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The Advanced Degrees and Certifications That Help New Lawyers Move Their Careers Forward

Samuel Dangremond

The Advanced Degrees and Certifications That Help New Lawyers Move Their Careers Forward
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As a newly barred, New York–based attorney interested in working in the field of trusts and estates, I received two pieces of career advice from a law firm partner: pass the Florida Bar Exam, in addition to the New York Bar, and get an LLM in tax. Having achieved the first goal, I turned my attention to the second. That led to a new understanding of the LLM degree—and the realization that graduating from law school may no longer be sufficient for lawyers who want to specialize in certain fields.

When Is a JD Not Enough?

“The JD can be a terminal degree in the sense that once you earn it and pass the bar, you can go on to practice, but one of the first areas to recognize the value of advanced training was tax,” says Tiffany Joly, assistant dean for International and Graduate Programs at Georgetown University Law Center. Today, new associates looking to get into tax and trusts and estates work are encouraged to get an LLM, and over the years, tax has really advanced the LLM field.

“For most law students interested in tax, the LLM is becoming a de facto requirement,” says Fred B. Brown, a professor of law and director of the Graduate Tax Program at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Brown notes that the tax LLM has always been the most popular LLM program for American-educated lawyers because tax law is complicated and has a long learning curve. “There are a lot of big bodies of law within tax that are really hard to navigate on your own just coming out of law school,” he says. A full-time LLM course of study takes one year, meaning that it “can get you up to speed on a complicated set of rules in a fairly reasonable amount of time,” Brown adds.

Marisa Schuldinger, attorney recruiter and senior consultant with Beacon Hill Legal, also sees a preference for the tax LLM. Some firms, Schuldinger says, especially big law firms, make it mandatory and may even give credit in terms of class year for associates with LLMs. The reason the tax LLM is so desirable is that it shows that a lawyer with that degree has taken the time to focus on learning tax law in detail. “You don’t really specialize in law school. The tax code is a beast, and anyone with a tax LLM probably has a good handle on the tax code,” Schuldinger says.

While tax was one of the first areas to encourage a specialized LLM, it is no longer alone. Georgetown, for instance, now offers nine specialized LLM degrees in taxation, national security law, national and global health law, technology, international business and economic law, environmental and energy law, and global health law and governance. In addition to the tax LLM, Schuldinger says she expects the environmental law LLM to become increasingly popular. “Environmental law touches real estate, land use, oil and gas, regulatory issues, and government practices—a lot of different areas—so that one’s going to be on the rise,” she says. Depending on the area of law an attorney plans to practice in, getting an advanced degree or certification can make a difference, even if the “when” and “why” of getting that certification can vary.

When and Why to Get Advanced Training

An important question is when to get an LLM. For Randi Lewis, an attorney recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, one option is to do it before starting a new job. “Anecdotally, I’ve seen people who graduate from law school and haven’t gotten the job they want, or by the third year, they decide they want to go into some kind of transactional practice,” she says. “Some people will take another year and get an LLM in taxation or an LLM in securities regulation, and at the same time they’re starting the LLM, they’re probably sending out resumes and interviewing for jobs.”

Another option is to do it while practicing and intending to stay in the same field. “There are many people who are practicing and realize that to get to the next level, they need to do an LLM in tax, an LLM in tax/estate planning, or an LLM in securities regulation,” she adds.

Whether you get an advanced degree or certification before starting a new job or after practicing for a while, recruiters recommend making sure the degree adds to the work you are doing. “You don’t need an MBA to be a corporate or capital markets transactional lawyer,” Lewis says. “Having said that, if you have one, it may add value if you’re moving as a lateral associate.” A similar inquiry applies to following a JD/MBA path. “The question is, is it worth it for me to do that? The answer is that it depends. If you want to be a litigator, the answer is not really. If you want to work on the transactional side and if you would possibly want to be an in-house lawyer or work in a business after you’ve worked for many years as a lawyer in a law firm in a transactional setting, an MBA could only help you,” she says.

Lewis offers the following example: “Let’s say you’re in a law firm working in a corporate practice, and you have an MBA. You’ve been there for three or four years and decided to go to another law firm. Having that MBA is another credential that will make you a little more attractive to another firm. Having said that, if you’ve done great work already, it’s not going to matter if you don’t have an MBA. It matters more if you’re going into a business than if you’re going in-house. It might help you become deputy general counsel or general counsel more quickly. I think it could be helpful, but it’s not necessary.”

An LLM may also be a valuable option for international students. “When you’re thinking about the value of the LLM,” Joly, the Georgetown Law assistant dean, says, “it’s valuable both for lawyers trained in the United States who earn a JD degree, and it’s also valuable for lawyers who are trained internationally.” Several states—including California and New York—allow a foreign law school graduate to take the bar exam solely based on obtaining an LLM or other graduate law degree from an ABA-approved law school.

The backgrounds of international LLM students offer additional benefits too. At Georgetown Law, for instance, students come from about 60 countries and speak about 50 different languages. “It creates this incredible global network, and they really benefit from that networking aspect,” Joly says. “They also get the opportunity to live in the United States, really learn legal English, become barred in the United States, and practice here, which is really incredible as well.”

Success Stories from LLM Students

Mary Claire Blythe, an associate in the employment group at DLA Piper who focuses her practice on employee benefits and executive compensation, says that having a tax LLM is the sole reason she is on her current career path. “Because benefits and compensation is a very complex and dense field of practice, it would have been extremely difficult to learn without additional courses. My JD program (and I believe most others) did not offer many tax classes and only offered one survey class related to employee benefits,” Blythe says. She decided to pursue an LLM after taking tax courses and working part-time at a tax boutique firm while in law school. “Since I was already working part-time during law school, I decided to push through and get the LLM immediately after my JD while working full-time to maximize the value of the additional degree.”

