Post-LL.M. Career Focus: The US Job Market

Post-LL.M. Career Focus: The US Job Market

How to improve your chances of landing a job in the US after your LL.M.

[Update, June 2018: Read the new article, Working in the US after an LL.M., for more information about post-LL.M. careers in the US.]

Above all, doing an LL.M. is fun. But there is, of course, a serious side to it. Many students actually see it as a beachhead for accessing the job market of another jurisdiction. This is especially true for those who do their LL.M. in the United States. But what are the odds of getting a prestigious job, say on Wall Street or at the UN, after completing your LL.M.? What factors come into play, and how can you increase your chances?

Generally speaking, if you are a foreign lawyer who wants to make it in the US legal market, the timing is less than ideal. With the economic crisis just behind it, US law firms are still in restructuring mode. Also, most big law firms are yet to find their ideal business model, with the trend moving away from full service and more toward boutiques and in-house solutions. These unstable conditions mean that employers are looking for more security, and employing a foreigner is most often seen as the riskier choice. 

“Life is going to be tougher, especially for LL.M.s,” says Kabir Duggal of Baker & McKenzie. He was one of only 2 out of around 30 Indian NYU LL.M. grads in 2008 who were lucky enough to find a job in the US. What makes it harder for international students is, above all, competition with JDs, who have spent more of their legal education in the US, and therefore have a better opportunity to specialize in areas relevant to the US market. In addition, they are more used to the American way of business, including the process of applying for a job. 

“Generally speaking, the American legal culture is more aggressive, be it in court, in meetings, or in job interviews”, says another New York lawyer from Asia.

What to look for

Obviously, your chances depend on where you come from and where you want to go. Speaking to the latter point first, applicants should know what they want, but they can possibly increase their chances by being somewhat flexible. For instance, it might help to keep in mind that there is not only New York, and that indeed quite some jobs are on offer in cities like Washington D.C., Boston, or Chicago. Also, it is actually most common to make a deal with domestic firms or domestic offices of US-based firms to get a placement in New York for one year, and then return to the respective home country. This model is the most advantageous for firms, which are always on the search for ways to establish or tighten business contacts in foreign jurisdictions. So, it can make sense to take advantage of the situation in countries other than the US. 

Columbia LL.M. Tobias Winkler says that the German and Belgian legal job markets are increasingly graduate-friendly these days, at least for those who finish in the top 10-15 percent of their class. This is also true of highly protective markets, like Brazil or India. 

It also means that, if they promise a domestic law firm to come back to an office in their home country at some point, at least the top applicants have some leverage if it comes to negotiating contracts that will place them in one of the firm’s US offices for some time, even though such deals become less popular in general. Also, this model might not be the top choice for everyone who wants to start a legal career in the US for good. But it can be a way to at least get a foot in the door.

How to get an edge

What are the credentials that can give you the edge over other applicants?

Generally speaking, given the extremely high level of competition for the top jobs, there are hardly any trump cards. In general, firms are looking for the people who can bring the best business opportunities. Of course, LL.M. students will most likely be unable to provide concrete assets in this respect. But there are definitely some “pluses," and it might make sense to acquire as many as possible. 

Of course, languages play quite an important role. According to Duggal, Spanish is very frequently requested; not only by law firms, but also by international institutions. Spanish is, for example, one of the languages that is becoming increasingly important for the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

Portuguese can also be valuable, given the important commercial ties between the US and Brazil and the fact that it is less frequent among applicants than Spanish. French, too, still plays a major (yet decreasing) role given its huge influence within international law and institutions.

Generally speaking, it will definitely be an advantage to master a language from countries with which the US has important business relations—think of Mandarin/Cantonese, or Russian (oil and gas in central Asia).

If a firm recruits you because they’re tightening business relations with a specific country, however, it may be that they will not grant permanent employment, but rather a job as a “foreign associate”, which will eventually send you back to one of the firm’s offices in your home country.

A job candidate’s area of interest is also relevant. Competition with JDs will be highest in fields like corporate law or mergers and acquisitions, so chances might be better in areas that require less US-specific knowledge and thus provide for a more level playing field, e.g. arbitration or international law. Again, applicants can see this as a door opener and maintain their flexibility to expand or change their areas of practice once they get in.

Speaking of flexibility, an applicant’s degree of specialization is usually a somewhat ambiguous factor: On the one hand, it might make sense to remain flexible, because firms might be interested in testing and shaping their employees. On the other hand, rare specializations can be a plus, but it is not always easy to anticipate what firms will be looking for. So even an acclaimed publication on a specific topic will not necessarily be of advantage.

Publications, too, can be somewhat ambiguous. A problem can be that firms are more and more risk-averse. So it might eventually turn out to be disadvantageous having published controversial ideas—or, indeed anything that can possibly be held against a firm—even if it is published before the author actually started working for them. The good news of course is that this means not having published anything before starting job applications is not that much of a handicap.

Finally, it will certainly do no harm if you graduate from a top ranked law school, but again, there are no single decisive factors, and even an Ivy-League degree will most likely not be a game changer.

Some general advice

In light of this somewhat obscure picture, applicants these days have to be patient more than anything else. They will most likely have to receive a pile of rejections, and be ready to deal with a decent amount of frustration.

In order to maximize chances, applications should highlight everything that potential employers can connect to their need to generate new business opportunities: As said above, that can be existing business contacts, but also languages, flexibility, or possibly specializations.

Above all, networking is still the single-most promising strategy, with a lot of recommendations actually being made without the applicant even noticing. It will therefore most likely be a huge advantage to build one or several strong relationships with professors or influential lawyers. Such an investment is very likely to boost a young graduate’s career more than anything else.

Attending events like the New York job fair—which is put on by NYU and Columbia each year and allows law students from all over the country to schmooze on roof-top bars and interview with a bunch of law firms—can also help you get a leg-up on the competition.

What is more, networking remains important even if you are in a more advanced phase of your career: “The New York job fair is a good place to develop closer ties with other high-end law firms and is therefore a good platform for international legal business”, says Constantin Solyar, LL.M. student at Harvard and tax partner in a Kiev-based law firm.

Also, the relevance of the actual interviewing process should not be underestimated: “In the end, a lot comes down to the chemistry in the interviews, be it at the job fair or elsewhere”, says Marina Lemos Pires, a Brazilian LL.M. candidate at Harvard Law School, who recently landed a job at Cravath. And in general, making friends and getting people involved in your case is always a good idea. So it is advisable for applicants to contact those people within the firm or institution of their choice, especially those who have something in common and might therefore feel sympathetic with the applicant’s case.

Last but not least, it can also make sense to make use of your being different—even if the legal world is still dominated by old white men, diversity can be a plus. So the bottom line at this point obviously is: Get in touch and keep trying!

In conclusion, landing a job in the US market is hard and it will not get better any time soon. The same old truths are even truer these days: If you want to make it, get in touch, collect ”pluses” on your way, try to offer something distinct, and network, network, network.


Image: neetalparekh / Flickr (cropped) -  Creative Commons

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