, students with a high-demand specialization and industry knowledge are likely to be well-received by employers.


How to become a lawyer

JD degree holders should note that in order to practice law in the US, they’ll need to pass the Bar Exam, which varies from state to state. In the UK, LLM/LLB holders who wish to become solicitors must undertake a one-year LPC (Legal Practice Course) and a two-year training contract within a law firm.  Aspiring barristers (or ‘advocates’ as they’re known in Scotland, Belgium, Israel, and Brazil) are required to complete the one-year BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course), followed by a one-year ‘pupillage’ in a chambers.

While not all graduate law careers will require professional licensing, those who wish to become a solicitor or barrister may find they are limited in the work they can do without further professional qualifications.


Solicitor vs barrister

The umbrella term for somebody who practices law is a ‘lawyer’, but depending on your duties you could be called an attorney, a barrister, a counselor or a solicitor.

The two most common lawyer roles outside of the US are solicitors and barristers. While a solicitor’s role is to provide legal services directly to clients advising on and managing cases, barristers primarily work within courts or tribunals, arguing on behalf of clients, sometimes at the instruction of a solicitor. This means that while interpersonal skills are more readily needed in client-facing solicitor roles, for barrister roles, confidence in public speaking and arguing is essential.

Solicitors are commonly employed with a law firm or a firm of solicitors, while barristers are typically self-employed, although may share ‘sets’ and chambers (premises), with shared facilities and administration.

Other legal roles

While it’s easy to get sidetracked by the prestige of becoming a fully fledged lawyer, other equally important law careers include roles such as barrister’s clerk (or advocate’s clerk), company secretary, paralegal, legal executive or licensed conveyancer. More information on these law careers can be found in our undergraduate guide, here.

Alternative law careers can also be found in: academia; banking and finance; civil service; court reporting; government services (local and national); insurance; legal journalism; public policy and politics.

Find out what else you can do with a law degree

Key Skills

Common skills gained from a law degree include:

  • Sound knowledge of legal matters, policy, theories and case studies
  • Understanding of contemporary business, politics, sociology and ethics
  • Specialist knowledge in a particular area of law (e.g. maritime law)
  • Legal research and writing abilities
  • Analytical skill
  • Critical evaluation
  • Logical thinking
  • Command of technical language
  • Experience and skills in mooting
  • Ability to draft legal documents
  • Time management
  • Strong written and verbal communication skills