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To LLM or not to LLM: an international law student’s dilemma
Having obtained a first degree in law, a question that frequently pops into the minds of nervous students is what next? In line with today’s global climate, the pursuit of international postgraduate legal education in the form of an LLM is an appealing option. Legal professionals ranging from fresh graduates to associates and partners in top law firms to academics the world over are found pursuing the LLM. Moreover, Master of Laws in jurisdictions such as the UK, USA, Australia and Canada are tailored for the demands of international students wishing to gain global credibility.
However, from an international student’s perspective this is a costly choice as it is a focused and specialist degree which entails payment of large amounts for tuition fees, accommodation, travelling and living costs in a foreign country. The decision making process therefore presents a conundrum regarding what it ultimately means in terms of future career prospects and whether it is worth the time and expense?
This article aims to offer guidance in allowing students to make an informed choice by means of a balancing act of factors that may be considered on each side of the coin.
Pros to studying an LLM overseas
First let's take a look at the reasons why studying an LLM overseas is a great idea...
I am interested in gaining expertise in a particular area of law without interruption
While a first degree in law is useful in developing a grasp over basic legal principles it does not deal with complex and specialised legal subjects. Therefore, an LLM is the best way to gain a deeper understanding of focused areas of law such as tax, trade law, alternate dispute resolution, corporate finance or intellectual property. The LLM programs offered are generally wide ranging and this is particularly useful if you are aware of your area of interest. For example if you are interested in the fields of tax and bankruptcy, an LLM can be desirable precisely because these fields are so regulation-heavy that an LLM in these areas helps the student to accumulate knowledge and familiarity with the regulations that are desired by employers.
It also offers the opportunity of comparative study. This may also be connected to the situation where a lawyer is contemplating a change in the area of expertise as an LLM in a specific subject may enable you to break into a new practice area. A Master of Laws will also provide legitimacy to practice in a particular area of law, especially in relation to representation of foreign clients and undertake sophisticated transnational work.
I want to improve my credentials, marketability and employability
Having a second degree in law from a well-regarded institution no doubt appears more appealing to prospective employers as well as adds value to your credentials, and it also demonstrates your interest and commitment to the legal field. This is particularly true if your LLM is specialised as it shows your focus and awareness of prospective career goals. Often institutions run career fairs where major employers in the sector will be invited and this offers excellent networking opportunities as well.
I want to acquire a global perspective
An LLM provides an understanding of the legal system of another jurisdiction. With increased focus on globalization including representation of foreign clients at home, as well as technological advances opening the door for cross-border transactions, law has gained an international dimension which did not exist before. Thus, there is an emphasis on learning to cope with the multinational nature of legal practice which may lure many law graduates. An LLM degree from an ABA-approved law school allows a foreign lawyer to become eligible to apply for admission to the Bar (license to practice) in some US states, such as New York. Different states in America have special rules concerning admittance of foreign-educated lawyers to state bar associations and individuals wishing to take this route are strongly recommended to research the law of the relevant state.
I am interested in academia
Those who are interested in an academic career, for example teaching law, pursuing research or working on policy issues require an advanced degree and for this purpose an LLM is a popular choice.
I want to experience cultural diversity and live abroad
Universities worldwide – for example in the USA and UK hire experts and eminent thinkers as faculty members or guest lecturers therefore providing the tempting opportunity to study under their supervision and interact with them. These institutions offer not only academic excellence but also high quality infrastructure, extensive legal databases and impeccable reputations.
Furthermore, as these universities attract students from across the globe, they offer the opportunity to study with a vibrantly diverse student population and thus experience linguistic and cultural diversity. It allows students to take home with them a distinctive perception; one that is tempered by the experience of having shared living space with a miniaturised United Nations! Therefore, for some the chance to build lifelong global networks is as appealing as the intellectual side itself. It also enriches you as a person; personal growth is an intrinsic part of a good LLM program.
Cons to studying an LLM overseas
But what are the reasons against becoming an international Master of Laws student?
An LLM is expensive and going overseas may mean further debt
Let’s face it, the LLM is a heavy investment and may significantly weigh on your pocket in the future, particularly if you will need a loan to finance study. Generally, the tuition fees are high but the amount ranges depending on the institution you attend. Along with the tuition fees you will need to ensure that you set aside a reasonable amount to cover your accommodation and living costs for the course of your degree. To add further is what is often termed as the “opportunity cost” i.e. the money foregone or loss of earnings which one would have earned while working for that duration.
An LLM degree may bump the salary of an associate, but this is not always the case. The effect of an LLM on your salary depends on the focus of your LLM program, the institution where you received your LLM degree, and of course your employer. Therefore, the pay back value of an LLM is often difficult to determine. We advise that at this point you may wish to consider how much you expect to invest in the LLM, how much you expect to earn after you have gained the qualification. Also check if there are any loans, bursaries or scholarships available, and whether part time employment is a viable option.
LLM degrees are a business
It is often heard that students who fail to get training contracts or other legal jobs fall back on doing a Master of Laws to get by another year, and that law schools take advantage of this to generate revenue. While it is flattering to be accepted to a prestigious program, be mindful not to be paying just for the compliment.
An LLM does not guarantee automatic success in the legal job market
A stand-alone LLM does not necessarily guarantee employment. Your job prospects after the LLM are largely dependent on your experience prior to the LLM, your desired area of practice and your academic credentials, therefore an LLM alone cannot be relied upon. In order to maximise the worth of your degree, it is highly advisable for international students to seek some legal experience in an international law firm in the form of internships or placements prior to returning to your home country.
An LLM is largely unnecessary
The majority of practicing lawyers and partners in law firms do not hold LLM degrees. Similarly, they may not offer an advantage within a law firm as it is seldom that clients make a hiring decision based on a lawyer having an LLM degree – other endorsements can sometimes seem more important in clients’ eyes.
So… having considered the above, is the LLM right for me?
Just like with anything else no generalizations should be drawn regarding the suitability of an LLM. Opinions regarding the LLM range from “the degree is worthless and merely a way for law schools to increase revenue” to “only tax LLMs are worth the time and money” to “an LLM is a clear indication of a desire to become a professor.” The truth remains that amidst economic downturn, with law firms responding to the financial pressures by cutting workforce, times are tough. The legal market is constricted and to meet the demands of the increasing competition law students must strive to achieve the maximum possible. Be that as it may, the answer to the question of whether studying an LLM is right for you lies in a fine balancing act of your individual circumstances. Remember to consider whether you are a junior or a senior? Do you plan on teaching at a law school? Or at a college? Do you want to write? Are you fed up with big law and convinced that you want to shut that door forever? Is your practice area dynamic and cutting edge? Do you believe that an LLM could significantly enhance your ability to attract business? Do you have finances for it? In the end, no one’s opinion can replace your own judgment and understanding of yourself and your career goals and motivations. Remember to do your research and follow your intuition…
The writer of this article was an LLM student at SOAS University of London and she considered all these different dilemmas and opted to study an LLM program.Find your PERFECT LLM PROGRAM