Understanding Misconceptions and Redeeming Dashed Hopes for Foreign LL.M’s
ecently, there has been a smoldering debate about the value of the master of laws (LL.M) degree in the United States. The last has not been heard on that matter. Designed primarily for foreign-trained lawyers, the LL.M program is attracting an increasing number of US-educated JDs who now spend a fourth year of legal education to receive the master’s degree, sometimes from a different law school. How much value that adds is a subject of controversy. But generally less frequently discussed is the fate of foreign-trained LL.Ms both in terms of job prospects and the general worth of the degree.
Every year, thousands of experienced and recently graduated lawyers from all over the world flock to the United States to study for the LL.M degree. They come from different countries, they speak different languages, and they were trained in a variety of legal systems. For Example, during the 2009-2010 school year, the Harvard LL.M program brought in approximately 160 candidates from about 65 countries. While individual LL.M students are different from one another in many regards, they share one thing in common: the excitement of overseas study and the possibilities that represents.
Foreign lawyers come to the US for a variety of reasons, most of which are widely misunderstood. For many, the degree is an opportunity to study in a different country and gain exposure to a new legal and cultural setting. For others, it’s an opportunity to upgrade their academic profiles by attending more prestigious academic institutions than they did in their home countries. The LL.M is also sought by foreign attorneys as a means to specialize in a particular aspect of law, given that the first law degree is usually a very broad-based one. Yet a different set of applicants think of the LL.M degree as a prelude to doctoral studies since many of the top US law schools would only consider someone who has received a US LL.M for the Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD). And there are of course LL.Ms who see the year as a good break from work, time to feel like a student again and travel as much as possible across the US continent. But many arrive for the LL.M in the hope of finding better jobs. And – at least in this economy – it is this group that is the most distraught.
Many LL.M students get frustrated because they fail to understand or admit to themselves the difference between the JD and the LL.M degrees. A foreign-trained lawyer who receives a US LL.M is primarily a lawyer in the foreign country. The same applies to the JD – in the US. I have heard some LL.Ms complain of more favorable job-related treatment towards American-trained JDs; some believe that because they’re just as good or even better than many JDs they should compete favorably in the job market with the JDs. True! But the point is that, regardless of the level of competence, both the job market and the academic programs think differently. And justifiably so.
Even worse, some legal employers have scant regard for the LL.M certificate in the hands of a foreign attorney. They doubt how much a foreign LL.M holder can contribute to a US law firm. Some employers graduated from law schools that in their time had no LL.M programs or if such programs existed, they were relegated to near insignificance. Some employers who value the LL.M degree do so either because they were familiar with the program or because they’ve successfully – by trial, at first – hired great LL.Ms in the past. Just as there are good JDs, so are there very smart foreign LL.Ms.
Another challenge many foreign LL.Ms face stems from misconceptions about the LL.M admission process. In general, admission into top universities is very competitive. The SAT and LSAT for undergraduate and JD admissions, respectively, supposedly screen students with higher test scores from their peers. For this reason, gaining admission to Yale’s JD program, for example, is widely considered to be presumptive of smartness. In contrast, I have spoken to people who erroneously think admission into the LL.M program whether at Harvard , Stanford or Yale says little. Some employers think the same way.
Interestingly, the US LL.M degree commands a lot more respect outside of than in the US. Two primary reasons account for this. First, in a vast majority of countries, law is studied as a first degree; therefore, a master’s degree in law is perceived as a well-considered advanced qualification. In contrast, because many people in the US believe that law is a graduate degree at the first instance, they discount the LL.M degree as an empty surplus. Second, outside of the US, an LL.M from a prestigious US university is likely to place one above one’s peers with local bachelor’s degrees in law. In the US, it does not appear to have the same effect over the JD.
Thus while the LL.M degree may enable you to have a foot in the door, it doesn’t help awfully in the tough competition for the few available US law jobs. The LL.M has obvious competitive disadvantages relative to the JD. This is an important valuation variable that prospective LL.Ms should consider before deciding to spend close to $100,000 on a year of advanced legal studies, often times financed with loans that one hopes to repay with the fat check the degree once promised. It is even worse these days when JDs from the most prestigious schools are scrambling for jobs. Thus an LL.M seeker who is primarily interested in US law jobs might as well consider applying instead for the JD degree.
What then should foreign LL.Ms do? Finding a job or working in the US gives a foreign LL.M holder a different perspective to a legal career; however, it must not be pursued at the risk of sacrificing valuable alternative opportunities elsewhere. For those foreign LL.Ms who decide to brave the odds, some have found it helpful to approach firms with practice areas connected with their home countries. Similarly, because the true value of the LL.M program is often misunderstood in the US, many foreign LL.Ms have got around the challenge by getting recommendations from previous employers, business executives or law teachers. Also, emerging markets are beginning to hold a huge allure – something to consider if the job prospects here are getting dimmer.
In every case where the market cannot readily value an item, it’s likely to be mispriced; so is the fate of foreign LL.Ms. They are a breed that could and do add immense value to their US legal employers. Armed with law degrees from across other continents, and exposure to other markets, foreign LLMs are a great asset. For good reason, they are highly regarded elsewhere; not so much here, at least yet. But aware of the misconceptions that cloud their true value, foreign LL.Ms need be more proactive and creative to make headway in this economy.