Best Master's Degrees in International Law

Oct 20, 2021

What is a Master's in International Law Degree?

A master's degree in international law is an advanced graduate degree in legal studies, sometimes also referred to as a master's in comparative law. This kind of master's degree is an LLM, or Master of Laws. In contrast to most master's degrees (such as MA and MS degrees), which generally take place after completing a bachelor's degree and before any kind of doctorate, an LLM will usually take place after completing a JD degree (Juris Doctor), more popularly referred to simply as law school. A JD degree is the required education for a lawyer.

An LLM program in international law will usually require around 24 credits and can be completed in as little as a year. Some universities offer joint programs that combine an LLM in international law with a JD. These programs are especially rigorous, combining typical law school, which is already challenging, with an additional advanced degree.

Prior Education Requirements for a Master's Degree in International Law

Most master's programs in international law will require applicants to have completed (or to be in their last year of) law school at a university with a certified JD program; however, programs that combine an LLM with a JD into a single program usually accept applicants with only a bachelor's degree. Given that the LSAT will usually be required and that these programs will be looking for applicants with legal understanding, students who wish to pursue a dual LLM/JD program would do well to study pre-law or a similar field in their undergraduate studies.

Admissions Requirements for International Law Master's Programs

Because of the difficulty of law school, the minimum JD GPA requirement for many LLM programs in international law is around 2.0 to 2.5. However, students looking to enroll in a joint program to complete an LLM and a JD will need a much higher undergraduate GPA to prove they can handle the dual program's difficulty. The LSAT is generally required, and some LLM programs additionally require the writing section of the GMAT or GRE. Programs usually require additional essays or writing samples as well and also a personal statement.

Programs will also be interested in what professional experience applicants have in the legal field. Such experience isn't usually a hard requirement, but it is a substantial boon for applicants to have and can be what sets apart a particular applicant from a group of many academically qualified individuals. Passing the bar exam can also be beneficial for those who have completed law school.

Why Should I Get an International Law Master's Degree?

It may seem a little counterintuitive at first to some students that they would get a doctorate (JD) degree and then pursue a master's in international law, but the typical order of bachelor's, then master's, then doctorate doesn't apply here. Students complete law school (their JD program), and they can then take the bar exam to qualify to practice law. In this respect, a JD is functionally the entry-level degree in the legal field. An LLM likewise functions similarly to other master's degrees: it takes those who qualify for entry-level work and gives them additional expertise in a specific area.

For those wanting to engage in legal work outside the United States (which often includes dealing with clients abroad even if you live in the U.S.), an LLM in international law may be required in addition to a JD. This means that an LLM in international law opens the door to many more opportunities for law school graduates who complete an additional degree.

How to Choose a Master's in International Law Program

There are several factors students will want to consider when selecting a master's program in international law. One is the specializations offered in the program, which tend to be either location-based or subject-based. Where in the country a university is, and its location's demographics, can impact this. For example, the LLM program in international law at the University of Miami specializes in Latin American international law. Some universities also partner with specific foreign universities for their international law programs to host events such as study abroad programs and international seminars, which could also be of interest to prospective students. Additionally, some students may specifically seek programs that combine an LLM in international law with traditional law school.

Master's in International Law Program Accreditation

Whatever other factors make a master's program in international law appealing, students would do well to make sure their university is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). It should be noted that the ABA generally accredits JD programs at universities, not specific LLM programs. If the ABA has accredited a university's JD program, however, students should be able to have a high degree of confidence that the university's LLM program is of satisfactory quality as well. ABA accreditation signals to students that the law schools they're considering have quality faculty and programs and that they are successfully preparing graduates to pass the bar exam and enter the legal workforce.

International Law Master's Degree Courses

Most courses in a master's degree program in international law will have one of two focuses: how to understand or interpret international law and how to apply it. Courses will teach students not only the laws themselves but also the systems through which laws are enforced, appealed, and changed. For example, students will learn about the large number of international courts that exist. Students will also learn how to successfully navigate the complexities of international law in their legal profession, whether representing individuals, corporations, or governments.

International Law Foundational Courses

Some of the core courses in international law master's programs usually include:

  • International Finance/Trade Law. This course covers the laws governing trade and business transactions that take place internationally, whether between countries' governments, between companies in different countries or between a company and a foreign country in which it does business.
  • Foreign Relations Law. Courses like these tackle the laws and policies regarding how governments and citizens of different countries engage in international cooperation and diplomacy, as well as the methods of recourse one government can take against another.
  • International Arbitration. The international arbitration course will teach about the different international judicial bodies that exist: their roles, functions, responsibilities, and jurisdictions.
  • International Law Research & Writing. Some programs will also require students to take a course to improve their research and writing skills.

International Law Specialist & Elective Courses

Other courses frequently offered in international law master's programs can include:

  • Immigration Law. This course covers laws regarding countries' (usually American) immigration systems, including the appeals system.
  • Cyber Crime Law. Cybercrime is an important area of international legal concern but a complex one given its recent development and relative lack of established case law.
  • Human Rights Law. Many international courts exist to protect human rights, and human rights law is important to guarantee these rights for all people globally.

Licensure & Certification in International Law

To professionally practice law in the United States, you must be certified in the state in which you practice. While certification requirements set forth by a state's bar association vary, states generally require that prospective legal professionals complete a JD program and pass the bar examination, which is usually quite rigorous. Many students take a bar review period after graduation to prepare for the examination. The NCBE Bar Admissions Guide is a great resource to help students understand bar admission requirements.

