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Postgraduate law: Study options explained

James Davis

Legal professionals are required in just about all aspects of Australian society. With a postgraduate qualification, you can become better equipped to handle the legal issues we face.

Few people need introduction to law. It’s the governing code we observe in our day-to-day interactions with society. Legal professionals do all manner of things to uphold this code, helping write contracts, conduct divorces, ensure the fairness of criminal proceedings, navigate the writhing labyrinth of taxation laws and much more. With a postgraduate qualification, you can accomplish more than most, from specialising in a particular legal field, pivoting an existing career or building an entirely new one. This article will outline some of the study options available and what the entry requirements are like.

Graduate certificates and diplomas

These are for legal professionals wanting a comparatively swift oversight regarding a topic of their choice, taking six months to one year full time and one to two years part time respectively. For example, the University of Melbourne offers a graduate diploma in intellectual property law. Naturally, all the content is predicated on students having a sprawling legal background. Units cover things like:

  • Drafting patent specifications
  • Interpretation and validity of patent specifications
  • Patent law
  • Professional conduct
  • Trade mark practice

This makes them a great way of becoming qualified to work in this area, but of course all other areas in which they’re offered too. Want to get into migration law? There’s a course for that. Australian migration law? That too. Even though you may technically be qualified off the back of an LLB, these sorts of qualifications can impart the professional confidence to go into job interviews regarding these topics and have a higher chance of success. You may even be in one of these industries, in which case you can consolidate your knowledge. Whatever your situation as a lawyer, these are a great way to boost your career while committing comparatively minimal time.

So how do you get in? You’ll generally need:

  • Completion of your LLB to an honours standard,
  • Completion of your LLB with relevant work experience, or
  • Another qualification with at least one year of documented, professional work experience

You might be wondering how you get into these courses using option three given you need a Bachelor of Laws to even get relevant professional work experience. We’ll get to that later!

Master of Laws (LLM)

This qualification serves a similar purpose to the previous, instead taking two years of full time study to four years part time. They often provide a strong research component, allowing students to sharpen their writing and research skills. It’s possible to do a research-focussed degree as opposed to coursework, in which case students take on a research topic approved by their supervisor and of their own making. They then spend their time investigating this topic, which culminates in an extensive thesis on the matter (roughly 10,000 words). No matter what variety of LLM you do however, research is inevitable, but for those who are particularly career focussed this isn’t a bad thing. As you surely know all too well by now, every flavour of the legal profession involves a lot of digging. These courses provide dedicated units on efficient research and how to go about it. So, if you’re willing to put in the time, these qualifications are a great way not only to specialise, but sharpen some fundamentals.

Entry is granted in the same manner as previous, with either an honours LLB or an LLB with work experience being the two main preferred methods of entry. There’s really not a good way of dodging this requirement; if you’re an aspiring lawyer, you ought to either take up an LLB or the next option on this list.

Juris Doctor (JD)

This one’s a fairly curious qualification exclusive to law. Despite the word ‘doctor’ in the title, this is completely distinct from a doctorate and is classified by the AQF as a level 9 qualification (meaning you sadly don’t get the fun title). In other words, it’s on about the same level as a master’s degree. Unlike the other qualifications on this list, the JD is for those from completely unrelated disciplines who want to become lawyers. In fact, if you’ve already got a law degree, you have no use for this one. Students in a JD can expect to learn the fundamentals taught in any undergraduate law course, albeit at an accelerated rate. These programs tend to take three years full time or six to eight years part, making them a far less rigorous time commitment than the LLB, which tends to last five years. Furthermore, a JD allows you to practice law at the end after you’ve done a year of extra training and testing. This is how you enter a graduate diploma, certificate or LLM without an LLB. With this qualification, you can get that year of relevant experience after you graduate. Better still, you can go for some clerkships during your studies and count that.

Entry is granted to those based on GPA in previous study, regardless of discipline. It’s not necessarily all that high either; ANU offers theirs to those who’ve achieved a credit GPA in prior study (5/7, or roughly 65%). Even bitterly cutthroat programs like the University of Melbourne’s are open to you without even having to sit the LSAT provided you completed your undergraduate degree within the last 18 months, but this one in particular tends to have a higher GPA requirement than most (usually about 70% for most disciplines).

Doctorate

This is your classic research degree; unlike the Juris Doctor or LLM, it’s all about taking a topic of your choice given it’s approved by your supervisor and writing a 70,000 - 100,000 word thesis, which represents the culmination of your work. These will take you roughly three years full time to eight years part, so the same length as a JD. If you’re interested in a career in academia, or really want to dive into a topic you’re passionate about, this is the qualification for you.

There are commonly only two ways in. Using ANU’s Doctor of Philosophy from the College of Law as an example, you’ll need either:

  • First or second-class honours obtained during your LLB, or
  • A distinction GPA obtained during your LLM (about 75%, or 6/7)

There’s really no trick to getting around this requirement; if you’ve already got an LLB but missed the mark on honours, you’ve got another shot by doing the LLM. Otherwise, you’re locked out.

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of what’s available at postgraduate level and how you get in. As you can see, law is a highly diverse academic field with many avenues to choose from. No matter what your ambitions are, we wish you all the best in pursuing them and getting what you want out of your legal career. Good luck!