The LLM and Your Legal Career
Here are two questions that my team and I get often:
“I just started my LLM…is it hard to get a job?”
“It looks like it is hard to get a job…should I get an LLM?”
Before we get into it, it is important to understand the basics of the LLM. An LLM is a Master of Law Degree (Technically, Legum Magister). They are typically one year programs if pursued part time. For students who were educated, trained, or practiced internationally, the LLM serves the formal education requirement to sit for a U.S. bar exam and as an introduction to the U.S. legal system. For students who received a JD in the United States, it serves as an additional year of legal education, often in a more specialized area of law.
Not every LLM student has the goal of staying in the U.S. after graduating, but more and more do. If you are an LLM student, or are considering one, below are some important career considerations to keep in mind:
One year is a short period of time.
Classwork and exams mean that one academic year flies by quickly. LLM graduates often explain that they are initially preoccupied with understanding how their program works, how their professors teach, and where they fit in. Since they are in a master’s level program, they focus on their studies and to worry about the career later—and then the need for career arrives sooner than they expected.
It is important to adjust to school life. While JD students can take their time coming out of the law school classroom, LLM students who stay within the walls of the law school shut themselves out from the legal community. Inherent in the challenge of an LLM is finding the right balance between managing academics and the world outside. Think about how you will find that balance to take full advantage of what the LLM experience offers. If steered properly, your LLM journey should allow you to reap the benefits of that huge investment. The benefit is not the degree itself; it is what you do with it. The year is short.
Network, network, network.
“Networking” is an overused and often misunderstood term that sends chills down the spines of LLM students. Remember that a professional network serves as a support system where relationships are formed where information and services can be exchanged. In that definition, LLM students tend to only focus on the “system” and ignore “exchanged” and “relationships.”
Networking is not a software “system” that can be hacked or upgraded by pushing a button. It requires interacting with other human beings. It a way of forming relationships, which relies on building a strong foundation of trust, respect, and communication. This means you have to do your part of the relationship to ensure a proper exchange.
Interacting with professionals outside of the law school building is what LLM students often fail to do. Get to know others based on a genuine interest in the person you are interacting with. That’s the “secret” about networking.
Shop up and shop in.
An LLM should improve your cache on the market. The legal practice is sensitive to rankings, and LLM students are typically in class with JD candidates. If you are at a highly ranked LLM program, you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you can handle your own against the JD students.
Similarly, an LLM from a respected regional powerhouse may serve you well, giving you an springboard from which to launch into a new legal market. If you are from a law school in the northwest, and you want to move to the southeast to practice law, an LLM in a regional school is a way to go about this. You have a year to develop local contacts, obtain local references from professors at the law school, look for a job, and meet fellow law students who will be your practicing peers in that market. It also shows your determination to relocate—particularly for more protective markets, since you are already on location. Do not underestimate the power of location as many firms are reluctant to hire new associates that they think will not be sticking around.
An LLM should serve as a training ground into a specialty area of law. You might have heard that you should not get an LLM unless you wanted to practice tax law. This is kind of true—though I will modify that adage slightly: if you want to practice in a complex, hyper specialized area of law, then an LLM can be useful.
Areas of law like tax, international trade, and environmental law are examples of such areas, because an LLM provides a year to focus on courses in these specific areas.