As I walked out of the courtroom in Port Harcourt that day, I was greeted by a text message from the British Home Office. My visa application was now ready for collection. I quickly made my way to Abuja, where I picked up my visa, bade farewell to family and friends, and boarded the plane bound for Glasgow. Although it was my first trip outside Nigeria, my journey was abrupt and unprepared. In Nigeria, after obtaining admission to a UK university and making an application for a student visa, you are never certain whether it will be granted by the Home Office. You prepare yourself for disappointment. This explained my lack of preparedness for a journey to the unknown.
I am now considering why I had decided to study for a masters degree and why I had chosen Glasgow University. These two choices are not popular in Nigeria. A masters degree is not needed to practise law in Nigeria and Scottish universities are not popular with Nigerian students.
Option for masters
I believe that the desire to complete legal education encompasses the intent to become a legal professional or to use a law degree to some other end such as politics, academia or business. Legal education includes:
- first degrees in law, which may be studied at either undergraduate or graduate level depending on the country;
- vocational courses which prospective lawyers are required to pass in some countries before they may enter practice; and
- higher academic degrees.
I have passed through the three levels and have travelled out of my jurisdiction to achieve this goal.
My view of a Master of Laws is quite distinct. I see it as an advanced academic degree, pursued by those holding a professional law degree, and an opportunity to append LLM (Legum Magister) to my name. Such appendices are important in Nigeria. If a person wishes to gain specialised knowledge through research in a particular area of law, he or she can continue his or her studies after an LLB.
Out of curiosity and interactions with friends, I learned new things about the LLM degree. Historically, the LLM degree is a degree particular to the education system of English speaking countries, which is based on a distinction between Bachelors and Masters degrees. In the past years, however, specialised LLM programs have been introduced in many European countries. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Switzerland require a masters degree plus an additional two to five years of training to become a lawyer. As of 2011, Spain requires a masters degree in addition to a five year degree to become a lawyer. In Finland an LLM is the standard graduate degree required to practise law.
In Africa, an LLM is not required to practise law. In Nigeria once you leave school you must enrol in the Nigerian law school and take bar exams in order to practise as a solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Masters degrees are not really that popular. However, I had reasoned that a masters degree would give me a short cut to climb the ladder of the legal profession. It is a professional degree which would make me stand out in the field of law; the alternative would be to wait for many long years of practice where seniority at the bar is a major determinant to most dividends of the legal profession. I wasn’t prepared to wait that long and concluded that I wanted to become a specialist. If I became a master in the area of financial regulation, for instance, my age at bar would not be such a difficulty. Indeed, I might well be the only lawyer in that field. I also reasoned that a masters degree would provide me with various alternatives within the legal profession, I could teach in a faculty of law or I could work in private practice or in-house. These are some of my reasons for choosing to study for a masters degree.
Why did I choose Scotland? This is the question that is often asked when I tell people that I studied law in Scotland. Many people think of Scotland’s harsh weather. I do not blame them for this. I come from a country where the minimum temperature is between 20-25 degrees and I travelled to a place where the normal temperature is between 1-5 degrees in the winter. You would understand the dimension of their argument.
What many do not know is the hidden treasure behind these cold walls. The University of Glasgow, for instance, is one of the world’s top 100 universities and is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It was founded in 1451, ranked in the top 10 in the UK for research, and a member of the elite Russell Group of 20 major research universities. The Faculty of Law is without exception. The School of Law was placed 14th by The Times' Good University Guide 2010, making it third of 10 in Scotland. All these and many more amount to things people do not generally know about universities in Scotland.
I learned a lot at the School of Law, Glasgow University. The lectures were conducted in seminars. Students participated in round table discussions and presentations. Although the preparation could be time consuming, this was very important as it afforded students the opportunity to make salient contributions through observations. In this way, the law was developed. The lecturers constantly updated the lecture modules with current developments in domestic and international law. This was done in different ways: slides, voice recordings, lecture notes etc, thus supporting visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The course content was interesting, and there was qualitative delivery of seminars. The small size of these seminars made it easier to approach the academic and administrative staff.
To support the course subjects, there were extracurricular activities: lots of dinners, seminars and guest lectures. Experienced practitioners, judges and renowned legal scholars were constantly invited, and discussions and legal opinions were sought on current trends in international and European law. For example, there were panel discussions about Kosovo’s declaration of independence, and debate on the Goldstone Report on the Gaza Conflict. There were also trips abroad. Some students travelled to The Hague, where they visited among other places, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court.
There was so much to learn about Scotland. The people are so friendly, the culture is outstanding, and the history is great. Scotland is important not just to Europe but the world at large. It should be remembered that at a time in history Scotland revolutionised the world. The Scottish Enlightenment period in the 18th century was characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. The impact of this era was felt in areas such as music, economics, and sociology. Advances in medicine were dramatic, and Edinburgh became a world leader in medical research and the training of physicians. Politically, the movement had a massive impact. The influence of the movement spread beyond Scotland across the British Empire, and into the continent. These ideas even influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States, which broke away from the Empire in 1775. Scotland helped to lay the foundation for the development of world economics, politics and technology and it was a rare privilege to study in this part of the world.
As I now prepare to take a walk back home to visit my people, I feel happy, proud, and excited that I completed my masters in an exceptional place. However, I still have some concerns.
First, the programme was for one year and it was obviously a crash course. There was no time to adapt to a completely different environment. A solid student welfare scheme would be beneficial. I would suggest a scheme that ensures that students are followed up from admission until their first day at the faculty. I would not suggest that the university should help students with visa and entry preparations, but it would be comforting for a member of staff to be in contact with prospective students to ensure that they arrive at the faculty safely. The school might also organise and publicise a pre-induction programme and seminars to offer a proper orientation for students (even before leaving their home countries). The masters process could commence before the student arrives at the faculty. Modules, manuals and necessary papers could be issued before students arrive. This would help students to prepare adequately for the task ahead.
Secondly, and most importantly, the cost of going to school is increasing and funding is even more difficult to obtain these days. There is an expectation of some additional benefits in exchange for the £10,750 fee for a one year programme. I would suggest that there should be a more holistic process. The Law Faculty might work in conjunction with law firms and corporations to provide paid internships for students, giving valuable practical experience to the students. In this way, the LLM would be not just for future academics but would help students who might want to diversify after their programme. I carried out voluntary work for the legal department of the National Trust for Scotland in order to obtain some exposure to the law in practice in Scotland and that was a valuable experience for me.
At the moment, there is a failure by employers to give formal recognition of the value of a masters degree. If employers provided an LLM status in their employment schemes and training programmes this would help build confidence.
While the experience was good and amounted to one of those moments in time and life not to be readily forgotten, there are steps which could be taken by the university and the legal profession to ensure that a masters degree is more realistic and worthwhile.