The biggest challenge for many who secure places on LL.M. programs is not the complexities of their course, but the challenge of becoming a student again after years of employment. To help mitigate these challenges, law schools say that it is incumbent on incoming LL.M. students to thoroughly prepare for the degree, long before they enrol.
Indeed, prep for an LL.M. must begin in the summer -- whether that’s taking refresher law courses or meeting with your future classmates and faculty to ease the transition back into full-time education.
“Students returning to full time study after having worked for several years sometimes underestimate the amount of time and effort needed to excel in an LL.M. program. It can also be a financial adjustment to not work for 10 months when you are accustomed to a full-time salary,” says Martin D. Slavens, Director of Graduate Admissions at Fordham Law School in New York City.
“Lawyers tend to be ambitious and are used to long, hard hours. Some may believe that a year of study will be less demanding,” says Slavens. This tendency is compounded by the fact that most LL.M. students at Fordham earned their first law degree outside of the U.S.
Candidates can avoid this pitfall by speaking with their academic advisor when registering for classes and communicating with alumni and returning students to learn from their experiences. He adds: “Students should be conservative when planning their schedules the first semester and leave time to take part in activities that will come up during the semester.”
Slavens further advises prospective and admitted LL.M. students to better understand the variety of experiences and opportunities available during the LL.M. degree. “Read through the brochures and online materials to learn about clinics, externships, centers and institutes, journals, and student organizations. If you have time, come for a short-term program.”
Fordham offers a Summer Institute in July and a full-time, semester-long Legal English Institute in the fall.
Don’t low-ball the commitment of an LL.M.
One of the biggest mistakes that LL.M. students can make when they return to full-time study is low-balling the time commitment that it entails, which can be upwards of 36 hours a week. For non-native English speakers, students from civil law countries, and those unfamiliar with U.S. teaching methods, it may require even more time.
To avoid some of these mistakes, students should seek out support programs offered by their law school, says Sandra Friedrich, the Assistant Dean of International Graduate Law Programs at Miami Law.
For example, at Miami Law, students may attend Dean’s Fellow study sessions hosted by students who excelled academically in the class previously. They can also attend workshops hosted by the Academic Achievement Program on topics like note-taking and studying for exams.
“We also host an extensive orientation program to help students prepare for their studies and adjust to life in a new environment including sessions on navigating the housing market, how to access course materials, academic support services, and information on the U.S. bar exam,” says Friedrich.
It is also important for students to make time for post-LL.M. professional development during their studies, she stresses, such as sessions with career advisors on CVs, job applications and networking opportunities.
Show up at law school with an open mind
Other law schools talk about the importance of leaving your habits at the door when you begin the LL.M. and keeping an open mind to how you write and approach legal problems.
“For folks who already know things, sometimes that prior knowledge is actually a detriment. So you have to understand that while you may be an expert in mergers and acquisitions, this is a completely different way of looking at the problem, and you have to embrace it whether you agree or disagree with it,” says Oleg Kobelev, Associate Dean of International Studies at Duke Law School in North Carolina.
Preparation for that transition is critical. “As soon as you decide that you want to do an LL.M., you should start preparing,” he adds. “My advice to students is not to worry about acquisition of U.S. legal knowledge … but to start practicing legal English. Even for native speakers, it’s almost like a new language because the terminology and approach is very different.”
He adds: “For international LLM students, the U.S. legal system is radically different from that of most other countries because it is built upon the foundation of the Socratic method and is practice-oriented. So in our experience, students of different ages find it somewhat challenging to switch to a U.S. style of legal learning.”
It can be helpful, therefore, to start listening to legal podcasts and those hosted by law professors, Kobelev says. “They really give students an opportunity to both hear and to appreciate how American lawyers and law professors talk, and how they approach and synthesize complex issues.” The podcast that he recommends is Strict Scrutiny, as well as SCOTUS Talk.