How to Fund An LL.M. in America on a Budget

From scholarships to loans, there are a range of funding sources available. The benefits of doing an LL.M. in the US should far outweigh the cost

An LL.M. is a significant investment of time and money. For most students, it means leaving their current job, sacrificing their income and disrupting their social or family life. But it’s almost always worth it, if you know why you want your degree and what you plan to do with it.

Most LL.M. students studying in the US fund their education from a combination of sources that may include a partial scholarship, personal savings, government or employer sponsorship, a private loan or a family contribution.

Like most US-based schools, Berkeley Law in California offers a variety of LL.M. scholarships, ranging from partial to full tuition fees. All admitted students are automatically considered for the awards, which are based mostly on merit, but also country of origin and practice area. Admitted students who have received a scholarship offer from another LL.M. program may have their offer matched by Berkeley Law.

There are also a number of coveted and highly competitive external scholarship programs, such as the Fulbright Scholars Program or Rotary Scholarships.

[See the Top 10 Budget LL.M.s in the USA]

Other overseas students procure educational loans in their home countries to finance study abroad. Private loans from US banks generally require a US citizen to be a co-signer, so relatively few international students take that option. International students are also ineligible to receive federal loans.

But many countries have their own funding organizations that help support graduate studies in the US with a competitive application process. For example, Colfuturo in Colombia; Guatefuturo in Guatemala; the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD); FUNED in Mexico; the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission.

Beyond LL.M. scholarships and loans

Sometimes, LL.M. students are sponsored by their companies or law firms. But these arrangements generally come with strings attached, obligating the student to return to their sponsor after graduation for a fixed period of time.

Students can work to make money during the LL.M. program to help defray expenses, but visa regulations limit international students to 20 hours of on-campus work (off-campus work is prohibited in the first academic year, at least for F-1 visa holders). 

LL.M. students often work as a research assistant for professors, but these opportunities are mainly pursued for the experience, not as a way to pay for tuition. Teaching assistantships, whereby a student teaches a class in exchange for a partial-tuition waiver, are generally not available to LL.M. students. 

There are other work opportunities on campus, such as in any of the university’s libraries, though these opportunities will currently be limited due to Covid-19 health and safety measures. These sorts of jobs may help cover some living expenses, but won’t meaningfully reduce the overall cost of attendance.

“If tuition is top of mind, which it is for most students, we strongly recommend applying to programs associated with public law schools, as opposed to programs associated with private schools,” says Amit Schlesinger, executive director of bar prep programs at Kaplan. “In almost all cases, private LL.M. programs will be significantly more expensive.”

Location, location, location

Schlesinger also suggests that students not just look at the sticker price of the program, but where the school is located. For example, the cost of living in New York City and San Francisco is far more expensive than the cost of living in cities like Atlanta or Las Vegas. Renting a one-bedroom apartment in New York City can cost upwards of $2,000 per month, while renting one in Atlanta might be $500 less. “Research housing options before you accept an offer,” says Schlesinger.

Allison Lamson, assistant director for global legal studies at Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia, which is relatively affordable, says students can save money by sharing a house with classmates and cooking at home, which comes with the added benefit of forming lasting friendships.

Berkeley Law’s tuition fees include a bus pass, a free way to get to campus each day that can help students to access cheaper neighborhoods further away from the school but without sacrificing a sense of community. At other schools without this perk, living near campus can reduce transportation costs.

Of course, students can save on all these items by pursuing an online program. If they enrol on a part-time basis, which is generally the case, they can continue to earn while they learn.

But there are some fixed costs, regardless of the mode of study. “All students should know that law school case books and supplementary materials are expensive,” says John Riccardi, assistant dean for graduate and international programs at Boston University School of Law.

“Many schools, however, have arrangements with publishers that make these resources available online. There’s also a vibrant market for used books which students can access through the internet.”

Is doing an LL.M. in the US worth it?

Ultimately, the benefits of doing an LL.M. should far outweigh the cost. “There’s a certain cachet for foreign-trained lawyers who earn an LL.M. in America, which could be a differentiator when they return to their home countries,” says Kaplan’s Schlesinger.

“Our LL.M. graduates often view their degree as an investment in their future career growth,” says Anya Grossmann, director of global outreach at Berkeley Law. “Alumni have gone into business with each other, sent each other clients or jobs, and have used their advanced degree to reach higher levels of their professional path.”

BU Law’s Riccardi notes that students benefit not only from the marketable credential they receive, but from the personal growth and new perspectives they experience. “It’s important to regard the LL.M. as a long-term investment, with dividends that can pay off handsomely over time,” he says.

“I’m not dismissing the very real financial challenges students face in the near term. But if they can afford the investment through a combination of funding sources, they will realize gains for years to come.”  

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