Summary: Find out if getting an LL.M. degree will help or hurt the future of your legal career in this article.
When you look at websites and magazines that cater to law students, you will find a virtual feeding frenzy of law schools offering LL.M. programs. It is like entering into an Arabian Bazaar, where the sellers are all jacked up on stimulants and you have a sticker on your back that says “SUCKER!” The sellers of LL.M. programs come at you from every possible direction, making it seem like everyone needs an LL.M. like the one they offer.
Did you do horribly in law school and now want to get an LL.M. from a prestigious school? No problem! You are admitted!
Did you go to an unaccredited law school and now want to get an Ivy League law school on your resume?No problem! You are admitted.
Did you study law in rural China, are barely able to speak English, but have the money to spend? No problem! You are admitted!
This is all a money play by law schools to cater to your dreams and ambitions. It is basically a con. Because it is a con, the subject matter of the LL.M. is whatever you are interested in. There are LL.M. programs in:
intellectual property law,
indigenous peoples law,
financial services law,
logistics and transportation law,
homeland and national security law,
education law, air and space law (not just space law),
corporate compliance law,
fashion law (yep, that’s right!),
international sports law practice (let’s go international),
biotechnology and genomics law,
global food law,
intercultural human rights law,
cyber and telecommunications law, and
criminal justice law—among others.
I have seen every type of LL.M. degree out there. With limited exceptions (tax law and a foreign attorney with a job already lined up in the US), getting an LL.M. degree is about the dumbest thing anyone can do.
As noted, there are two exceptions. First, attorneys practicing tax law can be benefitted by an LL.M. degree and large law firms often require it. Tax law is so specialized that this extra study is considered quite meaningful. Second, foreign attorneys who are already working for American law firms and want to come to the United States – or have spouses in the United States – are often well served by getting LL.M.s. Note that this second exception does not apply to cases where foreign lawyers do not already have jobs lined up or where they have the option to not relocate to the US. In those cases, foreign lawyers will have difficulty securing jobs in the United States, notwithstanding their LL.M. degrees or caliber of schools where they earned them. Why would law firms hire them? They are not from the U.S., they need to be sponsored, and they generally will not have any special skills the law firm needs. In almost every instance, the law firm will prefer to hire American attorneys.
With the two exceptions described above, getting an LL.M. is often counterproductive. It actually shows potential employers that you have no business practicing law with them and highlights many “negatives” about you –
you are a sucker,
you want to look like a foreigner,
you did not go to a good law school,
you are more intellectual than practical, and
you would rather sit in a classroom than practice law.
An LL.M. degree is one of the most insane degrees you can get and it generally never works out the way you hope it will. Despite your best intentions, getting an LL.M. degree is likely to send your career (and bank account) backward and not forward. You will spend money for something that is largely worthless. In most instances you would be better served not having an LL.M. at all.
I have had it with so many people from around the world—and other Americans—getting ripped off by LL.M. programs. Our company gets calls each day from desperate LL.M.s who are not employable due to these worthless degrees. At the same time, I see all the law school propaganda about their LL.M. programs. I am on the front lines watching people throw away their careers with these degrees, watching the failures stack up one after another. With very few exceptions, most foreign lawyers who get LL.M. degrees do not end up getting positions in the U.S. and are basically just giving large checks to law schools.
Students contemplating these programs have no idea how badly they are being misinformed and scammed by schools eager to make money, pay high salaries to professors, and stay afloat. I am using harsh words here because I see the real damage these programs do to careers of well-intentioned attorneys. Education is generally a good thing, but the legal profession is different, and many attorneys make themselves less employable by wearing the “badge” of an LL.M. Far from being a badge of honor, in most cases the badge of an LL.M. is a badge of dishonor—advertising that you are the victim of a con job. Why would any law firm want to hire you to represent their clients?
These are the main reasons an LL.M. is not worth it:
LL.M. Degrees Carry Very Little Prestige: A Harvard LL.M. Does Not Mean Harvard Law School, An NYU LL.M. Does Not Means NYU Law School, and So Forth
People with average to lousy law schools on their resumes often believe that they are somehow “classing up” their resumes by going to schools like Harvard, NYU, or Georgetown for LL.M. degrees. This could not be further from the truth. It is extremely competitive to get into the J.D. programs of these schools; however, much less so for the LL.M. programs. LL.M.s cannot hurt a law school’s U.S. News ranking because the law school does not have to provide data on its LL.M.s. LL.M. programs do not need to report profiles of their entering classes and they do not need to report employment statistics. They are unaccountable to the marketplace when it comes to LL.M.s and this enables them to admit just about anyone who can pay tuition.
Law firms understand this and so for the most part law firms are unimpressed by LL.M.s from Columbia, Harvard, or other similar schools. The best law firms contain people who went to law school and did not get LL.M.s after law school. These law firms contain people who went to good law schools or did exceptionally well in the law schools they went to. That is it. That is where they get their prestige. You do not get a “do over” in the eyes of law firms. They will look at you and judge you on whether or not you could have gotten a position with them before getting an LL.M. Even if you have great qualifications, law firms will likely wonder why you got an LL.M. after that. There is no reason to.
