The LL.M. in US Law

We examine the few dozen programs where foreign lawyers can really get to know the US legal system.

It's no secret that many of the world's best law schools are in the United States. Every year, thousands of lawyers from around the world put their jobs on hold to pursue an LL.M. degree there. Many join the few dozen US law schools that offer LL.M. programs in US Law specifically for foreign lawyers.

Some lawyers enroll in these - and other US-based LL.M. programs - because they plan to take the bar exam for New York or California, two US states that allow LL.M. graduates without an American Bar Association-recognized JD degree to sit the exam.

Deborah Call, associate dean at the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law, says that about two-thirds of the students on her LL.M. program for foreign lawyers take a US state bar exam, even when their intention is to return to their home country.

"They do it because it gives them an opportunity for advancement in their job back in their home country, or gives them a leg up if they are going go back out into the job market," says Call.

"Many of our alumni are partners in their law firm now," she adds. "Passing that bar has really been a big piece of their ladder up."

While USC and other law schools offer some bar exam prep workshops for LL.M. students interested in taking the exam, it is not the focus of the academic year.

"We don't pretend to do in one year what a JD program does in three," says Peter Kochenburger, director of graduate programs at the University of Connecticut School of Law, which offers a US Law LL.M. program. "But an LL.M. is a way to get a credential to practice law in the United States in a third of the time."

Kochenburger says that despite a growing demand for specialized LL.M. programs, many lawyers from abroad are still drawn to more general US Law programs. Part of this is due to the academic reputation of US law schools abroad, which can be useful for lawyers who want to become academic professors.

Another major draw is that US Law is still one of the most - if not the most - influential and relevant legal systems in the world.

"In a practical sense, for individuals who see their legal career as working for companies or law firms that do business all over the globe - or at least more than in their home country - US Law is probably the best choice," says Kochenburger.

"Is that going to change in ten years? Who knows? But right now, it is the dominant law of commerce internationally."

According to Deborah Call at USC, students tend to choose classes within the program based how much experience they have practicing law. The average work experience for USC LL.M. students is around 3.5 years, but some come with more or less experience.

"Those that have more years of work experience are much more comfortable, and willing to take a corporate transactions class, for example," says Call. "These are the smaller seminar classes where they have to engage."

"I find that the younger students will stay in the larger, lecture-type classes."

Beyond the bar

Of course, another major advantage of a US Law LL.M. is the chance for foreign lawyers to improve their English language skills through reading assignments, interacting with classmates, writing exams, not to mention just getting by for a year living in an American city.

In addition, some smaller programs intentionally mix foreign LL.M. students with American law students. The LL.M. program at Vanderbilt University, for example, admits around 30 foreign students a year who end up taking most of their classes alongside American JD students.

"There's kind of visceral familiarity with American legal culture that develops when you've spent a year here," says Vanderbilt Law School Dean Edward Rubin. "Some of the value of an LL.M. comes from learning law, but some of it also comes from the socialization - the contact and familiarization."

"When they go back to their home countries, their ability to get on the phone with Americans, negotiate with Americans, and understand something that was written by an American is significantly better."

In addition, after a year studying in the United States, lawyers can come out with a more nuanced view of their own legal system. Rubin compares it to the time he spent studying Japanese law in Japan as a young law student.

"I found that it taught me so much about American law," says Rubin. "It made me look at our own legal system so much more critically. Here's an advanced industrialized country with essentially the same material culture as ours, and yet they can think so differently on many cases."

Like Rubin, Peter Kochenburger at UConn thinks that a diversity of foreign students also benefits American law students in an increasingly globalized profession.

"If you're in New York City or Washington DC, sitting down with foreign students might be something you've done a lot of," says Kochenburger. "That's not true of most of the country."

"Having students from Uzbekistan, Germany, China, Saudi Arabia, or Peru really brings an intellectual richness to the program and the law school as a whole," he says.

"And, I should add, they are highly coveted by our soccer team."


Image: "Supreme Court of the United States Building, Washington, DC, as seen from the west side of 1st St NE" by 350z33 / Creative Commons (cropped and rotated)

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