With law schools predicting a surge in applications from candidates hoping to ride out an impending recession, many aspiring LL.M. students are enrolling in a pre-degree summer course to give themselves an edge in what may yet become a highly competitive application cycle.
A number of institutions run summer programs ahead of LL.M. start dates, especially for overseas lawyers hoping to improve their command of the English language. But the coronavirus is disrupting summer programs that are usually held on campus. Many are being put online instead.
Since 1992, UC Davis School of Law in California has held the English for Legal Professionals program — a 30-hour summer course which includes an introduction to English and legal analysis. But this year it’s being delivered digitally in July via videoconference.
The importance of English proficiency in an LL.M. program
Kate Asche, associate director of marketing for international programs, says that the fast pace of the LL.M. and heavy workload can quickly overwhelm unprepared students who need to swiftly become comfortable with listening, speaking, reading and writing in English, and understand the US legal system.
“Many of them move to a foreign country to study foreign law in a foreign language; everything about this path is a challenge,” she says. “This is why strategic preparation is critical.”
Reading the legal section of an English newspaper like the New York Times can help, as does listening to podcasts to pick up on American accents, phrasing and culture. Some students elect to join a book club to discuss the law in English.
BU Law in Boston runs a pre-degree English program starting in late May. It has helped hundreds of overseas lawyers to succeed at many schools, including Harvard and Columbia.
“English proficiency is directly tied to getting the most out of the LL.M. experience, not just academic success; the law is language,” says John Riccardi, assistant dean for graduate and international programs.
“Unlike law studies in most other countries, the US classroom is an active, not a passive experience,” he adds. “Being able to participate in these exchanges and express one’s thoughts with fluidity enables an international student to experience US legal education at its essence.”
The USC Gould School of Law in California suggests that incoming LL.M. students familiarize themselves with the popular case method of learning, where students engage in discussions to stimulate critical thinking and widen perspectives.
The school holds Academic Excellence Workshops in the summer, so as to empower students to practice techniques for learning and studying US law.
“This is critical,” says Anitha Cadambi, associate director of graduate curriculum. “Our LL.M. places a lot of focus on student preparation, classroom discussion and initiative. We do not have a traditional lecture-style of teaching, and students should be willing to change their study methods to adapt to these differences.”
She tells her students to treat the LL.M. like a full-time job. “They would never attend a client meeting unprepared. The same applies to class and exam preparation, which puts students in a position to be successful,” she says.
Re-adjusting to a classroom setting
The biggest challenge for many LL.M. students is not the complexity of the curriculum or learning method, however, but the challenge of becoming a student again after years in the workforce.
“Some students have been practicing law for several years, so it takes them time to adjust to the law school environment and to remember how to be full-time students again,” says Caryn Voland, assistant dean of graduate admissions at Georgetown Law in Washington DC.
The school runs, beginning in July, the six-week long LL.M. Summer Experience Program. It covers the foundations of American law; students then choose from a second course in either professional responsibility or legal research. The modules fulfill some New York bar requirements and give students greater flexibility in course selection on the LL.M.
Voland adds that some students wish that they had taken more time consulting mentors about how to make the most of their LL.M; she recommends that they plan course selection carefully.
“Some students do not take advantage of the extracurricular activities — these are a great way to round out the richness of the experience,” says Voland.
Asche, at UC Davis, adds that those who take the summer course feel more confident in transitioning to a new legal education system, and develop a network of colleagues with whom to share their experiences and challenges. Some students also setup social media groups to support each other even before they arrive in the US.
In addition, they get an early cultural immersion that will help them adjust to their new American lifestyle. Summer programs are “a worthwhile investment”, Asche insists.
Indeed, using the summer to skill-up can go a long way towards being ready to start an LL.M. After all, the better prepared you are for taking on a challenge, the better chance you have at succeeding at it.