There are some very smart attorneys who get LL.M.s, but also some very dumb ones. I know of one attorney who got an LL.M. from Harvard who did so poorly on his LSATs he could not even get into an accredited American law school and attended an unaccredited one in California before attending Harvard. I have also seen people who graduated near the bottom of their classes from law school get LL.M.s from NYU. Most LL.M. program’s offer “back doors” to enter prestigious law schools, but the degrees they give do not translate into the prestige attorneys think they do.
The LL.M. degree is so suspect that some of them do not even require you to be physically on campus. One of the more prestigious LL.M. programs, NYU’s executive tax LL.M., allows its students to watch the classes on their computers from anywhere in the world and only requires them to show up for exams and at campus a few other times during the program.
LL.M. Degrees Offer Very Little Substance of Use to Actual Lawyers
Lawyers are paid to do research and figure stuff out. Going to get an LL.M. in environmental law does not make you a good environmental attorney or give you the right to practice this area of law. There is very little that is taught in any LL.M. program that you cannot pick up in your day-to-day practice if you join a good law firm—in fact, in many LL.M. programs you are likely to learn very little at all. What is important to being a good lawyer in any practice area is developing good, on-the-job skills that are useful in actual practice. You will not get these skills in a lecture hall.
Most competent attorneys (in all practice areas) have the ability to move around between different types of work. Do you think that before a good attorney does a certain kind of work he or she says: “Hey! This case involves issues of corporate law! I better go get an LL.M. before I tackle it!”
Of course not. Attorneys are paid to think and figure out problems. You learn the basics of this in law school and that is that. There is nothing more to add by getting an LL.M. Moreover, law professors tend to be intellectual. Most law firm attorneys are not. Law firm attorneys are working for paying clients who are interested in solutions as opposed to intellectualizing various ideas. Attorneys solve real world problems. If your goal is to practice in a law firm, you should get as far away as possible (and as quickly as possible) from law professors and their manner of thinking. Most law professors would get eaten up alive inside of a law firm and their thinking style could rub off on you.
One of the dumbest LL.M.s out there (and there are several dumb ones) is the LL.M. in intellectual property law. More baffling, the majority of people who go into these intellectual property LL.M. programs have undergraduate degrees in things like English or Political Science. IP law is very science-based, and it would make much more sense for someone with a liberal arts background who wants to get a job in IP law to get a degree in something like electrical engineering or another science discipline and then take the patent bar. Even taking classes at a community college in subjects that would help with patent bar preparation would be preferable to getting a dubious LL.M. degree in intellectual property law.
LL.M. Programs Exist and Are Heavily Promoted Because They Are Cash Cows for Law Schools
Law schools are businesses and behave like businesses. They report things like graduate employment rates and average LSAT and grade point averages because they are required to do so. They need to maintain a certain level of quality to look desirable to other law students and to recruit faculty. Building the most prestigious classes on paper is important to all law schools. Law schools will even shrink classes and take all sorts of other actions (including offering scholarships) to make sure they do as well as they can with these statistics.
Not so with the LL.M. programs of these schools! LL.M. programs are huge money making enterprises and everyone is welcome so long as they pay the tuition. Unlike J.D. programs, LL.M. programs are unregulated and law schools can simply make up subjects and bring in whoever has the money to pay. The beauty of LL.M. programs is that law schools generally do not have to offer any classes beyond those they are already offering. They simply bring in more LL.M. students, have them sit in existing classes, and then give them worthless LL.M. degrees. You can think of LL.M. as standing for “Lawyers Losing Money.”
Law schools make up these ridiculous LL.M. programs (anyone interested in an LL.M. degree in intercultural human rights law?) because they are businesses and businesses make money when they have products that appeal to people in all niches. If they cannot sell their name (look it’s Harvard Law!), they will find a topic that may interest you such as SPACE LAW! It does not really matter—they are businesses and will offer whatever sells. The genius of the LL.M. program is that law schools are 100% unaccountable for the quality of students and their employment rates. They do not even have to offer any form of scholarships to their students.
None of the Best Lawyers Have LL.M Degrees. Why Would They?
Not a single United States Supreme Court justice has an LL.M. degree. Why would they? In fact, I would have a very difficult time naming any nationally known attorney with an LL.M. degree. I am not saying there are not any—I just cannot name many people who have gone all that far with LL.M.s. With the exception of the occasional tax attorney in a big firm, there are typically very few if any LL.M.s in major law firms. In a major firm like Skadden Arps, they figure that if you are smart enough to work there the last thing in the world you would want to do is pay someone to teach you what you would learn anyway as a hard working associate while earning a great income in the process.
