Having completed an LLM degree myself, I have heard a lot of different opinions about LLM degrees from both academics and professionals alike. If you are deciding whether to do a Master of Laws program then it is important to carefully evaluate your goals in such pursuit. I have organized this article by listing some of the potential goals you may have for completing an LLM degree followed by an analysis of whether an LLM degree is likely to help you achieve that goal.
Seeking LLM Purely for Specialized Legal Knowledge
If your primary goal in seeking an LLM is to gain specialized knowledge in a specific area of the law that you will not be able to attain from on-the-job training or some other source professionally, then an LLM program is a great way to go. In fact, this is far and away the best reason for seeking an LLM degree in any subject area. The vast majority of LLM programs do a good job of providing a relevant and useful curriculum for their students in the targeted area of the Law. That said, if you already committed a significant portion of your second and third years of law school to that same area of the law, then you may not get a great deal out of re-taking many of those same courses at a different school. Make sure the course offerings at the LLM program you are considering will be sufficiently diverse to broaden your understanding of the topic in a meaningful way either by teaching new topics or by going more in depth on the topics you already know.
Seeking LLM to Improve Job Prospects
A lot of law students finishing up law school will often look to LLM programs as a résumé builder, particularly if they were unsuccessful at finding a legal job following graduation. If this is your primary goal, then the utility of an LLM program will depend greatly on the school where you are seeking your LLM and the specific subject matter you are pursuing.
Gaining a degree from a top law school can be very beneficial in your job search as a degree from an ivy league school or other top law program will always look good on your resume. You will also gain access to that school’s alumni network and job postings for the rest of you life, which can be very valuable throughout your career. The benefits are particularly significant if your J.D. degree is from a program outside the first tier. However, it is generally known in the legal industry that LL.M. programs are not as difficult to get into as the J.D. programs at those same law schools, so the “wow factor” of having an LLM degree from a top law program, while beneficial, will not be as significant as if you had a J.D. from that same program.
If you are considering an LL.M. from a law school outside the first tier, it is unlikely to improve the profile of your resume in any significant way that would justify the cost, although you will gain access to the school’s alumni network and get another shot at on-campus interviews with employers looking for the specific skills set taught in that program. If there isn’t a significant difference in the reputation of the law school where you are considering completing an LLM and your JD law school, then the LLM program will do little to boost your credentials on paper (other than developing the specialized knowledge as discussed above).
In terms of subject matter, the best bet tends to be an LLM in taxation and, to a lesser extent, an LLM in international law. These programs give you a specific skill set that is difficult to achieve in practice and they are widely known and respected. These topics are attractive as tax translates well into other important practice areas like business and commercial law and international law may open opportunities for a job seeker outside the U.S..
LLM degrees in other subject areas are not nearly as helpful in boosting your job prospects generally, but there may be a benefit for certain specialized employers. For example, the EPA may find an LLM in environmental law to be very attractive, but such an LLM will do little to boost your job prospects with employers generally. In fact, it my prevent you from getting jobs by employers who would otherwise hire you, but are reluctant because they know you are heavily vested in doing environmental law.
Seeking an LLM to Erase A Poor J.D. Academic Record
Of all the reasons you might consider an LLM program, this is probably the worst. Unless something drastic has changed in your life that will suddenly enable you to succeed in law courses in a way you were not able to succeed during your J.D. program (which is possible in some instances), you can likely expect to do no better academically in LLM courses than you did in your J.D. courses. In fact, if you are making a significant jump from a low ranking school to a high ranking school, it may be a lot more difficult to get good grades. Again, an LLM can be a great supplement on your resume, but it won’t erase your academic performance as a J.D.
Seeking an LLM as an International Student
Lastly, a lot of LLM programs are geared toward international students, meaning students who received a J.D. degree (or its equivalent) from a non-U.S. law school. This degree may make a lot of sense for some international students as gaining a background in the law within the United States can be very helpful to advancing a legal career internationally. An LLM degree can also allow an international student to crack into the U.S. legal market in certain jurisdictions where such a degree qualifies an international student to sit for the bar exam. Although, the U.S. legal market is very tight and even more so for foreign students, so it would be unwise to seek an LLM degree as an international student if your only goal is to become a U.S. lawyer.