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What to Consider When Deciding Whether to Pursue an LLM Degree

Carla Develder

What to Consider When Deciding Whether to Pursue an LLM Degree

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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 careers.

One option that often leads to confusion is the pursuit of an LLM. 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.

What LLM Programs Are and Are Not

To determine the potential value an LLM program can add to your career, you must understand what LLM programs are and are not. Generally speaking, the LLM is not treated by law schools or the market as an advanced law degree in the way that an MA in law is regarded in other countries. Instead, the LLM is viewed as a short program for lawyers looking to further specialize in or transition to a new field of law. Let’s break that sentence down.

First, the LLM is a short program. If you plan on waiting out a poor job market, realize that an LLM program will likely only provide “shelter” for one or two hiring seasons.

Second, LLMs 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 people have practiced for a few years and want to deepen their understanding of their specialty area and establish their expertise. This doesn’t mean an individual cannot go directly from a JD program into an LLM. 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 LLM in a specific area may limit your opportunities in other areas of law. After receiving your LLM in international trade law, it may be extremely difficult to convince an employer that you are now interested in environmental law.

Students need to be aware of the benefits and pitfalls accompanying the decision to pursue an LLM and choose wisely the path that makes the most sense. This article is geared toward those enrolled in or recent graduates of an American law school. Many LLM students in the United States are international students with law degrees from an institution in their home country. Many of these students also have significant years of practice in their home country. The advantages and disadvantages to these individuals are very different from those faced by US law students and include such considerations as passing the TOEFL exam, moving to a foreign country, gaining exposure to the US legal system, marketability in their home country, and gaining the ability to sit for the bar exam and practice in some US jurisdictions.

Additionally, there are many opinions related to LLMs, which means it is hard to provide any sort of 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 LLMs are worth the time and money” to “an LLMs 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 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 LLM degree.

Factor #1: Value Added to Your Career

Certainly, the number of individuals adding an LLM to their résumé is growing. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the number of LLM 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. Regarding raw numbers, 5,058 students completed LLMs in 2009 compared to 3,069 in 1999. However, the number of JDs still outpaces LLMs significantly, with 49,861 JD degrees awarded in 2009.

Despite this upward trend, many questions remain about the value of advanced law degrees. One reason is the lack of consensus on 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 a foreign lawyer seeking employment in the US legal market or a US lawyer hoping to specialize or transition to certain practice areas. The mystery lies in the lack of concrete numbers to show the degree’s impact on these goals. Few studies or employment statistics are available to quantify the career benefits of LLM programs. The ABA and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) collect employment and salary data for JD graduates but do not collect similar information for LLM graduates. Thus, prospective LLM students have little more than anecdotal evidence and their 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 employing to decide whether to pursue an LLM. No matter the job market, “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 LLM 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 LLM, 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. The truth is that regional schools can and do provide outstanding legal education. 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 with good job prospects, an LLM 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 LLM from a national school may help you.

Additionally, an LLM 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 LLM from a regional powerhouse may serve you better than 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.

Of course, an LLM from a national school is not a golden ticket. It is no secret that the admission standards for LLM programs are different from those for JD programs (see Factor #3). One consequence is that some law schools (professors, administrators, and JD students) and prospective employers look at the LLMs as “second-rate students” whose advanced law degree carries far less weight than a JD from the same school. However, LLM students typically are in the same classes as 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

Getting admitted to any law school as an LLM student may be easier than a JD student. First and foremost, there are fewer applicants for the specialized LLM degree than for the general JD degree, as most US lawyers do not have LLMs. In addition, the GPAs and LSAT scores of LLM applicants are not reported to or considered in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Finally, LLM programs are large income generators for schools because they require little additional staffing and administrative commitment for the additional tuition dollars. As such, the number of LLMs 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 LLM program of his choice and the opinions of those evaluating the program's weight 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 LLM 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 negative opinions about “easy” admissions.

Factor #4: Cost

Any discussion of continuing education must include cost. What is your current student loan burden, and 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 LLM 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 LLM programs allow for part-time attendance, allowing a student to work simultaneously and keep costs under control. This might be an option for recent graduates currently employed and hoping to use the LLM to enhance or expand their practice. 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 LLM 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 LLM. To be hired for a tenure-track teaching job at a US 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 LLM or a master’s degree in another discipline. Non-tenure track positions may be less competitive, but an LLM will also make a candidate more attractive.

In addition to the added credentials, an LLM program will provide you with a year out of the workforce to focus on writing and publishing law review articles. As everyone knows, tenure-track teaching positions almost always require an established record of scholarly publication. An LLM program will help you figure out what you want to write about, immerse you in the subject matter, and give you time to write.

Be aware that many hold the opinion that your pursuit of an LLM is prima facie evidence of a desire to teach at the law school level, even if you don’t have such a desire. If this is true, you will not be as concerned with publishing law review articles. However, you should work equally hard to make connections within the field and your program.

Factor #6: Your Career

The most important factor in considering an LLM 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 LLM can have a competitive advantage. However, all things are never equal. Each candidate differs in the schools attended, grade point averages, and work experience. Then the questions become: Can prior experience trump an LLM? Can a JD from a top-tier law school trump an LLM?

The point of the advanced degree is to enhance and improve a career. Those considering such a commitment in time and money must first understand what they want from their legal career and then analyze whether the LLM degree will further these goals. The true benefit is in the professional satisfaction the degree can help attain.