Typically awarded after an extra year of legal study, the LL.M. degree generally comes in three varieties: those designed to serve graduates of foreign law schools who want to practice in the United States, those designed for American students who eventually wish to become law professors, and those designed for American students who want to specialize in complex legal areas.
Popular with foreign students
Of the three types of LL.M. programs, the one catering to foreign students is the most common. Because many law firms will not recruit students from foreign schools they've never heard of, an LL.M. from a well-known American school can be enormously helpful to foreign lawyers interested in working for a top American firm.
One graduate of a Canadian law school with an LL.M from New York University said the prestigious Manhattan firm that eventually hired him paid almost no attention to his LL.B. degree, the Canadian equivalent of a J.D.
"I did very well at that school, but it's meaningless to them," the lawyer said. "But they do know NYU, where I did my LL.M. When I interviewed, they didn't ask for my LL.B. transcript, or if they did, they didn't look at it. They only asked for my first term LL.M. grades."
The presence of foreign LL.M. students in a law school classroom can also benefit the American J.D. students sitting around them.
"It makes you a better lawyer in that it makes you open to new ideas," says one lawyer. "If you see a lot of different legal systems, and how they function, you can see how things don't necessary have to be here. Just knowing that helps you see more alternatives."
The addition of foreign LL.M. students also delights law schools, which gain from the diversity created by the presence of international students without having to set up specialized courses to attract them.
"It takes pretty low overhead to run an LL.M. program," says Mary Beth Busby, the director of admissions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
No guarantees in the legal market
Foreign students should beware, however - an LL.M doesn't automatically mean a job at a white shoe firm. While the holder of a foreign J.D. degree and an American LL.M. needs to do little more than pass the bar exam to practice in New York state, some jurisdictions are not quite so welcoming to foreign lawyers. The Washington, D.C. Bar Association, for example, only admits lawyers with J.D.s from American schools. ~
"There aren't many opportunities for LL.M. students to work in the United States," said Denise McGarry, the director of graduate programs for the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "There are no guarantees in life, and there are no guarantees in the legal market."
So what's the key to finding a job in the United States as a foreign lawyer with an LL.M? Networking.
"It's common for students to do some networking before they come, or while they're here," McGarry said.
For future law-school professors, an LL.M. may be an expected first step towards the academic life.
"The Americans that we do see in our program are the ones that are looking into going into teaching," McGarry said. "It's definitely not a prerequisite, but most institutions do look for advanced degrees beyond the J.D."
Adds a lawyer with several LL.M degrees, "If you're going to teach nowadays, it's a good thing to have gone to a couple of different law schools in a couple of different countries."
Lastly, certain LL.M. programs attract lawyers looking to specialize in their field. New York University's law school has gained a fair amount of renown for its LL.M in tax.
"Of all the LL.M.s I can think of, you get the tax LL.M. at NYU and you're golden," said the lawyer with the Canadian law degree.
LL.M. students in complex and rapidly changing fields, such as taxation and intellectual property, benefit from specialized training. But the degree also makes it easier to find a job, Busby said, who added that Northwestern plans on launching an LL.M. tax program next fall.
"The degree makes them more marketable to employers," Busby said, "especially in this tight job market."
But lawyers considering an LL.M. may first have to make a financial reality check. Governments or outside groups may fund the tuition of a few students, but American firms rarely pay for their lawyers to take specialized LL.M. classes. As a result, LL.M. students frequently come to class with a variety of motives.
"There are a lot of people who are billionaire Eurobrats, who never go to class, and people on scholarship who have a long-term academic or career interest," said a lawyer with an LL.M.
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