If you’re a law student from outside the English-speaking world who dreams of practicing law in the United States or United Kingdom, chances are you’ve considered pursuing an LL.M. in order to get your foot in the door of the legal establishment in one of these countries.
But there’s one major hurdle that students from outside the English-speaking world face when applying for LL.M.s in one of these countries: proving their language chops.
Many law schools require students to either submit a Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, score, or an International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, score. These tests are administered year-round all over the world and are designed to assess students’ English reading, writing, speaking and comprehension skills. The TOEFL is scored out of 120, while each of the four sections on the IELTS is scored out of 9.0.
What TOEFL or IELTS score do you need to get into an LL.M. program?
To apply for an LL.M. program, many schools won’t accept students with a TOEFL score below 100, or an average IELTS score below 7.0. And in many cases, that verdict is final.
“We don’t have wiggle room,” says Anne Flanagan, professor of communication law at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). “I believe that careful consideration has gone into what skill level it takes to do well on a particular program.”
Officials stress that this no-tolerance policy on TOEFL and IELTS scores is a safeguard for the sake of students.
“What you cannot do is admit a student whose English is not good enough, because that's a disservice to the student,” says Carmen Perez-Llorca, director of the International Law LL.M. at the University of Miami School of Law.
“Even if you're really excited about the candidate, they're really impressive and they have unbelievable careers in their home country, if their English is not going to allow them to be successful, it's not a good idea to admit the student.”
Pre-LL.M. English options for students with low TOEFL or IELTS scores
But directors like Flanagan and Perez-Llorca don’t want to let highly qualified foreign students get away, just because their TOEFL or IELTS scores are low. That’s why many schools are starting special professional English courses to bring non-native speakers up to speed and give them a chance to gain admittance to LL.M. programs. This year, Miami, which requires a minimum TOEFL score of 92 or a minimum IETLS score of 7.0, launched an intensive English program specifically geared towards low-scoring LL.M. applicants. This three-semester program allows LL.M. students to complete one semester of intensive English before going on to regular LL.M. coursework.
“We had noticed that we were getting many applications from qualified students, some of them really qualified, impressive students, that however did not have the minimum TOEFL score that we required,” Perez-Llorca says. “We do not believe in just lowering our standards when it comes to a TOEFL score, even when the student is very good.”
“Our idea, and the reason why we launched this program, is that rather than telling the students, ‘go learn some English and then come back,’ we would take them on and teach them the English skills they needed to succeed.”
One student in this inaugural year at Miami’s program is Lorena Senra, a law graduate from Spain who moved to Miami last year. Senra wanted to continue working in law in the United States, and believed an LL.M. would help her down that path. So she applied to and enrolled in Miami’s new program.
Senra says that besides the English instruction classes, where she learns about legal writing, oral communication, and law vocabulary pertaining to subjects such as tort, civil, and criminal law, she’s also learning about cultural differences in communication.
“In Spain or Latin America or even in Saudi Arabia, we tend to write a lot. To tell one idea we used to write paragraph after paragraph. Americans, just one sentence is the way they want it.
If you're not used to it, it's really complicated,” says Senra, who plans to complete her LL.M. at Miami before pursuing a J.D. there.
“Americans have a really systematic way to write, a certain number of paragraphs, certain types of sentences. We've learned those things.”
Although Queen Mary doesn’t offer a specialized LL.M. with a semester of legal English, the school does offer the option to attend several weeks of professional English training classes. At Queen Mary, a 7.0 on the IETLS—with a 7.0 in the IELTS writing section—is required for admission, but students with scores as low as 6.0 overall and 5.5 in writing can take up to 13 weeks of professional English class and then gain admittance to the program contingent on achieving a satisfactory score in class.
Plenty of other schools also offer intensive legal English courses, including USC’s Gould School of Law, Boston University, Duke Law, American University's Washington College of Law, UC Davis, Georgetown Law, the University of Washington, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Vanderbilt Law School, and Yale Law.
Other schools outside of the United States that offer similar courses include the University of Edinburgh, LSE, and Bangor Law School.
Getting a better TOEFL score by going outside the classroom
For low-scoring students without the time, resources or inclination to pursue one of these intensive English courses, officials have one suggestion: study on your own, but don’t try to cheat the test.
“I would advise them to improve their English,” says Miami’s Perez-Llorca, “but it's not about getting lucky.”
Perez-Llorca and Flanagan at QMUL both advise students to self-study by immersing themselves in a wide variety of English language activities that include reading, writing, listening and speaking.
“I would urge a student who knows they want to get ready for a master's program to have a clear approach to do that,” said Flanagan. “Watch television, movies, talk to someone, try to take notes from a news report, write it down, understand what's been talked about.”
Flanagan says it takes 120 hours of study to level up in a language, so it’s no small feat to tackle this endeavor alone. But Flanagan points out that students who improve their English are only helping themselves, since a grasp of the language is essential for an international career these days.
“Their brains have to hurt at the end of the day, and they're very brave to do it, but it's good for the global level practice of law,” she says. “You need to have facility in English in many firms to achieve that level of entry into the profession. I think it's a very valuable and worthwhile endeavor to try to achieve that.”
Image: John Keogh / CC BY-NC 2.0 (cropped)