Outside of the legal world, the LL.M. is not a well-known degree. But there are plenty of reasons why lawyers or legal students might decide to do an LL.M. Some of them are:
Cultivating a specialization
One of the main reasons that law students or lawyers seek an LL.M. is that they want to bolster their specialized knowledge. The list of potential LL.M. specializations is startling in its breadth. Students can pursue an LL.M. in common fields such as health law, environmental law or bankruptcy law. They can leave the beaten path and pursue an LL.M. in marine affairs law, fashion law, or gaming law and regulations. Taxation LL.M.s are very popular and common programs; some of the oldest and most respected LL.M. programs are focused on taxation.
Oftentimes, lawyers will return to school to pursue an LL.M. so they can use a specialization to change careers, or gain more credibility or expertise before embarking on a career in a specific kind of law.
In Europe, LL.M. programs also offer a variety of specializations to help students refine or redirect their legal knowledge. For example, many European LL.M. programs allow students to specialize in European law, which helps students embark on careers related to European Union operations.
Learning a foreign tax system
Lawyers from outside the United States might choose to pursue an LL.M. in the United States so they can get to know the American legal system. Some students might want to develop knowledge of the American legal system so they can try to stay and work in the United States. Others might want to return to their home countries armed with knowledge of a common law country's legal system.
Bar exam eligibility
Some attorneys use an LL.M. to become eligible to sit a country’s bar exam. However, a word of caution: an LL.M. doesn't necessarily mean that a student has the authorization to sit the bar. Eligibility for the bar exam is determined by each individual jurisdiction, and many places require students to hold a J.D. before they can sit the bar.
Some US states, however, will allow students with a foreign law degree and an American LL.M. to take the bar exam, while still others will allow students with only a foreign law degree to sit the bar.
Developing language skills or other expertise
An LL.M. in an English-speaking country can do wonders for a non-native speaker's written and spoken English (although keep in mind that American LL.M. programs require non-native students to submit test scores proving English proficiency). Some LL.M. programs even have pre-program language training so that foreign-trained lawyers can hit the ground running when the LL.M. starts.
An LL.M. can also help a prospective lawyer network, with other students and professors as well as through job fairs. Remember, though, that many employers don't view an LL.M. in and of itself as an indicator of legal expertise.
Why shouldn't I do an LL.M.?
Some legal experts and pundits say that LL.M.s are a waste of time and money, that students who think an LL.M. will bolster their chances in an overcrowded legal market are sorely mistaken. It's true that in the US, the American Bar Association doesn't accredit or rank LL.M. programs, so it's important for prospective students to determine independently whether a program is worthwhile.
Keep in mind also that LL.M. programs are often costly, so if you have a hefty set of loans from law school, you might want to consider whether you want to add to that debt burden.
Image: Presiding Judge Miles Ehrlich by Eric Chan / Flickr (cropped)