All About LL.M. Degrees

Table of Contents

What is an LL.M.?

The LL.M. (Master of Law degree or Legum Magister) is a postgraduate academic degree that’s typically earned in one year by candidates who already hold a first degree in law or a professional law degree, or who have passed the bar exam in their country. LL.M. candidates are usually looking to gain specialized knowledge or training in a particular field of law. The LL.M. alone does not make a candidate eligible to sit for a bar exam or practice law in a particular jurisdiction.

LL.M. degrees may be offered in any number of specializations, such as tax law, intellectual property law, alternative dispute resolution, banking, corporate and finance law, and tribal policy, law and government.

LL.M. programming, curricula, eligibility requirements, and graduation requirements vary from program to program, so LL.M. candidates should research each program carefully. Some programs may have a thesis requirement, while others may contain a mandatory practical training component. One program may boast an LL.M. class size of several hundred students and offer many LL.M.-specific courses designed exclusively for the LL.M. population at that school. Another program may place LL.M. students primarily in J.D. classes with J.D. students.

Candidates should figure out why they want to pursue an LL.M. degree and then research programs to make sure the degree requirements will fulfill their professional goals.

Why would an LL.M. degree be useful?

An LL.M. might help you find a job, switch to a new field of law, gain a professional advantage, or sit for the bar exam. Here are some examples of candidates who might benefit:

  • Kate, a 3L who will graduate in a few months. She was not able to secure a summer associate position, didn’t do an internship, and doesn’t have a job offer. An LL.M. degree would give Kate another year to focus on networking with professors, alumni, and legal professionals while still being categorized as a “law student” by the legal marketplace.
  • Brian, a J.D. graduate interested in arbitration. His law school only offered one basic course in dispute resolution and no upper-level electives. He has little substantive knowledge of the field, no practical experience, and no network to mine for a job.
  • Susan, a J.D. graduate who happened to get a job at a personal injury firm upon graduation and has been practicing for six years. Her dream has always been to work as a music attorney, representing artists. However, the extent of her IP law knowledge is limited to one copyright law course taken seven years ago.
  • Jake, a young associate who is working in the tax law department of a firm. A tax LL.M. might give him a professional edge as he tries to make partner.
  • Daniel, a German lawyer who plans to work as a judge in Germany. Anyone who wants to pursue this path needs to hold post-graduate degrees. He decides to take a year off from his firm and study abroad in California to earn his LL.M. degree.
  • Serge, a lawyer who moved to New York City and learned that his Ukrainian law degree does not permit him to practice in the state. In order to qualify for the New York Bar Exam, he must either complete a J.D. or an LL.M.

Before you start down the course of applying for an LL.M., make sure to ask yourself, as well as other legal professionals around you and in the industry where you hope to work: Is this additional degree necessary? Is it useful?

Who is eligible to apply for an LL.M.?

While the admissions office of the law school ultimately determines what the minimum degree requirement should be, an LL.M. requires a candidate to have completed all academic requirements to earn a first professional legal degree. LSAC, which processes most LL.M. applications to ABA-approved law schools, provides a list of minimum degree requirements for foreign-trained attorneys who wish to pursue the LL.M.: https://www.lsac.org/llm-other-law-program-applicants/application-process-llm-other-law-programs/information-llm.

How do I pick an LL.M. program?

LL.M. degrees are offered by law schools around the world. In the US alone, over 150 law schools offer LL.M. degrees. Ask yourself what your priorities are and try to get answers to some of the following questions.

  • Is the country of the law degree important for your professional goals?
  • Is it important to your career that you learn the law of a particular state or jurisdiction? This may determine the geographic location of your LL.M. program.
  • Do you intend to sit for a bar exam in a particular jurisdiction?
    • In a very limited number of US states, a foreign law degree and an LL.M. from an ABA-approved law school will fulfill the requirements to sit for a bar exam. In all other states, the bar candidate must hold a J.D. degree. It might be beneficial to study in the state in which you intend to take the bar, as there may be state-specific legal courses available at the law school.
    • For foreign-trained attorneys, one year is a very short time to get familiar with the US system of law. What sort of programing does the law school offer in anticipation of the bar exam, or does the school expect LL.M. students to rely entirely on commercial bar review courses?
  • How important are law school rankings or the prestige of a law school to your decision?
    • There are many ways to value a degree from a law school. Try to determine what is necessary for success in your legal market. A “recognized” law school in your home country may not necessarily hold the same position of distinction in the US.
    • Just because a law school has a well-regarded J.D. program does not mean that you will have the same experience as an LL.M. student. Make sure to research the LL.M. curriculum and programming to see how much of the J.D. experience is open to you.
    • There are a number of rankings you could consider during your research, including US News & World Report (both overall and in your specialty), the Guardian (UK only), the National Law Journal, LLM-Guide.com rankings, and the International Jurist.
  • Is there a particular area of law that you wish to specialize in?
    • If you are looking to specialize in Tax Law, see what the upper-level electives in Tax Law look like. Is there a large and varied offering of elective courses? As an LL.M. student, would those courses be open to you? Are there prerequisites that would prevent you from taking advantage of parts of the course list? Are there faculty members in this area who are highly regarded and published in their field?
  • What sort of support structure is available for LL.M. students?
    • Does the law school value its LL.M. community? What sort of resources are in place for LL.M. students, whose needs and concerns are often very different from the rest of the J.D. population’s? Is there an academic director who is readily available to help students with academic programming questions? Are there robust training opportunities for students to grow their resumes by participating in internships, externships, and clinics? Is there someone in the Office of Career Services who is knowledgeable and available to advise LL.M. students about the unique legal market for LL.M. graduates?
  • What is the make-up of the current LL.M. community at the law school you are considering?
    • Is the LL.M. class size very small (less than 20), medium-sized (20-50), or large (50 to over 100)? If the LL.M. class size is very large, are there enough administrators to advise and assist the population? Is there a possibility that you could get lost in a crowd?
    • How many countries are represented in the LL.M. population? Is it mostly domestic J.D. students or primarily foreign-trained attorneys? If there is a large international population, how many countries are represented in this international population? Is there a large contingent from a particular country? As a prospective LL.M. candidate, how much diversity would you be looking for in your future LL.M. community?