Chris McGhee, a US Air Force veteran and 2022 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, also decided to pursue an LLM immediately after receiving a JD. McGhee says that he is using his LLM studies for courses he wanted to take in law school but could not because of scheduling conflicts and JD degree requirements. McGhee’s veteran benefits cover his tuition, allowing him to forgo the risk/reward analysis of the cost of LLM tuition compared to future financial implications. “For most potential LLM students, the steep cost of getting the degree would require an equally sizable professional incentive after receiving it,” he says. Having his tuition covered through veteran benefits, however, “essentially removes the future financial burden from the calculus and leaves only the evaluation of benefit of the degree.” He intends to also attach an Information Privacy Certificate to his LLM through coursework he completed in his JD and LLM programs.

Certifications: Not as Time-Intensive as LLMs, but Still Deeply Respected

In the field of data privacy, both Schuldinger and Lewis say their clients are looking for lawyers with CIPP certifications. CIPP stands for Certified Information Privacy Professional, and CIPP certifications are offered by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). “It’s not required, but if you were to have two candidates go up against each other and one had a CIPP certification, and the other did not, the one with it would get it,” Schuldinger says.

J. Trevor Hughes, president and CEO of the not-for-profit IAPP, says that a good way to think about his organization is “what the ABA is to lawyers, the IAPP is to people who work in the privacy field.”

The IAPP launched the CIPP/US, its first certification relating to data privacy, in 2003. “That certification emerged back then as a mechanism for us to begin to define the body of knowledge that the people working in the privacy field were responsible for,” Hughes says. The US classification is distinguished from European, Canadian, and Asian versions of the certification.

“IAPP certifications have become a really powerful way for lawyers to demonstrate to themselves, to their law firms, and in many cases to their clients that they have abilities and capabilities within the field of privacy,” Hughes says.

Preparing to take the certification exam requires about 40 hours of study, and the IAPP sells textbooks and training programs for the exam.

Separately, the IAPP offers the Privacy Law Specialist program, an ABA-accredited program for recognizing specialization within the law. In the roughly 30 states that recognize legal specialization, lawyers who complete the Privacy Law Specialist program can hold themselves out as privacy specialists.

Benefits of a Cybersecurity Certification

Dale J. Rappaneau, a 2022 law school graduate who joined the California firm Metaverse Law in August 2022, holds CIPP/US and CIPM (Certified Information Privacy Manager) certifications from the IAPP. The certifications have already been helpful in his career. “Metaverse Law expressed that part of the reason they chose me as an incoming law clerk was that I had multiple IAPP certifications,” he says, because Metaverse specializes in privacy, data regulation, and cybersecurity and wanted an incoming law clerk with at least one certification in those fields. “Getting them on your resume is a foot in the door.”

Shelbe Moore, a cyber risk manager at Deloitte who also holds a JD and CIPP/US and CIPM certifications, says that she pursued the certifications because she did not want to follow the traditional law firm route. A privacy law course inspired her to enter the evolving field. Now working as a privacy professional, Moore says IAPP certification is an industry expectation. “I believe that my clients expect to see it, just as they expect to see my colleagues and me at IAPP events,” she says. “It signifies that I’m serious about privacy, I’m keeping up to date with this rapidly expanding web of privacy laws, requirements, and expectations, and that I understand the implications. A good lawyer can read and interpret laws and guidance, but an IAPP certification like the CIPM or CIPP signifies that you’re also equipped to navigate what that means in practice for a company and an individual consumer.”

Emily Cramer, senior corporate counsel for privacy at the dating app company Match Group LLC, is also passionate about IAPP certifications. Cramer says completing the CIPP/US certification opened up internship and externship opportunities. She worked with companies to do things like rewriting their cybersecurity threat plans. “I had six experiences before I even finished law school, and I was really well-versed in the day-to-day role of a privacy attorney at a large firm.” These certifications and experience allowed her to land her first job as an in-house privacy attorney. Now, in her role helping to hire new privacy attorneys, she says one of the first things she looks for is whether candidates have certifications.

“It’s just one factor, but it does indicate that a person is really invested in privacy and continuing to learn about the evolving area,” she says. Cramer also notes that holding certifications helps command a higher salary. “People with IAPP certifications get about a $10,000 premium at a minimum,” she says.

Fashion Law: The New Frontier in the LLM Field

Susan Scafidi is the first professor ever to offer a course in fashion law. Now the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University School of Law, Scafidi initially received significant pushback to her desire to write scholarly articles about fashion law while working at a different law school. Once at Fordham, she began blogging about fashion law before pursuing a course on the topic.

Scafidi began teaching a fashion law course in 2006, and—despite concerns about class attendance—the first course filled within minutes of the registration opening. The support of designers and fashion power players like Diane von Furstenberg has allowed the law school to launch its Fashion Law Institute. Fordham now offers 12 fashion law courses, and the law school added an LLM program in 2015 to offer knowledge and networking opportunities to students who want to specialize.

Scafidi says that “fashion law has always had a question mark behind it” and that her “true goal in life is to get a period after fashion law instead of a question mark.” With the success of the program she created, Scafidi is well on her way to achieving that goal. Her students have used the LLM to pursue jobs from a wide spectrum of employers, from fashion brands to law firms, in-house counsel, nonprofits, and to start their own practices. One graduate even works for the governing body for fashion in France.

As the fashion law LLM may suggest, sometimes graduating from law school is not enough. Depending on your career path, an LLM or specialized certification may be what you need to get the job and edge out your competition.