Two-Year LL.M.s: Taking the Time for Legal English

A growing number of two-year LL.M. programs are catering to foreign students who want the time to learn legal English and American academic customs.

Somchai Suwannathat's father owns a successful real estate company in Thailand. But when Suwannathat's father recently received a contract in English, he ran into trouble trying to translate and understand it. 

"He didn't have any kind of English proficiency. He didn't graduate from abroad, so he didn't have that power to understand clearly," says Suwannathat (name changed for privacy reasons). "My father's company is just a small company, so it's not that easy to hire somebody to take care of all of the documents."

At the time, Suwannathat was a lawyer at a boutique real estate firm in Thailand. But his father's dilemma was one of the main reasons he decided to move to the United States and enroll at Georgetown University, one of a growing number of two-year LL.M. programs designed specifically for foreign students.

The LL.M. is traditionally a one-year degree, which actually lasts closer to nine or ten months when you factor in summer break. But an increasing number of schools are offering a two-year LL.M. program targeted at foreign students like Suwannathat who want the time to grasp legal English, experience a common law system, and understand American culture, on top of a legal education. 

These programs typically focus on legal English and academic skills in the first year, along with a limited number of law classes, then introduce students to the full range of LL.M. courses in the second year of study. 

Two-year LL.M.s cater to lawyers who are entering an increasingly international work force where they must know English and understand foreign legal systems in order to compete and survive. 

"Legal practice has become extraordinarily global and complex,” says Nan Hunter, associate dean for graduate programs at Georgetown University Law Center, “and in order to engage in that you have to be able to speak English well enough to collaborate with American or British lawyers, or to be on the opposite side from American or British lawyers. You have to be able to participate in that system.”

"If your aspiration is to have a transnational practice, you simply have to be adept in legal English."

The University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law is the latest school to announce that it will roll out one of these two-year programs, starting in fall 2016. Deborah Call, associate dean of USC's graduate and international programs, says that USC decided to pioneer this new program after examining areas of unmet student demand. 

"Our LL.M. programs have been in existence for 14 years and every year we have students, particularly sponsored students, who have said to us that they would have really enjoyed the opportunity to spend two years at USC," Call says. 

Call says that USC's decision was also influenced by the fact that its peer schools, such as Boston University, Georgetown University and Washington University in St. Louis, all offer similar programs. She says the target audience for this program will be students who have been sponsored by their home countries' governments to study law internationally. These students tend to come from countries such as Korea and Japan and regions such as the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

Tiffany Bennett, adjunct professor of legal writing at Penn State Law, is the coordinator of a new two-year LL.M. program at that school, which rolled out in fall 2015. Bennett says that these kinds of programs are ideal for students who need to improve their English skills. 

"I think that there's a gap that needs to be filled between students that study in traditional intensive English programs where they get the English skills they need but not the legal English skills they need," Bennett says.

"Two-year programs help bridge the gap."

At Georgetown, which is home to the first two-year LL.M. program in the country, students often attend the two-year LL.M. program because their TOEFL scores aren't up to snuff, says Hunter. She adds that the program also attracts students who have satisfactory TOEFL scores, but want to improve their legal English.

But these programs aren't just about improving English. They also help students develop skills in American academic settings, and acquaint students with a common law system. 

According to USC’s Deborah Call, "The program will have coursework in academic skills, scholarly writing skills, and transactional practice skills. It will also focus on common law analysis and skills because many students from the various countries that we choose to draw from are civil law-trained students and lawyers, and we want to equip them with knowledge and information about common law system."

Somchai Suwannathat says that having the space and time to learn the conventions of the American education system has been invaluable. For example, in Thailand, professors don't cold-call their students in class, so Suwannathat had to acclimate to the custom of professors putting their students on the spot in American law schools. 

"[The two-year LL.M.] gives you more opportunity to explore the culture, not academically, but also real culture, social culture. It doesn't just limit you to inside of the library. You have a chance to go out and meet real people, travel and maybe get some kind of new spin that you're not going to get from inside the classroom," says Suwannathat, who plans to return to Thailand and help his father after he finishes his degree. "That's the biggest advantage."

Taking the bar

But can foreign students with an LL.M.—even a two-year LL.M.—sit the American bar exam? Most states require an American JD before a student is eligible to take the bar. Some states, including New York and California, do allow foreign students to sit the bar, but they must undergo a lengthy review process by the American Bar Association. 

However, officials at the schools that offer two-year LL.M. programs say that most of their students don't pursue these degrees with the intention of staying and working in the US. 

"I think they already have a good idea of what they want to do. They return to their own country and are involved in their own legal system in some way, and the American LL.M. program helps enhance their career at home," Bennett says.

"We have lots of students who want to communicate with English-speaking attorneys and work in international law environments."

Penn State’s Tiffany Bennett adds that some of her students take the bar, but for most, it's not their main goal. 

At Georgetown, about half of the two-year LL.M. students take the bar, but Hunter says that many of her students aspire to return to their native countries armed with the skills and expertise they developed during their two years in the US. 

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