Richard Ainsworth, director of Boston University's Graduate Tax Program, is looking for one trait in applicants to his program.
"We're looking for tax geeks," Ainsworth says. "You have to show us that you like numbers.”
Common wisdom holds that the tax LL.M. is one of the most valuable post-J.D. law degrees, and the numbers tend to back that up. The median salary for a lawyer is just over $70,000, according to PayScale, a site that tracks average salaries for various professions, while the median salary for a tax lawyer hovers around $100,000.
The American Bar Association lists 32 law schools that offer LL.M. programs in either taxation or international taxation in the United States. These range from schools like NYU School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center, which are highly regarded in the field, to lower profile schools like the University of Alabama and Capital University.
Students in tax LL.M.s learn the ins and outs of all things tax, from basic topics such as general taxation, business taxation and international taxation to more niche topics such as estate planning, state and local taxation, bankruptcy, civil and criminal tax procedure, and taxation of executive compensation.
In the United States, many tax-bound students gravitate to the "Big Three" tax LL.M. programs, at NYU, Georgetown Law, and the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. These schools are currently ranked as the top three law schools in US News and World Report's ranking for tax law, and their LL.M. programs are often seen as the most coveted for tax professionals. (See the top 11 tax schools, according to the current US News ranking, below.)
Of course, you can expect stiff competition to get into one of these top programs. Fortunately, a little enthusiasm for the subject can go a long way. Directors and officials at Georgetown and NYU echo Ainsworth's statement about tax nerds: If you're passionate about the subject, and not just looking for a high salary once you have your degree in hand, you're much more likely to receive an admissions offer.
"We want as much insight as possible about applicants' enthusiasm for tax," says Josh Blank, faculty director of the Graduate Tax Program at New York University. "We look at work experience, at the personal statement, and we look at the recommendation letters from the applicants' law school letters and from employers really closely. We are able to get a sense of how enthusiastic students are about tax and their abilities in the area through these letters."
Internships are another way to show admissions committees that you are serious about tax, say directors.
Having done an internship “shows you outside of the classroom having an interest in tax. That's the full tax person," says Ainsworth, adding that he likes to be able to google applicants and see that they have interned or published articles in the tax realm.
Directors say that students should also make sure to take at least a few tax courses beforehand, so that they have a basic understanding of some of the core topics. NYU’s Josh Blank says that he knows that not all JD programs offer a wide variety of tax classes, so he doesn't expect students to be experts, but that they shouldn't be complete novices either.
"Most of the students who apply to us are so excited about tax that they've at least taken a basic tax class," Blank says.
Those concerned about getting into a tax LL.M. program might take solace in the fact that, even for the top programs, admissions standards aren’t as high as they were six years ago. Directors at Georgetown, NYU and BU all report a bubble of applications between 2008 and 2010, when a dire job market caused by the recession encouraged more students to pursue higher education. Luckily for current applicants, the number of applications have returned to pre-2010 levels, say directors.
Finding a tax law job
Tax LL.M. graduates can aim for a variety of different jobs, including working at private practice law firms or public accounting firms, holding judicial clerkships at Tax Court, or consulting.
Directors caution students that a tax law LL.M. will not guarantee a job in any of these fields-- but just as with the school application process, students can take certain steps to increase their chances of employability.
"If you do well, and you have something published somewhere, so your name shows up, if you have a Google presence, if you do reasonably well in the program, you're going to get a job," Ainsworth says. "If you're like Casper the ghost, if you went through the program and did average but have no external visibility, then you're relying on [connections] to get you a job. Then someone else has to help you."
Ainsworth says that students can increase their employability by pursuing more niche areas of the tax field. Every student at every tax program across the country takes classes in federal income tax and ethics, he says, but pursuing a more eclectic area of expertise, such as value added tax, can increase your employability.
Stafford Smiley, faculty director of the Graduate Tax Program at Georgetown University Law Center says the employment numbers for recent tax graduates aren't as stellar as they once were.
"In the past five to ten years, the number of students who were already placed when they graduated has gone down markedly, but that's the economy. That's gone down everywhere," Smiley says. "If you take the snapshot somewhat after graduation, you start to see good numbers again."
Smiley says that one advantage for Georgetown students is the school's connection to Washington, D.C., where students can intern with tax-focused Congressional committees, at the IRS or at other governmental organizations, thus gaining perspective and expertise that students elsewhere might not have access to.
Is a tax LL.M. worth it?
Given the rather large investment required for a top tax LL.M. program, some potential applicants might question whether it's worth it. Many tax professionals agree that if a student selects a law school carefully and develops a strong profile, a tax LL.M. will probably pay off in the long-run. A school's prestige tends to be especially true for those who want to work in tax practice in top law firms. For example, of the 37 partners, associates, and counsel who work in tax at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and are listed on the company's website as having LL.M.s, the majority of them —31— did those degrees at either NYU or Georgetown.
At Latham & Watkins, the situation is similar: of the 14 tax partners, associates, or counsel who are listed as having LL.M.s, 11 did those degrees at either NYU or Georgetown.
But in the end, tax law will most likely remain a lucrative field, since despite some empty promises by the occasional politician, there's no risk that taxes will go away anytime soon. After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, " in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Top tax LL.M. programs
Here's a list of the top law schools in the tax specialty, according to US News:
2. (tie) Georgetown University
2. (tie) University of Florida
4. Northwestern University
5. University of Virginia
6. University of San Diego
7. Boston University
8. (tie) Columbia University
8. (tie) Harvard University
10. Loyola Marymount University
Image: "Numbers And Finance" by reynermedia on Flickr (cropped and rotated)