There are many law schools offering many different programs with unique features that may be of value to an LL.M. candidate. The important thing to remember is that an LL.M. community is often much more diverse than a J.D. community, and no two LL.M. candidates are coming in with the same professional background. Therefore, to make the most of your LL.M. experience, be sure to know what you want out of it and research your options carefully.

How do I apply to an LL.M. program?

Most LL.M. programs will require you to submit your application and transcripts through the LSAC LL.M. Credential Assembly Service.

  • Use of this service simplifies the application process for candidates and streamlines the flow and receipt of information by the participating law schools.
  • Use of the service makes it easier for the candidate, allowing you to submit just one set of official transcripts, test scores, and original letters of recommendation to LSAC. LSAC will process and evaluate your materials and send a report to the schools you have selected to receive them.
  • If you have international transcripts, LSAC will evaluate and authenticate the transcripts and convert your academic performance according to a uniform standard so admissions committees can compare files with grades received from many different grading systems. This helps the admissions committee immensely and enables decisions to be rendered more quickly and fairly.

Some law schools may accept applications electronically directly through their websites, bypassing the LSAC LL.M. Credential Assembly Service. Still other law schools may accept applications directly by mail or by email. You should check with the admissions office to see what methods of submission are acceptable and which are preferred.

What is important in an LL.M. application?

As you begin to prepare your applications, do your research and see what sort of candidates the particular LL.M. programs favor. Some programs require work experience, while others are less particular about prior professional work. Some programs are geared towards international students who will return to their home countries after their degrees. Others are designed to help candidates pass the bar exam and establish a US-based practice. Still others favor domestic J.D. candidates who seek to change course in their legal careers or further specialize in their current legal fields.

Then ask yourself: What is the story of my application? All the components of the LL.M. application should convey a consistent message about why the candidate should be admitted to the Master of Law degree program. Use the application components you can control, such as your essays, to showcase your strengths and distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool.

Letters of Recommendation

If you have been working in a law-related field or other area for a number of years, you should have a supervisor or company superior write a professional letter of recommendation. The letter should speak to your capacity to collaborate with colleagues, communicate with clients, and process challenging tasks to turn out quality products. The letter should also talk about how well the recommender thinks you would be able to handle the rigors of a law school environment. If English is your second language and you conduct your business in multiple languages, then the recommender should indicate how much of your professional business is conducted in English. This could help buttress a weak TOEFL result or reinforce a strong TOEFL result.

If you have maintained a strong relationship with a professor from your first law degree, you should include an academic recommendation in which the professor writes about your intellectual strengths and potential as a graduate law student. Remind the professor of your extracurricular activities during law school and any academic honors or accomplishments you achieved in your earlier legal studies. You should also discuss your professional plans after completing your LL.M. studies.

Resume

Your LL.M. resume should emphasize prior legal work or professional qualities such as persistence, ambition, critical thinking, empathy, ability to collaborate, responsibility, and organizational skills.

Personal Statement

An LL.M. degree is a one-year degree, a very short period of time to study, network, and hopefully find satisfying employment. The law school will primarily be focused on the larger J.D. community, so the LL.M. student will have to be self-motivated. Students who lack focus may run into academic trouble or find themselves unable to secure an internship or job. The Admissions Committee wants to see that the candidate is purposeful and self-directed.

A strong personal statement should indicate where candidates have been, where they want to go, and the reasons why this particular LL.M. degree will help them achieve their professional objectives. Since candidates already hold a first law degree and have some understanding of what the legal field requires, they should be able to write with specificity about past accomplishments and future goals.

TOEFL

A low TOEFL score can seriously cripple an otherwise strong application from an international student.

If your first law degree was not conducted in English and you do not hold a university-level degree where the language of instruction was English, then you will likely have to provide a TOEFL score in your LL.M. application. You should study for the test and try to achieve the highest score possible. Since LL.M. programs do not require an LSAT score, and GPAs are often calculated with grading systems from many different countries, the TOEFL provides admissions committees with one of their only standardized measures of the applicant pool. Moreover, an Admissions Committee wants to be certain that international students’ language skills will not prevent them from learning. If students cannot fully participate in classroom discussions or perform well on exams, they may not be satisfied students or graduates.

Thus, the TOEFL can play an outsized role in the admissions process as well as in determining merit scholarships.

Takeaways

  • An LL.M. is a one-year master’s degree for candidates who already have a degree in law, and it can help you switch to a new field of law, get a new job, or gain a professional edge.
  • LL.M. programs vary widely, so you should pick your program based on your professional goals.
  • Your LL.M. application should tell a story about what you’ve done and what you hope to do in the legal field.
  • Your personal statement, in particular, should be extremely specific about your previous studies, career, and ambitions.
  • If you speak English as a second language, your TOEFL score is important, and you should study for it.

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