Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Should you do an LL.M?

My thoughts for American-trained U.S. aspiring academics: only if you know what you want to write about and will use that year to write and publish.

It's room to stretch and grow. But otherwise, a glorified 4L year--with attendant law school pitfalls (you know what they are). I liked mine for what it was (and hated it for what it wasn't)--and decided on this alternate route into the academy rather than a Ph.D for personal and professional reasons. But I've seen enough entry-level hires with advanced legal degrees to think it's still a viable alternate route to Top 5 + Law Review + Top Clerkship. Generally, focus on writing, publishing, and consider a Visiting Assistant Professorship or Fellowship--the catch is that VAPs are easier to get if you've already published and have some time out of law school. Which is what an LL.M helps you with. A self-reinforcing loop. I'll probably go on the market before I finish my dissertation, and if you're prolific enough (and not too young or newly out of school) you could probably go on the market your LL.M year.

But I'll refrain from further developing these thoughts until the end of the summer. I'm too busy thinking about the upcoming conference and trying to find something clever to say about the federalization of criminal law. And it's too recent for me to seriously think about and effectively answer "was it worth it?"

But I'll let Prof. Greg Bowman of Mississippi College of Law answer some questions you may have. His series of posts is an excellent resource. Too much to quote, so I'll just give links:

Pros and Cons of LL.Ms

LL.M Redux

LL.M Part 3

And here's some old-but-still-relevant advice for international lawyers considering LL.Ms, since it's time to take the TOEFL and start working on those applications:

LL.M Guide

David Caron

Read this: Matthew Edwards, Teaching Foreign LL.M. Students About U.S. Legal Scholarship, 51 Journal of Legal Education 520-532(2001).

Maya Steinitz:

* The LL.M. is not treated by law schools or by the market as an advanced law degree, the way an M.A. in law is considered in most countries. Rather, it’s considered a short program for lawyers looking for a career change – non-Americans looking to enter the US market, or wanting to take a break from work at home; Americans looking to further specialize, or to transition into a new field of law.

* Generally, the schools (at least the private ones), though they’re technically not-for-profits, are run in the same way as corporations are run; they try to maximize income and minimize expenses (with some allowances made here and there to the fact that the “good” they are trading in is education). (The spill-over of corporate America culture into legal education is actually a fascinating topic that warrants a separate posting).* LL.M. programs are a huge money-maker for the schools and are regarded as such. The considerations for the number of LL.M.s admitted may be influenced by the amount of revenue expected rather than by purely scholarly concerns.

* One consequence of this treatment of LL.M. programs is that law schools (professors, administrators and JD students) and prospective employers often look at the LL.M.s as second-rate students whose (advanced!) law degree from law school X carries far less weight than a JD from the same law schools.

* A well known cultural fact, that often stuns non-Americans, is that tuition really pays as much for the placement services schools offer as it does for the education itself (a cynic would say: more so for the placement services). But despite paying the same tuition, LL.M.s are generally not offered the same services by the placement offices as do the JDs. And because the level of placement assistance available in the U.S. is unheard of in most other countries, foreign students don’t know to ask for it; literally, they don’t know what they’re missing. Some examples brought to my attention include: main on-campus interviewing programs that are usually JD-only with LL.M.s having segregate events, if at all, competing for a minority of the job slots that JDs have not filled earlier in the year; placement counselors who simply do not know how to advise LL.M.s; no lawyering skills trainings, of the kind that first year JDs get, make it de facto impossible to compete for jobs.

* Over the years, I have seen LL.M.s from some regions have a relatively high degree of success finding a job (the Commonwealth and West Europe); some with “seasonal” success (e.g., Latin America or Eastern Europe, when there’s legal work that stems from a political change in the region); some with moderate success (East Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East) and; some with no success (Africa). That these correspond with biases we are generally familiar with comes, I am sure, as no surprise.

All that said - and I mean this with full sincerity - an LL.M. is a great experience. Just realize what it is and what it is not.

From Hanno Kaiser:

Of those foreign LL.M.s whose academic records are comparable to or better than those of their US peers, many seek only temporary employment in the US, that is, “a couple of years in New York with a top law firm.” At starting salaries north of $130,000, temporary employment — with all the added costs, e.g., for visa applications, and diminished incentives that go along with it — is an expensive proposition for any employer. That leaves us with the (much smaller!) group of highly qualified LL.M.s who want to stay and practice law in the US more or less permanently. For those, in my view, the greatest risk is to get lumped in with the less qualified or committed, so that stepping outside the traditional hiring channels might be essential for a successful job search. That involves:

Explaining one’s foreign credentials.

  • Explaining one's foreign credentials. (For example, German law students get graded on a scale from 1 to 18, with 18 being the top score. What, without further explanation, would you do with a 13.5 candidate? Reject him if you lack context. Invite her for an interview immediately if you know that she must be among the top 0.1% of all graduates.)
  • Early networking
  • Reaching out to potential employers well in advance of the fall interview frenzy
  • Letters of recommendation.

I cannot overemphasize the significance of serious and meaningful letters of recommendation from a respected scholar, lawyer, or judge from the applicant’s home country and, ideally in addition, from his or her US professors. The fight for talent at the leading law firms is fierce, and no firm can afford to lose top talent — LL.M or not — to the competition. But the task of identifying oneself as top talent falls pretty much entirely on the LL.M. applicant. In that sense, he or she does in fact carry a burden unknown to the JDs.

Hope this helps!