By Carla DeVelder
The economy remains tough. The legal job market is constricted and flooded with laid-off lawyers. Things have been quiet since on-campus interviews wrapped up a few weeks ago. At this point, nervous law students review their options to determine what exactly is available and what it might mean for their career.
One option that often leads to confusion is the pursuit of an LL.M. The idea of continuing the educational process is appealing: law students generally enjoy school, are good at school, and, once they get accepted into a program, they can quit worrying about what they will be doing post-graduation.
To determine the potential value an LL.M. program can add to your career, you must understand what LL.M. programs are and what they are not. Generally speaking, the LL.M. is not treated by law schools or by the market as an advanced law degree in the way that an MA in law is regarded in other countries. Instead, the LL.M. is viewed as a short program for lawyers who are looking to further specialize in or transition to a new field of law. Let’s break that sentence down.
First, the LL.M. is a short program. If you are planning on waiting out a poor job market, realize that an LL.M. program will likely only provide “shelter” for one or two hiring seasons.
Second, LL.M.s are traditionally seen as programs for lawyers looking to further specialize in a field of law or transition to a new field of law. In other words, these are people who have practiced for a few years and are looking to deepen their understanding of their specialty area and establish their expertise. This doesn’t mean that an individual cannot go directly from a JD program into an LL.M. However, it does mean that some may question or be confused by your motives or understanding of the practice area. As with any unique work or educational history, it is up to you to explain your choices in a way that makes sense to future employers, admissions committees, friends, and family. Also, be aware that your LL.M. in a specific area may limit your opportunities in other areas of law. It may be extremely difficult to convince an employer that you are now interested in environmental law after you have just received your LL.M. in international trade law.
Students need to be aware of the benefits and pitfalls that can accompany the decision to pursue an LL.M. and choose wisely the path that makes the most sense for them. Readers should note, however, that this article is geared toward those who are enrolled in or are recent graduates of an American law school. Many LL.M. students in the United States are foreign students with law degrees from an institution in their home country. Additionally, many of these students have significant years of practice in their home country. The advantages and disadvantages to these individuals are very different from those faced by U.S. law students and include such considerations as passing the TOEFL exam, moving to a foreign country, gaining exposure to the U.S. legal system, marketability in their home country, and gaining the ability to sit for the bar exam and practice in some U.S. jurisdictions.
Additionally, there are a lot of opinions related to LL.M.s, which means it is hard to provide any sort of a consensus about the benefit of these programs. These opinions range from “the degree is worthless and merely a way for law schools to increase revenue” to “only tax LL.M.s are worth the time and money” to “an LL.M.s is a clear indication of a desire to become a professor.” However, knowing some of these commonly held opinions, particularly those held by employers, can help the individual make an informed decision and combat and/or capitalize on the “prevailing wisdom.” In the end, nothing can replace an individual’s firm understanding of themselves and their career goals when assessing the pros and cons of pursuing an LL.M. degree.
FACTOR #1: VALUE ADDED TO YOUR CAREER
Certainly, the number of individuals adding an LL.M to their résumé is growing. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the number of LL.M. degrees conferred by ABA-approved law schools grew by 65 percent between 1999 and 2009. During the same decade, the number of JDs conferred grew by only 13 percent. In terms of raw numbers, 5,058 students completed LL.M.s in 2009 compared to 3,069 in 1999. However, the number of JDs still outpaces LL.M.s significantly, with 49,861 JD degrees awarded in 2009.
Despite this upward trend, there are still many questions about the value of advanced law degrees. One reason for this is the lack of consensus as to how the degree enhances a career. Law schools often advertise their programs as a means for practicing lawyers to “break into” a new market, whether that is a foreign lawyer seeking employment in the U.S. legal market or a U.S. lawyer hoping to specialize or transition to certain practice areas. The mystery lies in the lack of concrete numbers to show that the degree’s impact on these goals. There are few studies or employment statistics available to quantify the career benefits of LL.M. programs. The ABA and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) collect employment data and salary data for JD graduates but do not collect similar information for LL.M. graduates. Thus, prospective LL.M. students have little more than antidotal evidence and their own career objectives to rely upon when considering these programs.
Hopefully, the thought process outlined at the beginning of this article is not the one you are actually employing to make your decision on whether or not to pursue an LL.M. No matter what the job market is like, “avoidance” should not be the primary driver in shaping your career. Simply avoiding a bad market or real job is not an adequate reason to pursue a course of study. If you can’t articulate why you are contemplating an LL.M. and how it will impact your career goals, then you need to take a step back and think about these questions:
- Why did you go to law school in the first place?
- What did you love about law school?
- What did you hate about law school?
- What are your career goals?
- How does an LL.M. in general advance these goals?
- How does your specific program advance these goals?
FACTOR #2: TRADING UP
One commonly held opinion is that the more highly ranked the law school, the better the school and the job opportunities for its graduates (please note the use of the word opinion). The truth is that regional schools can and do provide outstanding legal educations. The truth is also that rankings matter and provide name recognition that creates “national schools.” If you are a JD candidate in a strong regional school and have good job prospects, an LL.M. may not be worth the time and expense. However, if your school is not widely known and you want to broaden your employment options, an LL.M. from a national school may help you.