Students who have completed an LLM in international law may be interested in practicing outside the United States as well. This would require certification by the authority that has jurisdiction over your practice. Those who want to work for international organizations may need additional certification and qualifications (such as a second language), but their admission to the bar in the U.S. is often enough proof of their abilities.

Specializations Offered for a Master's in International Law Degree

Specializations in a master's in international law (called concentrations in most fields of study) fall into one of two categories: subject or location. Examples of a subject specialization would include international business or human rights: these topics are generally covered during any LLM program in international law, but some students specialize in them. Location specializations focus on how international law is practiced in a specific part of the world. Often, a program's specializations relate to its foreign partnerships: a program that has a specialization in European Union law may partner with a French or German university, for example.

Some of the many concentrations and specializations for an LLM in international education can include:

  • Human Rights Law
  • International Business Law
  • International Law Organizations (such as the U.N.)
  • European Union Law
  • Latin American Law

International Law Professional Organizations

There are three professional organizations related to international law of which students should be aware. The first is the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation's authority on law school accreditation and best bar admissions practices. The ABA has several resources for legal professionals, including lawyer assistance programs, and publishes a journal for its members. Lawyers should take care to follow ABA standards of conduct.

The next is the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE, or occasionally NCBEX). The NCBE is highly involved in bar admissions examinations. It produces the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), which is useful for those who wish to practice law in multiple states or legal jurisdictions, along with several other law examinations graduates may wish to take to gain additional certifications.

The third is the International Bar Association (IBA). The only of these three specializing in international law, the IBA works across the globe to promote the rule of law and human rights as well as help legal professionals in their work.

The ABA and the NCBE are especially important organizations for students to navigate the process of becoming certified, from finding a good law school program to getting admitted to the bar. Once admitted, the ABA and the IBA are significant for those in international law. Both have group memberships (eg. for bar associations) and individual memberships and provide members with professional resources, such as ABA's career center.

What Can I Do with an International Law Master's Degree?

Becoming an international law professional requires a lot of education and certification exams, but it can be well worth the effort, especially as legal professions tend to pay quite well. Careers in international law, particularly international business law jobs, involve largely the same practices as typical law careers, just in areas of the law that deal with international matters. After all, a master's degree in international law is meant to give extra specialization to someone who has already completed law school.

International law careers involve all manner of legal disputes between parties in different countries but also advising entities (governmental or corporate) on their decisions about international efforts. Some graduates will remain within the legal profession itself, becoming lawyers and judges, while others will take on different roles, such as policy advisors.

Job Outlook for a Master's in International Law

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates high pay but average-to-low growth expectancy for some legal careers, including the ones discussed below. The BLS reports that the 2020 median annual salary for lawyers was $126,930, and they have an expected 2019-2029 job growth of 4%, matching that of the overall economy.

The BLS reports the 2020 median annual salary for judges to be $124,200. Their 2019-2029 job growth projection is only 2%, however - half of the predicted growth for all occupations.

These high salaries but slower growth rates reflect a truth about the legal profession: it is financially rewarding but highly competitive. That's part of the reason why any edge those in the field can get, like completing a master's degree in international law, can make a big difference in their career success.

How to Become a Lawyer

Lawyers in international law do largely the same things that other lawyers do: they represent people, corporations, or governments in legal proceedings. Those who have completed law school, passed the bar exam, and become certified often start their practice at a law firm.

The BLS reports that half of lawyers work at a legal services institution while approximately 18% work for the government and 17% are self-employed. Those working for the federal government make the most money. Unsurprisingly, the District of Columbia has the highest number of lawyers of any part of the country. It also is where lawyers are paid the most on average.

Lawyers need to have excellent research, writing, and rhetorical skills as well as the ability to work well under pressure. They also need very strong analytical skills. Lawyers who have training in international law will find a diversity of ways to use this additional expertise. For example, a lawyer who has studied international patent law will have a stronger framework for addressing questions of intellectual property concerns even if they don't directly involve international law.

How to Become a Judge

Judges are responsible for arbitrating cases, meaning that every bit of legal understanding they have is important. Judges dealing directly with international law aren't all that common, but those who have completed a master's in international education have a leg up on getting judicial positions compared to those who don't have an LLM. Judges are selected in different ways: some are appointed, while others are elected. Nationally, 48% of judges work at the state level, 33% at the federal level, and 19% at the local level.

Judges generally require similar education to lawyers, but they require different skills. Judges need to be open-minded and extremely fair. Because of the relatively slow expected growth for judges, those who are studying to become a judge will need to stand out, and any academic credential a potential judge can add to her or his resume, such as an LLM, would help with the chances.

Master's in International Law Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources

Law school can be expensive ($150,000 or more), and continuing your education after completing a JD can amount to a financial burden, especially for students who have already taken out loans for law school. Fortunately, most universities are willing to help students in need with some of the cost.

Most universities offering LLM programs provide students in need of financial aid with a mix of scholarships, grants, or loans if the student remains in good academic standing. (You'll generally need to complete a FAFSA to be eligible for any aid.) Many also offer successful students positions aiding the faculty, such as research assistantships, for which they receive financial compensation.

At many universities, the majority of students pursuing LLM degrees receive financial aid, including grants. Most students who receive aid receive both a grant and a loan, often totaling half the cost of tuition. If you've already passed the bar and work at a law firm, your employer may have a program or policy that will help you finance your LLM program. The Law School Admissions Coucil (LSAC) is a great resource for students to learn more about financial aid for law school students.

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