LL.M. students: You are not alone

We all have come across law school classes with curved grades, meaning your grade depends on how your performance compares against others in the class. Imagine that in one of those classes your professor says the year-end exam will be easy. This will probably excite you, making you believe that you may receive a higher grade. Now consider, on the other hand, that you were told that the professor is going to deduct 10 points from everyone’s grades. You may be devastated, thinking your grade will suffer.

In both scenarios, our reactions seem logical, but in fact they are flawed. Being comforted by an easy exam neglects the fact that it will also be easy for everyone else in the class. Being devastated by a loss of 10 points ignores the fact that this is true for everyone else in the class, as well.

Remember, the grades are curved, so they do nothing to your standing and grade in the class. This hypothetical is based on a 2003 study, “The Influence of Egocentrism and Focalism on People’s Optimism in Competitions: When What Affects Us Equally Affects Me More,” that was conducted to test people’s optimism in the face of competition.

Our instinct to believe that “what affects us equally affects me more” is normal due to the human tendency of “egocentric thinking.” It’s a fact of human behavior — a fact that has implications for LL.M. students and graduates.

As the egocentric creatures that we all are, wrote Cornell University professor David Dunning in his book “Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself,” “we fail to recognize that other people often possess the same strengths, suffer the same weaknesses, experience the same feelings, hold the same doubts, and confront the same contradictions as [we do]. . . . [We] fail to recognize these facts because [we] simply do not think of other people, even in situations that logically call people to consider other individuals.”

“Much of life is a competition with other people—for grades, for jobs, or for promotion,” Dunning continued.

Especially when we pursue job opportunities or entry into a competitive program, it is very much about comparative odds. Law school and job applications “logically call people to consider other individuals.” As such, it is important to successfully evaluate how we compare to others — both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Lacking genuine comparison is a common problem, not only in the study mentioned above, but for many professionals and students.

We may not admit it or, at the very least, we may believe that we are genuinely comparing ourselves to others. But the truth is that we often fail to consider others, especially when we evaluate our chances during a competitive process, such as an exam or a job application. This leads to weak job applications and weak positioning in the market place.

During my consultations, a client often will focus exclusively on what she has to offer, what she brings to the table, and why she thinks she is a good fit for a particular job or program of study. I understand where this comes from. We are trained to spread our personal brand and our value pitch. But there is a difference between communicating skills and considering competition in our strategic thinking. This difference is very important.

When we read a job description, for example, we may think that this particular position is perfect for us, but we may fail to take into consideration that it may be just as perfect for others. On the other hand, if we see a description of skills that we think we may lack, we fail to take into consideration that these skills may also be lacking in many other candidates. Dunny, the Cornell psychology professor, wrote about this in his book.

Let me make this a bit clearer.

A common pitch by a foreign LL.M. student is the ability to speak multiple languages, holding at least two law degrees and two bar admissions, and having international experience. This is wonderful, but there are thousands, and I mean thousands, of others with the same qualities and skillsets. Every year new international LL.M. students arrive in this country, following the footsteps of thousands of recent LL.M. graduates and thousands of those that already graduated. International experience and language skills become even more common with more and more international attorneys choosing JD degrees.

The competition is not shrinking; it is expanding.

Often, LL.M. students and graduates reach out to me, puzzled by the fact that they have been ignored in a job opportunity for which they felt they were just perfect: “Desiree, I have all the skills and experience the position required, why did I not get an interview?”

When we read a job description that calls for a bilingual attorney with international experience in a certain country, it seems to have our name written all over. We are exactly what is being sought… right? And this is where our assessment is incomplete — we may have all the position requires, but so do others.

So, should we not even bother to apply? Of course we should. But our application has to be better.

The real challenge in a successful job application and successful positioning in the marketplace is to not only state the obvious, but to add an extra layer of specialness. I don’t equate specialness with additional credentials, but our ability to understand the demands of the job and outlining in what way we are the most suitable candidate to fill that demand. A mere laundry list of credentials is not enough.

This is not to discourage anyone; to the contrary. I am the last to discourage anyone from anything.

I would like to encourage every LL.M. student and graduate to take off the blindfold and acknowledge and appreciate our colleagues’ accomplishments and to avoid the mistake of attributing specialness to skills that have become common. We must be more than the accumulations of our credentials and we cannot rest on these achievements. If your application does not answer why you are the most suitable for the position, remember that you are not alone. Revisit your application and show why you are special and the best person for the position.

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