Do U.S. firms need to be educated about an LL.M. graduate's potential value?

By Desiree Jaeger-Fine

“I feel that U.S. employers are not really valuing foreign LL.M. graduates. The fact that I speak two languages and have two law degrees is not appreciated enough. Don’t we have to educate U.S. employers more about our value?”

I hear this concern and the request to educate U.S. employers quite often and frankly, I do not share this view. It is not about educating employers in the abstract. It is about showing a potential employer in what way we as individuals can bring value to their law firm or company, in a particular situation for a particular position.

The fact that someone speaks two languages and has two law degrees in two different legal systems is very impressive, but when it comes to hiring decisions, these factors may or may not be relevant for a particular position. The only question a future employer seeks to have answered is: Is this candidate the solution to the problem we are trying to solve?

If an employer is seeking a Spanish speaking trust and estates associate with five years of experience, does a foreign lawyer from India, who gained experience in corporate law in New Delhi and has an LL.M. in banking and finance help this employer? No, he doesn’t. A J.D. graduate with Spanish fluency and trust and estates experience may be the solution. It would be fruitless to attempt to educate this employer about the value of two law degrees.

I also often hear the argument that having studied in two legal systems and two cultures shows that we can think outside the box in a way that a J.D. graduate with no international exposure cannot.

Having studied law in two countries and two systems does, in fact, broaden our horizons. Being forced to step outside one’s comfort zone helps us grow as professionals. This is certainly a quality employers appreciate, but only once the basics match. An employer does not hire an associate purely because of his soft skills and his potential to grow sometime in the future. A U.S. employer increasingly seeks “experts” rather than “generalists.”

This is even more so when it comes to hiring foreign attorneys. The foreign attorney is almost always hired for a very particular reason, for example, to serve the Latin America practice group. U.S. law firms concentrate their practices increasingly in certain areas, raising the threshold of competence for new hires. A foreign lawyer’s value proposition must be more than “I can think outside the box,” or “I have an interest in international law and different cultures.”

Foreign lawyers cut off their job chances by failing to identify exactly what it is they bring to the table. My consultancy has hundreds of clients at any given time. All of them speak at least two languages, and all of them gained legal education in multiple jurisdictions. With regards to these credentials, an LL.M. student may not be as special as she may think.

This is not to say that LL.M. students do not have a great pitch. But they really need to identify what exactly that pitch is. Rather than attempting to educate an employer about the abstract value of education in two countries, an LL.M. student or graduate should focus on her skill set and explore which employer is looking for exactly that. Which problem is an LL.M. student the solution for? I know that these problems are out there. Let’s go and get them.

Desiree Jaeger-Fine is principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, a career management firm for international attorneys in New York, and author of "A Short & Happy Guide to Networking" (West Academic Publishing) and "A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired" (West Academic Publishing).