While it may be widely known that law schools train people to become a lawyer by putting them through three years of rigorous study leading to a J.D. degree, people interested in a legal career may be unaware of another law degree offered by most U.S. law schools: the LL.M., or Master of Laws degree.
The LL.M. typically takes one year to earn and allows students to tailor a specialized legal education. It’s meant for two types of students, experts say. One is those with a J.D, degree who want additional training in a chosen area such as tax law or health-care law. This gives them a boost in their career in a particular direction, or may allow them to change fields of law after some practice.
For the other type of student, one who obtained a law degree outside the U.S., earning an LL.M is a common way to break into the U.S. legal market — sometimes tripling and quadrupling the salary the recipient would earn back in their home country — or to expand their knowledge in American and international jurisprudence.
Who Should Apply for an LL.M.?
Since it is designed for those pursuing additional legal training, applying for an LL.M. degree typically requires a J.D. or another primary law degree, which outside the U.S. could be an undergraduate degree in law such as the LL.B., or Bachelor of Laws. This degree is common in many foreign countries such as the Australia, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom. The J.D. degree in the U.S. once was an LL.B. program.
“For foreign-trained lawyers, the LLM degree gives training in the U.S. legal system, which is critical for today’s globalized practice (of) law,” Madhavi Sunder, associate dean for international and graduate programs at the Georgetown University Law Center, wrote in an email. “Today’s complex problems, from global health and pandemics to national security and privacy to climate change, demand lawyers with interdisciplinary understanding and specialized training.”
Georgetown’s law school has one of the nation’s largest LL.M. programs with an annual enrollment of about 550 students and 13 specializations including tax, global health, national security and technology. Two-thirds of its students come from outside the U.S.
Nearly 80% of LL.M. students at U.S. law schools are international students, according to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, part of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.
Reasons to Earn an LL.M. Degree
For U.S.-trained lawyers or those who just completed a J.D. who seek an LL.M., area of specialization is key, says Jacqueline Bokser LeFebvre, managing director for the New York Associate Practice Group at Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal executive search firm.
“The LL.M. that I see the most value and demand for, especially in the New York market, is tax LL.M.,” says LeFebvre. “Often my clients who are looking for tax specialists, either ERISA or executive compensation specialists, or trust in estate specialists — lawyers who practice in these niche areas — a tax LL.M. gives them considerable advantage in the legal market.”
Caryn Voland, Georgetown Law’s assistant dean for admissions, notes the LL.M. has a similar value for internationals looking to work in tax either in the U.S. or abroad where they will encounter issues of U.S. tax law as part of international transactions.
Most international students who pursue the tax LL.M. at Georgetown “already have experience outside the U.S., which adds to those students’ marketability,” Voland wrote in an email.
International students often view an LL.M. program as a way to Americanize their legal career, possibly landing them a job at a big law firm and a pay bonanza. To that end, getting into one of the top law schools, sometimes referred to as T14, will be critical; even better is a top-five law school, experts say.
Yet even that is no guarantee of a lucrative legal job in the U.S., officials at some of the nation’s most reputable law schools warn.
“Some international students do pursue an LL.M. with the goal of working at a big U.S. law firm,” Voland says. “While this is a possible outcome and some of our students do follow this path, we like to be clear that the U.S. job market is very competitive, and that the LL.M. is not designed as a pathway into a U.S. law firm.”
How to Choose an LL.M. Program
International students often focus on the top U.S. law schools with even greater consciousness of name-associated pedigree than their American counterparts, who might be looking for a law school in a particular region, some experts say.
“There is a brand name awareness all over,” says Peter Cramer, who heads LL.M. and international admissions consulting at The Spivey Consulting Group, a law school counseling firm. “I think there is a general idea … go Harvard or bust.”
International students’ vision for what counts as a good school is often too narrow given the stiff competition to get into the very top institutions, especially considering that most end up pursuing a more general international legal career rather than getting a big law job, Cramer says.
“Sometimes you have to go outside that idea of T10, T14,” he says. “LL.M. applicants can get a prime education without being tied to the ‘brand name’ issue.”
There are some specialty areas in which legal programs are ranked, such as arbitration, in which U.S. law schools lead the world.
“Why don’t you want to get into a program that has an LL.M. program that tags on to a nationally well-known program such as Pepperdine?” Cramer asks. The Rick. J. Caruso School of Law at Pepperdine University has one of the top-ranked law programs in arbitration, also called dispute resolution.
Another area Cramer suggests considering is intellectual property law, for which many top-ranking programs are attached to law schools that fall outside of the top 14.
Regardless of a law program’s ranking, international law students can enhance their chances of obtaining a high-paying U.S. job by networking through the firm where they worked in their home country, experts say. Networking is incredibly important and can start even before applying to an LL.M. program, says Cramer, a former assistant dean of the law school at Washington University in St. Louis.
Being fluent in high-demand foreign languages such as Spanish and Portuguese and having legal expertise in foreign jurisdictions can also be boons to the LL.M. degree candidate.
“In some of these big U.S. law firms, they need individuals that have cross-border and comparative expertise,” says Cecilia Caldeira, assistant dean of international programs at the Fordham University School of Law in New York. “Employment is never guaranteed, but it is important to properly position yourself within your competitive set. Perhaps students will find themselves in excellent positions which may not be the traditional ‘Big Law.'”
More from U.S. News