Cooley adds LL.M in law and finance

February 2, 2009
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Thomas M. Cooley Law School is introducing four new Master of Laws programs this fall in corporate law and finance, U.S. legal studies for foreign attorneys, insurance law and a general Master of Laws program that will basically let students craft their own specialty.

In the United States, a Master of Laws, or LL.M, is an advanced degree for people who are already lawyers: They earn a juris doctorate degree first and the Master of Laws degree second. For a century or more, the basic J.D. degree was the gold standard in the U.S. and there were few LL.M programs. There wasn’t a widespread perception that anything in addition to the J.D. degree was necessary to do the work lawyers usually do, said Nelson Miller, associate dean of Cooley’s Grand Rapid campus.

But laws have become much more complex over the years, whether they have to do with finance, intellectual property, taxes, government regulation or corporate governance. There now are an increasing number of LL.M programs and an increasing number of law school graduates with advanced law degrees, and what’s driving that increase is the need for more and more specialization, Miller noted. 

“There are current students who are taking joint J.D. degree and LL.M programs, as well as lawyers that have been practicing for many years who are coming back for LL.M degrees because they want to better serve their clients,” Miller said.

“The trend began with tax law and intellectual property law. Those were the two classic Master of Laws programs.”

Cooley began offering an LL.M in taxation and one in intellectual property at the start of the 2002-2003 school year. The new LL.M in corporate law and finance is particularly timely in light of the aftermath of the financial crisis. There are lawyers in really critical positions in the finance world, Miller observed. During the height of the crisis in September, October and November, lawyers were employed by the Federal Reserve, the investment banks and their creditors, and by just about everybody else, he said.

“Those lawyers worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for those three months to manage the bailouts, the mergers, the acquisitions and the bankruptcies,” Miller noted. “You’d think that that work would have fallen to accountants, but it also fell to lawyers and lawyer accountants, as well.” 

Cooley has selected E. Christopher Johnson Jr., former General Motors North America vice president and general counsel, to lead development of the corporate law and finance advanced degree program. As director, Johnson will design the curriculum, hire the faculty, administer the program, and have some teaching responsibilities, as well. Miller said Johnson is a good example of the high caliber of professionals that Cooley has been able to attract to oversee its programs.

Johnson retired from GM on Nov. 1, 2008, after 20 years with the company. He said he had been interested in teaching for some time and interested in some of the issues facing law schools, particularly the need to increase diversity. Johnson looked at other positions at other law schools, but said Cooley stood out because of its professionalism, its commitment to diversity and pro bono work, its “exceptional” community involvement and “its emphasis on really giving students a full, rounded legal education — one that combines knowledge, skills, ethics and practical insights into the law.”

Johnson noted that corporate law and finance issues started becoming more predominant in the post-Enron and post-Sarbanes-Oxley era. Those issues are coming under more intense scrutiny in the current financial crisis.

“As we move through the current financial and economic crisis, there will be additional regulation of corporations and financial institutions,” Johnson said. “Where there is increased regulation, you need more lawyers that are skilled in that area. Working with my colleagues at Cooley, my goal is to develop the premier LL.M in corporate law and finance in the country.”

Any law school that wants to add an LL.M has to develop the curriculum for the program and have it reviewed by the American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission, which approves it, said Charles Cercone, dean of faculty at Cooley. Cercone said the complexity of corporate transactions — particularly in the international arena — is ratcheting up all the time.

“I think as lawyers we need to be well versed in those kinds of issues,” Cercone remarked. “We think that anytime you can offer an employer a degree of specialization in this highly competitive environment, it’s good for our students.”

Cooley is the nation’s largest law school, with campuses in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Auburn Hills.

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