Landing a job in Big Law after a Tax LL.M.

There are diverse job opportunities on offer, but students need to be proactive and engaged from the start of their job search

Tax law has grown in importance in recent years, with politicians across the globe seeking to clamp down on tax avoidance and companies coming up with ever more clever means of limiting their tax liability. More recently, tax has swung into focus as economies look to rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic.

But it is the plethora of career paths that tends to attract students to Tax Law LL.M.s. Gradates of these programs can work as tax advisors to global corporations or wealthy individuals, as tax inspectors or in the tax practices of Big Law firms.

The problem for LL.M. students is that there is no real recruitment process at these law firms, and this is also true for their tax practices, which tend to hire based on need rather than to meet an annual quota. Graduates who do get hired by large law firms are those that take the initiative and are proactive about networking and engaging with the local legal community. The best law schools offer a range of opportunities for students to do this.

Among graduates of American JD programs, Tax LL.M. programs are often considered the most popular among all specialized degree options because they can help law professionals transition into this lucrative area, providing substantial career advancement along the way. 

In fact, many top law schools run specialist LL.M. programs in international and domestic tax law, including top US schools like NYU, Georgetown and Northwestern. These courses provide a grounding in substantive tax rules and tax policy, and are taught by leading academics and practitioners.

Many Big Law firms hire LL.M. graduates at University of Miami School of Law, which puts on a Graduate Program in Taxation. These firms include Bilzin Sumberg, Holland & Knight, Greenberg Traurig, Gunster, Baker McKenzie, Shutts & Bowen, and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

The work at these firms tends to focus on international tax planning, both inbound and outbound, for corporations or high net worth individuals, or domestic mergers and acquisitions. Other graduates work for the Big Four accounting firms, and a minority do tax controversy work for the government as tax inspectors, or in the private sector. At other schools, students may work as academic researchers.

Get involved

Aside from the LL.M. credential, students can boost their chances of being hired by getting involved in the tax law community, meeting the local tax bar members, and volunteering within these organizations, says Debbie Rowe, director of domestic LL.M. career and professional development programs at Miami Law.

Students at this school get to know the key players in the Florida legal sector. For instance, the law school hosts “Tax Tuesdays”, with practitioners from law firms, accounting firms, banks and family offices (often alumni) meeting up with students.

Students also participate in the University of Miami’s Accounting Career Fair each fall, which brings together international, national and regional accounting firms on the campus to recruit tax students.

“LL.M. students need to learn how to network,” says Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean at Fordham Law School in New York. “A big mistake that students make when networking is to view networking as a job search strategy; it is not. Networking is a mechanism by which we develop a network through which information can flow.”

Be proactive

At Fordham Law School, LL.M. graduates are often hired at the New York City offices of firms including Clifford Chance, Curtis Mallet, Dentons, Dorsey, Mattos Filho, Morgan Lewis Bockius, Shearman & Stearling. Good grades and work experience always help in landing a job at these firms, but because the recruitment process is less linear than for JD students, LL.M. students need to be proactive and engaged from the start of their job search.

Jaeger-Fine recommends that LL.M. students try to get an externship (akin to a short internship) in the US. “Employers like to see that international LL.M. students have some familiarity with prevailing norms of professionalism in the US, which may be different across cultures,” she says.

“Having an externship or other volunteer experience both helps international LL.M. students acclimate to the US professional culture and gives comfort to employers that they can make that transition smoothly.” Externships are also a great way to meet people in the local legal community.

Fordham Law helps with this, through the Graduate Professional Development Program that offers students the tools and resources they need to develop and execute a successful job search strategy. It covers everything from resume and cover letter writing assistance, to mock interviews and networking workshops. “We host events where students can meet alumni,” says Jaeger-Fine.

She adds that some overseas students also get job opportunities by leveraging their professional contacts in their home country, many of which have affiliations with large law firms in the US.

It is not easy to get hired by a big law firm’s tax practice, but many students do. They are likely to be those who can network effectively, leverage their law school’s career service and alumni network, and get involved in extracurricular activities.  

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