Let’s Talk About LL.M. Rankings!

It is hard to have a conversation about U.S. law schools without discussing rankings. The U.S. News & World Report rankings play such a visible role in the world of U.S. legal education. The influence reaches all things law school, including J.D. and LL.M. admissions, the 1L transfer market, alumni donations, employer interviewing, law review submissions, faculty hiring and lateraling, and more. There are differing opinions on rankings, with plenty available online about the problems of rankings. The scope of opinions, criticisms, and details of the rankings is outside the scope of this blog.

The U.S. News and World Report does not rank LL.M. programs. This confuses many people. Law school specialty programs are ranked, and I could easily write an entire series on how this works and what it does and does not cover (and may do so later this summer). But this issue has had me thinking for years. What would a rankings for LL.M. programs look like? And would it be a good thing?

I generally tend to think the answer is no.

The big problem? Something I’ve mentioned multiple times on Beyond Non-JD. The different groups under the LL.M. umbrella (to say nothing of the broader Non-J.D. umbrella) look to the LL.M. degree for different things. Whereas a J.D. degree is considered by most (almost all?) as the pathway to become a lawyer in the United States, the LL.M. has six main constituent groups to me:

  • (1) domestic-educated 3Ls looking to enhance post-J.D. job prospects;
  • (2) domestic-educated lawyers looking to enhance their careers;
  • (3) foreign-educated law students and lawyers looking to the LL.M. for a U.S. legal experience and credential, often as part of a joint program;
  • (4) foreign-educated lawyers looking to the LL.M. for practice in their home jurisdiction or a jurisdiction outside the U.S., which may include a State Bar Exam;
  • (5) foreign-educated lawyers looking to the LL.M. for a path to a State Bar Exam and hopes for employment in the U.S. in less time than a J.D. degree;
  • (6) foreign-educated lawyers looking for a specialized credential for an enhanced career in the U.S., often through a Specialized LL.M. degree.

There are also other groups and more nuance in each group, and the Online LL.M. is already creating a sub-group or possibly additional group. But generally speaking, these are the main groups I’ve seen over the last decade.

So how would a rankings system for LL.M. programs even work? The answer: one rankings system would not do much, if any, good. A ranking system that tries to blend the different needs and goals of these 6 groups likely would lead to confusion and possibly lead foreign-educated students (who may not be as familiar with the U.S. legal education system) to make sub-optimal decisions for their goals.

People value different things in the LL.M. experience, education, and credential. Generally speaking, all groups are interested in outcomes and costs. But in different ways. And with different weights assigned to outcomes, costs, and other considerations like location, faculty, experiential opportunities, and so much more. So unless a rankings system managed to break out information that helped each group, I’d be skeptical.

Is no ranking system better than a flawed or confusing ranking system? I tend to think so. But that leads to other problems. So what should foreign-educated lawyers look at in evaluating U.S. LL.M. programs with a goal to staying in the U.S. to work? The overall U.S. News & World Report rankings? Specialty rankings? Other rankings?

Those can all help, but until like-for-like information is available among LL.M. programs, there’s still a need to speak with each school you’re interested in to ensure that the program fits your goals. This requires a lot of extra work, but with so much riding on the choice you make, it’s an important investment in the LL.M. decision.

Back to foreign-educated lawyers looking to work in the U.S.: My focus for this category of students: (1) the reputation for hiring for that specific degree at that specific school; (2) the individual student’s credentials; (3) job outcomes for recent similarly situated students; (4) the preparation for the post-LL.M. hiring market; and (5) cost of the program.

As you can see, there’s no neat way to throw this into a rankings system. Part of it is subjective: each person’s credentials. Part of it is not tracked in a uniform way (e.g., post-LL.M. employment outcomes). And part of it would be difficult to track at all. While it would be nice if I could end this post with a nice neat system for LL.M. rankings, I don’t think that’s possible. And I think that on balance, that’s probably a good thing.

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