7 Reasons Why Lawyers Do An LL.M.

Some of the most common reasons why some lawyers go back to law school - and some of the reasons they might think twice.

[Update July, 2017. Read the related article "What Can I Do With an LL.M."]

Lawyers go back to get an LL.M. degree for many reasons. Here are some of the most common ones.

01. Upgrade your Alma mater

For better or worse, brand names still get people's attention. Hiring partners and HR directors are no different. If your first law school isn't making your resume jump out at potential employers, adding a second (more well-known) one might help. Although it probably shouldn't be your sole reason for doing an LL.M., upgrading does show ambition and an upward career trajectory.

But getting that elite school on your resume won't be cheap. Pretty much anywhere you do an LL.M., tuition and living costs will probably reach well into the five-digit range. For full-time programs, there are also the “opportunity costs” to consider – that is, all the money you aren't earning during the academic year.

So, while there may be scholarships available, getting an LL.M. will be a significant investment. Think about whether that extra name will deliver on your expectations, and whether your expectations are realistic.

02. Sit a US Bar exam

Passing a US state bar exam has long been a hard-fought honor for many foreign lawyers who get their LL.M. in the United States, regardless of whether they intend to stay or return home. This is especially true for students interested in international business law or similar subjects.

“To go back home and say they've passed the bar in New York shows that they have a deep understanding of the US system,” says Bill Churma, assistant director of admissions of the International Legal Studies program at American University's Washington College of Law.

“For employers back home – especially in a civil law society – this can only help when dealing with international and US-based clients,” adds Churma. “It also signifies a level of English that you not only passed the LL.M., but you are able to pass a state exam that is not an easy thing to do for Americans.”

Not easy, indeed. Of the 5,700 foreign lawyers who sat a US bar exam in 2010, only 31 percent passed.

03. Develop a specialization

In some fields of law, like tax, getting an LL.M. is common part of a lawyer's training. Lawyers also often use the LL.M. to deepen an existing specialization or develop a new one, particularly when their first law school didn't offer that concentration.

“Lawyers are seeking out specializations that go beyond tax law – things like labor and employment law, immigration law, intellectual property, business and financial regulation,” says Hilary T. Lappin, assistant director of admissions for Washington College of Law's Law and Government program.

“These are really specific topics they can't focus on in their J.D. program because they're basically studying for the bar,” adds Lappin.

But in the US, at least, it may soon get harder to specialize. New standards for LL.M. programs – like those recently introduced for programs that qualify foreign lawyers for the New York State Bar – would force LL.M. students to do more of their program units on bar-oriented courses rather than working toward a chosen concentration, like corporate finance or intellectual property.

This would affect one of the main reasons for doing an LL.M.. Therefore, it's worth asking the law schools you are interested what the implications of these new standards might be on their program structures and course offerings.

Browse LL.M. programs by specialization.

04. Improve your English

To improve foreign language skills, obviously there's nothing like spending a year in a country where that language is spoken. Hiring law firms know this. International firms like to see that you've gotten through a year of law school in an English-speaking country (or at least an English-speaking program). It means you'll be more confident with “Legal English,” as well as the everyday "soft" English you will need just to survive and develop friendships.

Some law schools offer two-year LL.M. programs, which give students more time to work on their legal English.

05. Get a job

Sadly, some hiring law firms still don't care much about the LL.M. But others have begun to see the degree as an asset for new hires. It's just another way for job-seeking lawyers to stand out, particularly in a competitive job market.

But doing an LL.M. can also open doors to new job prospects in other ways. Exclusive job fairs, like NYU's International Student Interview Program or UCLA's West Coast International LL.M. Job Fair, are possible avenues for contact with potential employers, and they are only open to LL.M. students. The same goes with internships that are a key component of some LL.M. programs.

Then there's networking. Access to a new group of professors, fellow students, and alumni certainly won't hurt your chances of landing a job. Many law schools encourage LL.M. students to be proactive in building this network during the academic year.

“Networking is one of the most underrated reasons why the LL.M. degree is so useful in today’s global legal environment,” says Sandra Buteau, director of Graduate Career Services and Professional Development at Georgetown Law. “It is not the primary reason to get an LL.M., but it is a significant benefit when attending a large international law school.”

Meanwhile the recession that began in 2008 hit the law profession hard. Many firms laid off lawyers, merged with other firms, or shut down completely. This has contributed to a situation where, at least in the United States, law schools are graduating twice as many lawyers as there are legal positions. That makes for a tough market, especially for foreign lawyers who want to compete with domestic lawyers for jobs.

06. Get some international experience

It almost seems like a truism now, but international experience is more valuable for lawyers than ever, particularly those working in international firms or organizations. With an LL.M., you can choose Washington DC to get a taste of the policymaking action. You can go for New York, London, or Singapore to be in an international business hub. Or you can pick Leiden or Amsterdam for their proximity to The Hague. We could go on and on, but you get the idea.

“One of the effects of globalization has been that for many legal jobs, they require an understanding of legal relationships an international level,” says Lawrence McNamara, head of postgraduate research at Reading University School of Law. “It's increasingly valuable in the overall private sector, commercial sector, government sector, and NGO sector.”

07. Research and publish

Several LL.M. programs are research-oriented, which gives students a chance to dive deep into topics, and – with faculty guidance – come out with a publishable piece of research. Of course, publishing articles is good for a lawyer's resume. A research-focused LL.M. is also a gateway into Ph.D. work, which can open up career doors whether you want to teach or not.

“A Ph.D. is superb qualification, and it's not just about academia anymore,” says McNamara. “I was looking at a hedge fund website the other day, and all of the researchers and analysts had PhDs.”

“The doctorate really does open up some great career paths,” adds McNamara. “And a well-thought-out LL.M. can be a really good path into that.”


Image: "Harvard Law School Library in Langdell Hall at night" by Chensiyuan. - Own work.. Licensed under GFDL via Commons - (cropped)

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