The qLegal initiative first caught my eye after two FPA’s with current LL.M. candidates at the Queen Mary University of London. Both of them spoke highly about qLegal and how it has helped them develop new skills; how qLegal ended up becoming one of the most valuable aspects of their respective LLM experiences.
To get a better understanding of just what qLegal is and how it works, I got into an email interview with Professor Ian Walden, who heads the Centre for Commercial Law Studies at QMUL (within which eLegal is situated) and Karen Watton, qLegal’s Director.
I asked them about how qLegal came about, what are the kind of opportunities that it offers, and their own predictions on recruitment and employability in the post-Covid world. This is what they had to say.
Let’s get the most obvious question out of the way – how has QMUL Law dealt with the Covid pandemic, and any words of advice for the incoming batch of LLM candidates?
Prof. Ian Walden: The Covid pandemic has hit all of us in ways we could not have anticipated but it’s been remarkable how well staff and students at Queen Mary have adjusted in the circumstances.
Our academics continue to deliver classes in an interactive format, albeit online, and assessments have been modified to take into account the fact that our students are now all over the world.
What we haven’t done is compromise academic standards as that wouldn’t serve anyone well.
The extra-curricular activities of the qLegal clinic are also continuing. Students now interview clients remotely via video conference. We have confidentiality protocols in place so we keep to professional standards. In our externship programme, several students are working remotely to help develop a pro bono chatbot to provide legal advice and support to SMEs. All of this is great practice for work in an international legal environment.
“My advice for new LLM students would be the same as for current students – embrace change and seek new opportunities.”
My advice for new LLM students would be the same as for current students – embrace change and seek new opportunities. The world of work is changing in any event and being adaptable, being comfortable with technology, and gaining world class expertise and experience can set you apart with employers.
Am quite interested in how qLegal was set up – how did it come about, and how did it (qLegal) find a space in the Centre for Commercial Law Studies at QMUL?
Prof. Walden: qLegal started 6 years ago, initially as an offshoot of Queen Mary’s Legal Advice Centre (LAC) which is based at the Mile End campus. The LAC provides free legal advice to individual clients on areas of law linked to social welfare, eg, housing and immigration, and is open to undergraduate law students.
At the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS), where most of Queen Mary’s postgraduate law students are based, we saw an opportunity to take advantage of our commercial focus and central London location – near to the tech hubs of King’s Cross and Tech City – to offer pro bono support to entrepreneurs and start-ups. Our LLM students currently advise on corporate, commercial, IP and data protection matters, supported by external lawyers from leading international firms.
“Our LLM students currently advise on corporate, commercial, IP and data protection matters, supported by external lawyers from leading international firms.”
Why did you decide to focus on the postgraduate cohort alone? Are you planning on expanding qLegal to include undergraduate students as well?
Prof. Walden: qLegal is currently exclusively for postgraduate law students. We are considering ways in which we can work more closely with our sister clinic, the LAC, as students benefit from having a wider perspective.
Last year, we were delighted that the LAC and qLegal together won the coveted ‘Best Contribution by a Law School’ category in the LawWorks & Attorney General’s Student Pro Bono Awards, as we recognise the benefits of having a strong clinical offering across both postgraduate and undergraduate cohorts.
Could you tell me a bit about the qLegal application process? What are the kind of applicants that you are looking for?
Karen Watton: We promote qLegal via induction talks when students first join CCLS, although many students seem to have heard of us before then! Students complete a written application form in which they have to answer 4 questions in 150 words each and undertake a short editing task.
It’s a scaled down version of the type of applications large law firms use so it’s good practice for students.
“The ideal applicant has a high level of motivation, excellent written communication skills, works well within a team, and has some commercial awareness”
The ideal applicant has a high level of motivation, excellent written communication skills, works well within a team, and has some commercial awareness. It doesn’t matter which particular academic specialism the applicant is from, nor whether they have significant prior work experience.
This year’s qLegal students were an equal split of those who had already qualified as a lawyers in their home countries and those who came straight from their bachelor’s degree.
As per last year’s report, the Law Clinic and eHealth Club was the most popular option – any thoughts on why this was the case? Could you share some real world examples of the work that this clinic does?
Karen Watton: Students can apply for a range of programmes and the number of places varies year to year. The Law Clinic is always popular as it involves students interviewing real clients, researching and then drafting a tailored advice letter, under the supervision of external practitioners. The clients often seek advice on complex matters, for example, on how best to structure their business and how to ensure they are compliant with data protection regulations.
