If your goal is to work in the United States after the LL.M. degree, I think it is important to first take a step back and review the J.D. and LL.M. degrees and determine which is best for your goals.
Because so much U.S. law hiring revolves around: (1) summer associate positions in the second (2L) year that provide students with return offers after graduation; (2) the accumulation of legal experience in areas of interest through clinics, internships, and externships from the summer after the first (1L) year through the end of the third (3L) year; and (3) the accumulation of networking through alumni, faculty, and employers over a three year period of law school and them getting to know you well.
Although the LL.M. experience is usually one year, there are a number of foreign-educated LL.M. students who secure jobs in the U.S. upon graduation, and I’ve been fortunate to work with a great group of them! I see three keys for foreign-educated students to think about when choosing the LL.M. instead of the J.D. with the primary goal to work in the United States upon graduation. Having all three makes the stress of the job search significantly lower, but does not alleviate it all. I also include a note on work authorization.
- Pre-LL.M. Work Experience. LL.M. students looking to work in the U.S. need to stand out in the job search. The easiest way I’ve seen is with strong pre-LL.M. work experience. Each student must determine the best individual path, but I’ve seen at least 2-3 years of good experience abroad as a lawyer in the area you want to practice in here in the U.S. as a good strategy to stand out. The reason: if you look at the ABA employment data, you’ll see the number of J.D. grads who are not employed and still seeking work 10 months after graduation and the ones who are now working outside of law or outside of jobs that require a J.D. degree. Having experience as an attorney already helps in this regard. Law school will be there next year, but an extra year of work may make the difference!
- Specialized LL.M. Degrees in Areas of Hiring. I’ve seen this firsthand with the tax specialization and hiring market at a number of school. A specialized LL.M., in an area you already have experience and in one where there are many jobs in the U.S., is a way to stand out. When reaching out to schools with specialized LL.M. programs, you can ask what hiring takes place specifically through the LL.M., how employers, alumni, and even faculty (e.g., adjunct professors) in the specialty hire through the program, and how the job outlook is for foreign-educated LL.M. students. Going forward, I’ll continue to recommend tax degrees to foreign tax lawyers as a really amazing path.
- The “Network.” I break this into two components. (1) Your Pre-LL.M. network and (2) Your LL.M. and Beyond network. If you secure Pre-LL.M. Work Experience highlighted above, you’ll already know lawyers in your jurisdiction as colleagues, not just as law students. For those who studied in the U.S., they’ll have colleagues still there. Your firm may work with American lawyers and with American law firms on projects. You may attend conferences or events with American lawyers. These people, especially in your specialty above, can be important resources when you make the decision to study in an LL.M. program and to help you navigate the job search from the start. For the second, this is how connected you can become to your LL.M. program’s alumni network and the law school’s broader alumni network. But it also includes the state and city bar associations, and other organizations. Networks matter as much as grades with a goal to work in the U.S., and sometimes even more!
A Note on Work Authorization. This one surprises some LL.M. students. Not all foreign-educated LL.M. students require work authorization. LL.M. degrees (and J.D. degrees) are popular with U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and those who will not need work authorization by the time the LL.M. or OPT end. Understanding that the process is different if you are on a student visa is crucial. It can still be challenging for LL.M. students who do not need work authorization to secure a job as a lawyer (as employers may look to a J.D. degree), but the added pressure of the need for work authorization and the clock to secure a job through Optional Practical Training (OPT) add to that. Focus from the start on the job search, hopefully with all three of the keys above.
A Note on Goals
Goals Matter! Many LL.M. students, including most of my LEALS students, are looking at the LL.M. as a credential, a path to a bar exam, and a knowledge of areas of U.S. law for practice in their home jurisdiction. Separating those parts of the LL.M. from the job search is important. And for them, the LL.M. will likely continue to make much more sense than a J.D., even a two-year J.D. degree. But if the goal is to work in the U.S. after the LL.M., especially on a student visa, it’s really important to plan far ahead and understand the cost-benefit in making either decision.