Many overseas LL.M. students come to the US to practice law in the country on graduation, which usually means taking the bar exam, which each state conducts independently, sometimes with big variations in requirements for candidates.
An LL.M. degree is one of America’s most popular law programs, but it does not necessarily make one eligible to sit for a bar exam in a US state. In fact, only a handful of states accept the LL.M. degree for their bar exams, with many requiring that extra studying is done for the bar, beyond the extensive LL.M. syllabus.
A two-year JD as an alternative to an LL.M.
An alternative for overseas students who want to practice in the US is a two-year JD degree, which makes graduates eligible to sit for the bar exam across America.
Katherine Barnes, associate dean in the James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona, explains: “The biggest difference between an LL.M. and a two-year JD degree is that with a JD, individuals are eligible to sit for a bar exam in any US state; with an LL.M., they are limited to only a few jurisdictions (New York, Texas, California, among others).”
If you know where you want to practice, then the LL.M. is the most viable option for you, says Barnes. On the other hand, JD degrees will give you more mobility across states, so they are better for people who don’t know where they plan to settle.
“When deciding which degree program to do, prospective students should really think about their future careers,” Barnes adds. “What state do they see themselves practicing in? Do they see themselves needing to be bar certified at all? Do they just need specialized knowledge for a job they already have?”
The other big difference between the courses is time, she says. “An LL.M. is generally a one-year degree. The second year of a JD allows students to learn a wider breadth of topics, and positions them well for an American bar.”
“JD degrees also greatly expand the job opportunities after graduation within the US,” she adds. “LL.M. students don’t have as much time to participate in all of the programs and activities that a career development office provides.”
But two years, of course, means two years of tuition as well. So the fees and the opportunity cost of being out of work may be higher on a JD course, leading to a lower return on students’ investment in a law degree. “The main drawback of the JD degree is the additional time and money,” says Barnes.
A "deeper and broader engagement with US law"
Given the time and cost, is it worthwhile to pursue a two-year JD? Jim Speta, vice dean of the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University in Illinois, believes so.
“The additional year provides a deeper and broader engagement with US law, simply by virtue of that extra time,” he says.
“Depending on the school, the JD degree may also involve more exposure to traditional common law subjects and may involve more integration with domestic US students.”
Little wonder, then, that law schools appear to be offering more two-year JD degrees – including the School of Law at University of Washington and Pepperdine School of Law.
American JD programs have traditionally been three years long, but the new shorter options at many schools so as to reduce student debt and attract students who may not otherwise consider a graduate law school education.
The accelerated JD courses, aimed primarily at international attorneys, generally give one year of credit for a law education completed abroad, taking the total time investment down to two years.
“There appears to be an increased demand for the degree from international students and attorneys. Part of that may be a desire for differentiation from those with LL.M. degrees, but I think that it is largely a desire for a more extensive educational experience,” says Speta.
Yet there have been concerns that these degrees cut out some of the elective modules and practical experiences that give students the soft skills and experience that law firm employers want in graduates.
Another potential downside is that JD degrees tend to require that candidates take the LSAT for admission, whereas LL.M. degrees generally don’t require the test.
Speta, however, says it’s not a drawback: “It is an indication that the school thinks the LSAT provides some useful information to predict success at the school. And, where the LSAT is required, students can prepare for it, as with other admissions exams.”
The decision on which course to pursue, though, is likely to come down to whether you want to take a bar exam or not. After all, it’s one of the main reasons overseas students come to US law schools.