I think students are drawn to this programme as it mirrors traditional legal practice and enables them to develop professional skills working alongside leading lawyers.
We also have programmes with more of an innovation and commercial skills focus, both of which are particularly valued by large international firms and can make students stand out from their competitors.
The Externship programme allows students to spend time in tech start-ups, learning the practical realities of commercial life and putting the law in context; in the Design the Law programme, students use Design Thinking methodology to solve problems and make law more accessible – this year they acted as consultants to a lawtech business, redesigning its Terms & Conditions; and in the StreetLAB and Future Clients programmes, students hone their presentation, pitching and networking skills, great for developing the emotional intelligence required in a people-oriented sector such as law.
“Students hone their presentation, pitching and networking skills, great for developing the emotional intelligence required in a people-oriented sector such as law.”
In your experience, what have been some of the biggest benefits that LLM candidates have garnered through their time at qLegal?
Karen Watton: An obvious direct benefit is a job offer! One of our recent externship students was offered a permanent role by the business she externed with and they sponsored her UK work visa.
While we can’t say this is the outcome for most qLegal students, they do gain recognition of the qLegal programme on their academic record, practical experience that looks impressive on their CV (evidence they can manage both study and extra-curricular activities), contacts within the UK/international legal market, enhanced professional and business skills, better commercial awareness including areas of innovation in lawtech and legal practice, an insight into potential career paths, a significant boost in confidence, and new friends from all over the world.
These are not just our observations, but what we consistently hear from our alumni who cite qLegal as a key element that has helped them on their career paths.
Going forward, how do you think qLegal can expand? Are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
Karen Watton: This year, we’ve had more than 100 students across qLegal’s programmes – a significant increase on last year. As we’ve consistently had more applicants than places available, we are keen to expand further.
We’re delighted to have new partnering organisations who have joined us this year, including international firms CMS, Baker McKenzie and Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, as well as in-house teams from Bloomberg and Bank of America. These supplement the work of our longstanding partners who include Ropes & Gray, Morrison Foerster, Morgan Lewis and Kilburn & Strode.
“In real life, clients need advice that spans multiple areas and this has been recognised in large firms who expect their lawyers to be able to work side by side with experts from other disciplines.”
We’re excited about a new project that will see qLegal students working in inter-disciplinary teams, for example, with students of business, economics and finance, and technology. In real life, clients need advice that spans multiple areas and this has been recognised in large firms who expect their lawyers to be able to work side by side with experts from other disciplines.
This is not always straightforward as different fields have their own expert language and thought processes. By giving qLegal students a chance to work in this way, they will have a head start over their peers.
As a former lawyer, what is your reading of the employment market in the UK for international LLM candidates? More specifically, do you foresee the 2-year post study visa as being a popular option for LLM graduates?
Karen Watton: The 2-year post study visa is excellent news and may be a game changer in terms of the number of international students able to work in the UK. Under the 4-month post study visa, international LLM students often struggled to get to grips with the application cycle and processes in the UK before their visa ran out.
“Under the 4-month post study visa, international LLM students often struggled to get to grips with the application cycle and processes in the UK before their visa ran out.”
The market is highly competitive and it’s not unusual for applicants (whether UK or international) to make several rounds of applications before they have any success. The post study visa extension and new routes to qualifying as a UK lawyer should help iron out some of these issues.
Law firms don’t want to miss good talent so this will give international students longer to learn how best to impress them!
Lastly, and I am sure you get asked this all the time, how can foreign trained lawyers improve their chances of employment during their time as LLM candidates at QMUL?
Karen Watton: Picking up on my last answer, each jurisdiction has subtle nuances in how they train lawyers and what they are looking for in applicants. The key to success is taking the time and effort to understand the local market which may be different to what lawyers are used to at home, even when dealing with global firms.
For example, great academic results are a requirement but aren’t enough to set a student apart as there are plenty of other applicants with similarly great marks.
“The best way to impress is to gain practical experience in the UK, even if that’s only voluntary, and to engage with local practitioners. “
Employers want to see clear evidence of business skills. The best way to impress is to gain practical experience in the UK, even if that’s only voluntary, and to engage with local practitioners.
This is one of the key reasons that qLegal exists – to act as a stepping stone for Queen Mary’s postgraduate law students as they develop their international careers.
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