How To Choose A Master of Laws (LL.M.) Degree Program
by George E. Edwards
Each year about 6,000 non-US-trained lawyers or law graduates enrol in over 100 U.S. Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree programs. These “international students” study at U.S. law schools for one year, and may specialize in one of over 100 different specific areas of domestic and international law. Each of these students is different, with individualized academic, personal, and career needs and aspirations. Each U.S. law school and LL.M. program is different from the next.
No one particular program is the best school for every international student. How should you decide which LL.M. program at which U.S. law school is “best” for you?
Ranking and Reputation?
Students often say they want to attend the “best U.S. law school”, the “highest ranked”, the school or LL.M. program with the “best reputation”, or a “top 10” or “top 50” school or program. But, what does that mean? Even if you could identity the best, highest ranked, best reputed or top, is that really the “best” school or LL.M. program for you?
You should not focus on the “best”, but focus on the “best for you”.
The “Best” School or LL.M. Program for You Ideally your strengths, interests and expectations will lead you to a U.S. school or LL.M. program that complements your strengths, and satisfies your interests and expectations. In theory there is a “best” or “ideal” U.S. LL.M. program for each student. The best for you may not be the best for another student. Your goal is to find the best or ideal program for yourself.
Getting Reliable LL.M. Information You must gather critical information, weigh it, acknowledge and honour your personal prejudices and predilections, and then make informed decisions based on rational, legitimate criteria you consider important.
Where do you get accurate, comprehensive information needed to make informed decisions about LL.M. programs, based on rational, legitimate criteria? One could write a book on the topic. Indeed I did! — LL.M. Roadmap: An International Student’s Guide to U.S. Law School Programs (Wolters Kluwer, 2011, 624 pages) (www.LLMRoadMap.com). LL.M Roadmap contains a wealth of information, including information about other important resources (e.g., Chapter 8, pages 169 – 171). Another great source of information about studying in the U.S. is the Education USA network, which is part of the U.S. State Department and has over 450 Advising Centers in 200 countries around the globe. These centers will provide further information about student visas, scholarships, adjusting to U.S. life, and information about law study and studies in many other fields. To find an Education USA Advising Center near you, check www.educationusa.info/centers.
These centers are located at U.S. Embassies and Consulates, Fulbright Commission offices, bi-national offices, universities and other locations around the globe. Some of the Education USA Libraries even have hard copies of LL.M. Roadmap for visitors like yourself to use to help you prepare for your application to, acceptance to, and success in a U.S. law school LL.M. program!
Stakeholders & Stakes
The most important stakeholders in LL.M. programs are students— prospective, currently enrolled, and graduated.
All students want a high quality U.S. legal education, to succeed in a U.S. law school, and to reach
U.S. schools want to meet students’ needs, but schools also want to maximize revenue from international students, and minimize school expenses associated with those students. Tuition may be over $40,000, easily generating millions in revenue per annum, and nice profits.
The financial stakes are high, both for international students and schools.
An LL.M. program is a “cash cow” if it uses LL.M. revenue for non- LL.M. purposes and fails adequately to fund the LL.M. program, leaving the LL.M. program with insufficient resources to meet LL.M. students’ needs. Students suffer. It is fine
to use LL.M. income for many purposes, such as domestic Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree programs, so long as the school adequately funds LL.M. academic assistance programs, English-language tutoring, LL.M. career services, and other LL.M. student initiatives. Avoid cash cows.
An LL.M. program is a “diploma mill” if it has low or unenforced academic requirements for admission, success in, or graduation from the program. Such programs essentially bestow LL.M. degrees at a high price but with little worth.
Avoid diploma mills.
218 Criteria for Choosing an LL.M. Program:
Avoiding “cash cows” and “diploma mills” Chapter 6 of LL.M. Roadmap gives examples of “cash cow” and “diploma mill” characteristics.
Chapter 7 lists 218 characteristics in 26 categories that LL.M. programs should possess to be able to meet your reasonable expectations regarding high quality education and reaching your post-LL.M. goals. (See Textbox for a list of the 26 categories.)
Armed with a self-assessment of your personal aspirations and needs, and armed with comprehensive, reliable information about different schools, you are in a solid position to determine if a school or an LL.M. program meets the cash cow or diploma mill definition. Ask whether and to what extent a school possesses the 218 criteria, and assess how important you consider each criterion.
Expect a High Quality Education
It is reasonable for you to expect your school to provide you a high quality education—with an appropriate knowledge base and training. Of course you should study hard and excel on exams!
Career and Other Goals
LL.M. students and graduates have multi-varied, individualized aspirations. Your U.S. LL.M. program should help you reach your goals. You may want to work for the United Nations or become a judge or Minister in your home country. You may want to develop expertise in a specific legal area, network with U.S. lawyers and law students, or gain clients for your own law firm when you return home. You may want to work for a year at a Wall Street law firm, teach at a U.S. or overseas law school, or work with a non-governmental organization.
Many schools do a fine job of helping students reach career goals. Some do not.
Problems with Expectations
Problems arise when students have reasonable expectations that the school is unwilling or unable to meet. For example, it is reasonable for you to want to work at a U.S. law firm for a year post-LL.M. The U.S. government permits this under an “Optional Practical Training” scheme, and states such as New York permit international LL.M. graduates to sit for their bar exam. But to secure the job, you may need your school’s help, perhaps with interviewing and other job-seeking assistance.
To work successfully once hired, the school must have provided you with high quality legal training.
The law school cannot guarantee that you will get a job or that you will pass a U.S. bar exam. However, your law school should certainly provide very high levels of assistance to you, consistent with the transparent and comprehensive promises they make to you before you enrol. When choosing a school, ask the school whether and to what extent it will help you reach your goals. Choose
a school that promises to help, and that has a good track record of keeping its promises. Ask LL.M. graduates and current
LL.M. students whether the school that interests
you fulfilled its promises to them. .
International LL.M. students have many interests and aspirations, and join U.S. LL.M. programs for many different reasons. Schools should meet all your reasonable expectations, and communicate to you – before you enrol – if the school is unable or unwilling to provide a service that would ordinarily be considered reasonable.
Not all schools need to provide all services, but they should be clear about what they will or will not provide. This will help you make informed decisions about schools. You can have a great experience if you go in with your eyes open, make informed choices, study hard and do well on exams, and take advantage of all the resources your school has available for you and for other international LL.M. students. If you choose the “best” school or LL.M. program for you, and work hard, you will have.
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