Additionally, an LL.M. can establish you in a new market. Again, the name recognition that comes with a national school carries a certain amount of power. If you have “traded up” in schools, the power of your school’s name will travel further and may open doors in a wide range of markets. But what if you want to practice in a particular region? In that case, an LL.M. from a regional powerhouse may serve you better than one from a national school. The benefits are clear: You’ve shown your commitment to the region by relocating and you have a year to develop local contacts, integrate into the community and local bar association, look for jobs, and establish relationships with the students who will soon be your professional peers in that area.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- 5,058 Number of LL.M. degrees conferred in 2009
- 132 Number of law schools with ABA recognized LL.M. programs
- 297 Number of LL.M. programs offered in U.S. law schools
- 34 Number of U.S. LL.M. programs designated as “for international lawyers”
- 34 Number of U.S. LL.M. programs related to tax
- 9 Highest number of LL.M. programs offered at one law school
Of course, an LL.M. from a national school is not a golden ticket. It is no secret that the admission standards for LL.M. programs are different from those for JD programs (see Factor #3). One consequence of this is that some law schools (professors, administrators, and JD students) and prospective employers look at the LL.M.s as “second-rate students” whose advanced law degree from law carries far less weight than a JD from the same school. However, LL.M. students typically are in the same classes with JD candidates. Thus, your degree proves you can hold your own intellectually at a national law school.
Be prepared to defend your degree and the work you accomplished to get it. Make sure to integrate yourself as much as possible into the school itself. Get well acquainted with your professors ––you will likely take most of your classes from just a few and their recommendations will be invaluable to you later.
FACTOR #3: ADMISSIONS
It may be easier to get admitted to any given law school as an LL.M. student than as a JD student. First and foremost, there are fewer applicants for the specialized LL.M. degree than for the general JD degree as most U.S. lawyers do not have LL.M.s. In addition, the GPAs and LSAT scores of LL.M. applicants are not reported to or considered in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Finally, LL.M. programs are large income generators for schools because they require little additional staffing and administrative commitment for the additional tuition dollars. As such, the considerations for the number of LL.M.s admitted into a program may be influenced by the amount of revenue expected by the school.
All this bears mentioning because it impacts the odds of an individual getting accepted into the LL.M. program of his choice and because it impacts the opinions of those who are evaluating the weight of the program on a résumé. While you may not have been accepted into a particular law school as a JD student, you may be accepted as an LL.M. student, attending the same classes and learning from the same professor as the JD students. This, along with being an active participant in the environment and earning the recommendations of respected academics, will help dispel any negative opinions about “easy” admissions.
FACTOR #4: COST
Any discussion of continuing education must include cost. What is your current student loan burden and/or what will that burden be at the end of your JD studies? For the law student who is facing student loans in the six figures already, the cost/benefit analysis of an LL.M. program as it relates to tuition and fees is significantly different from the analysis done by students who have had assistance with their law school tuition, either through scholarships or other means.
Many LL.M. programs allow for part-time attendance, which would allow a student to work at the same time and keep costs under control. For recent graduates who are currently employed and hoping to use the LL.M. to enhance or expand their practice, this might be an option. Part-time status would, of course, increase the length of time in the program and would be very stressful on top of full-time employment. On the other hand, the cost of a full-time LL.M. program will take several years to recoup; meanwhile you have lost at least a year’s earning potential.
FACTOR #5: ENTERING THE ACADEMY
We are all familiar with the typical formula to becoming a law school professor: top law school + law review + top clerkship + scholarly publications = tenure track position. However, there is another way and it involves an LL.M. To be hired for a tenure track teaching job at a U.S. law school, candidates outside the traditional formula generally must have a postgraduate degree besides their JD Some schools desire candidates with JDs and Ph.D.s, but to be competitive, candidates need at least an LL.M. or a master’s degree in another discipline. Non-tenure track positions may be less competitive, but, there too, an LL.M. will make a candidate more attractive.
In addition to the added credentials, an LL.M. program will provide you a year out of the work force in which you can focus on writing and publishing law review articles. As everyone knows, tenure track teaching positions almost require an established record of scholarly publication. An LL.M. program will help you figure out what you want to write about, immerse you in the subject matter, and give you time to actually write.
Be aware that many hold the opinion that your pursuit of an LL.M. is prima facie evidence of a desire to teach at the law school level, even if you don’t actually have such a desire. Obviously, if this is the case, you will not be as concerned with publishing law review articles. However, you should work equally as hard on making connections within the field and within your program.
The most important factor in considering an LL.M. program is your career. Candidates merely seeking to improve their marketability are missing the point. Employers see candidates as a whole package of what they can offer the employer. All being equal, a candidate with an LL.M. can have a competitive advantage. However, all things are never equal. Each candidate is different in the schools attended, grade point averages, and work experience. Then the questions become: Can prior experience trump an LL.M.? Can a JD from a top-tier law school trump an LL.M.?
The point of the advanced degree is to enhance and improve a career. Those considering such a commitment in time and money must understand what they want from their legal career first and then must analyze whether the LL.M. degree will further these goals. The true benefit is in the professional satisfaction the degree can help attain.
Carla DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska.
Vol. 39 No. 3