Using an LL.M. to Make the Jump to Big Law

How one woman transitioned from working in domestic law in Russia to working at White & Case in Paris

Elina Aleynikova, a lawyer who used an LL.M. to jumpstart her international career. Credit: White & Case.

Once upon a time, Elina Aleynikova was living in her home country Russia, working as a lawyer at a company but not gaining any experience with international law. 

Now, Aleynikova is an associate at international law firm White & Case in Paris, working in the International Arbitration Group specializing in commercial construction arbitration. 

For Aleynikova, the launch of her new international legal career started when she moved to the United States to pursue an LL.M. at the University of Pittsburgh. 

"The LL.M. is a good start for a career, for anyone who wants to go abroad and do something else and not stay in his home country and do domestic law," says Aleynikova.

"It helped me to get the knowledge that I didn't have before, and personally I enjoyed the experience in Pittsburgh.”

Aleynikova says she had to return to Russia for three years after she finished her LL.M. in the US, but that the degree helped her with her job search in Russia during that time. In Russia, she advised an infrastructure corporation on an international logistics project. After deciding that earning an American J.D. would make her a more competitive candidate in the international legal field, she pursued her J.D. at the University of Pittsburgh and assumed her position at White & Case.

Infographic: How many Big Law associates and partners have LL.M.s?

White & Case is a coveted landing spot for lawyers who want to build an international career. The firm, which runs offices in 40 cities all over the world, has a storied international history. It was founded in Manhattan in 1901 and it boasts involvement with many major international historical events of the 20th century. The firm acted as retainer for J.P. Morgan to help France and Great Britain purchase war materials in the US during World War I. It represented the sellers of the Empire State Building in 1951. It represented Indonesia when that country was resolving its debt crisis in the 1970s. It expanded to Moscow, Warsaw and Prague in the 1990s to advise those countries on mass privatization in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And many of the lawyers who work at the firm hold LL.M. degrees. Of the lawyers working in the firm’s offices outside the United States and United Kingdom, 41 percent have LL.M.s, according to data gathered by LLM Guide. The largest number of these LL.M. graduates hail from the University of Warsaw, the University of Stockholm, New York University School of Law, Columbia Law School, and the Prague-based Charles University. 

[Read: Working in Big Law: What's it Really Like?]

Aleynikova is in good company in Paris: the firm's office there boasts the highest concentration of LL.M.s, with 61 out of approximately 160 working in the office. The other offices with a high concentration of LL.M.s are located in Warsaw, Stockholm, Frankfurt and Prague. 

She's also in good company with her arbitration specialization. Litigation and Arbitration is one of the most common fields for White & Case graduates with an LL.M., with Corporate Law, Banking and Finance, Mergers and Acquisitions and Capital Markets rounding out the rest of the top five. 

Working in Big Law

So what is Aleynikova's life now that she's living the ambitious lawyer's dream of working in international Big Law? Aleynikova describes her workload as intense, saying that she often has to stay late working on cases. But sometimes she catches a break after she submits important documents for a case. 

"So you submit, for example, something to the tribunal, and then you wait for a response, and in that period you might have less work," Aleynikova says. 

Elina Aleynikova

White & Case's Paris office specializes in construction and oil and gas arbitration, while Aleynikova specializes specifically in commercial construction arbitration--but she says that that specialization doesn't limit her future career options. 

[Read: Post-LL.M. Careers in Big Law: Jones Day]

"The fact that I'm working on commercial cases doesn't mean that I wouldn't be able to work on investment cases in the future. We don't have specialty within the firm. At some firms, lawyers specialize in certain things, [but not at White & Case]," Aleynikova says. 

Aleynikova says she didn't pursue an official specialization during her LL.M., but she chose classes tailored to her interests, in her case international commercial law, trade conflict, arbitration and dispute resolution. 

She adds that if she could give future or current LL.M. students any advice about how to end up in her position, she would tell them not to spend all their time studying.

"Go to networking and events. I know many students come from Eastern European countries, from Asian cultures, where there is not such a big culture of networking. But it's very important not to underestimate the power of networking. That's how they will find a job," Aleynikova says. 

She says that networking will help students find a post-graduation job, as well as helping them find an internship, another essential career-booster. 

Photo courtesy White & Case

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