You generally want to look like (on paper) the sort of person for whom you want to work. If you want to work in a well-regarded law firm, you should look like other attorneys who (1) got their J.D.’s from the best schools they could get into, (2) did their best in law school, and (3) moved on with their lives.
Good lawyers do not get LL.M.s because they do not have to. The best lawyers also do not have time to get LL.M.s because they are too busy practicing law, earning money, and working on more important things.
Law Firms Will Assume You Are a Foreigner If You Have an LL.M. Degree on Your Resume Because Most People with LL.M. Degrees Are Foreigners
I have nothing against foreigners. When you get an LL.M., though, you are going to be studying with a class that is likely to be filled with foreigners. Many law firms that see an LL.M. on your resume will (wrongly) jump to the conclusion that you do not have U.S. citizenship and they are going to run into all sorts of sponsorship issues if they hire you. Most law firms do not have time for this nonsense and therefore no interest in LL.M.s. While you can certainly explain to law firms that you are not a foreigner, in most cases law firms will not take you seriously anyway once they see the LL.M. on your resume.
Generally, foreigners get LL.M.s because it enables them to practice law in California and New York (if they hit the lottery and get hired at all—most do not). The LL.M. is basically a “remedial degree.” People who go to good law schools and get good jobs do not turn around and then go back to school for an LL.M. in animal law, for example. This is almost unheard of. Why would they? It makes no sense. Why lower yourself to a remedial degree you do not need to get?
If You Think You Need to Rehab Your Career by Getting an LL.M., Maybe You Should Consider Another Career
There are far too many good attorneys out there and the market is extremely competitive as it is. In general, people who go and get LL.M.s often do so because they think the degree will make them more employable or more attractive to the market.
First of all, this is almost never the case. It is generally the opposite: You are highlighting your current shortcomings by getting the degree (not an American citizen, did not go to a good law school) and not helping yourself. You are spending money you should not be spending because you are in a profession where you are already at a disadvantage.
However, the broader issue is that most people who get LL.M.s are coming from a position of weakness. People should pursue careers they are good at and in which they have potential—not careers where they are almost always admitting weakness right out of the gate.
Most foreign attorneys hoping to work in the United States are not even likely to get jobs after getting LL.M. degrees. Some do, but very few. Similarly, attorneys who get LL.M. degrees in any one of a variety of topics are unlikely to get positions in those subject matters. There are tons of successful people who went to law school and did not practice law. In fact, if you are motivated enough to go get an LL.M., the odds are pretty good that you would do much better putting that drive into another career.
Herein lies the issue with the LL.M.: It telegraphs weakness and not strength most of the time. This does not help you. Lawyers are paid to telegraph the strength of their clients. Because the telegraphing of strength is so important, the first person they are expected to telegraph strength with is themselves.
Lawyers Are Not Supposed to Be Conned and Are Supposed to Protect People from Being Conned
The LL.M. program is something that sells “hope” to attorneys that somehow getting this LL.M. is going to change their careers and employment prospects. All of the advertisements that attorneys see are understandably quite exciting—especially if the LL.M. is in a big city, by the beach, or in a sexy subject (cyber law anyone?). I have certainly been conned before. I have paid sticker price for cars and made all sorts of mistakes. But getting an LL.M. is getting conned big time! It is the con of all cons for most attorneys! Law schools are taking your money and are 100% unaccountable after doing so.
The attorney who gets the LL.M. is almost always putting a mark on his or her resume that shows that he or she was suckered into getting a useless degree. How can you be trusted with the future of your clients if you were so easily conned and ready to put the mark of being conned right on your resume as if it was an advantage? Lawyers are supposed to protect others and they need to live by example.
I actually hate coming down on LL.M. programs. But the reality is that in most cases the law schools are taking your money because they can get away with it. They know that the degree offers you very little and they are selling you something that does not translate into value in the market and that is likely to hurt you as opposed to help you. Law schools do not offer scholarships for these degrees in most cases because they do not care who they attract. It is all about money. It is all about money in a profession where the institution that is taking your money is supposed to be teaching you to protect and advocate for others in society. This is messed up and it is wrong.
It is also quite sad because most attorneys getting LL.M.s are doing so because they falsely believe the degree and extra education will help them be more effective and valuable members of the workforce. While education generally is more helpful than not, the opposite is true in the case of most LL.M. degrees. The LL.M. degree generally harms. The cost is the financial cost of the degree, the lost opportunities while getting the degree, and the fact that the degree actually appears like a black mark on the attorney’s resume after it has been received.
I have been a legal recruiter almost my entire career. I have worked with countless LL.M.s and—with the exception of LL.M.s in tax, who started their careers at top law firms (not accounting firms) and who did very well in law school to begin with—most attorneys with LL.M.s are not employable in top American law firms. If, of course, this is not something you want, then the LL.M. may be a good choice. I think there is a lot of value to education and learning. My criticism and concern is with the myth versus the reality of what an LL.M. degree actually will do for an attorney’s career.