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.