Which degree is best?

When I started my consulting firm for international lawyers, the majority of my clients were either current LL.M. students or recent LL.M. graduates. This has changed quite a bit, and that’s why I insist on describing my company as a “consultancy for international lawyers.” The category “international lawyer,” of course, is very broad and not clear-cut, but so is the makeup of international legal professionals in the U.S.

Just as there is a range of international lawyers, we have a range of degrees available. 3-year juris doctor, 2-year J.D., LL.M., 2-year LL.M. and SJD/JSD (Doctor of Juridicial Science).

Which degree is best? I wish I could write articles on topics with a clear answer. But unfortunately, when it comes to our career, the answer often is: It depends. The other day I heard someone advising an international student interested in coming to the U.S. to stack up degrees: “Do an LL.M. and then a 2-year J.D. You have three years of legal education, just like domestic students, but you will have the advantage of two degrees instead of just one.”

This advice is faulty on many levels. It is not about the quantity of degrees, but the quality of the education. And quality is not an objective measure, as it depends very much on what career goals we as international lawyers have.

Master of Laws (LL.M.)

A lot has been said about the LL.M. already. The LL.M. is a postgraduate law degree for those who already have a first degree in law. It typically is a 1-year degree but some schools offer a 2-year option.

Juris Doctor (J.D.)

The J.D., normally a 3-year program, is the first degree in law and is the standard law degree in the U.S. 

2-year J.D.

The 2-year J.D. comes in many different names such as: J.D. for Non-U.S. Lawyers, Advanced Standing J.D., Accelerated J.D., J.D. Advanced and more. They all have in common that they are two years instead of three. This saves students one year of time and expense but often cuts students off the “regular” recruiting cycle. Hiring J.D. graduates in the U.S. is very systematic—on-campus recruiting, the importance of first year grades to summer associate positions, etc. A 2-year J.D. is an oddity in this system and neither law schools nor employers have yet to figure out the best way to deal with this peculiar situation. This is not to say that the 2-year J.D. is not a degree worth pursuing, but you should educate yourself extensively before deciding to pursue it.

There are two questions that have a very clear answer:

1. Does it really matter which degree we choose? Yes, it does, more than we may think.

2. Which degree should I choose if I want to work and live in the U.S. permanently?

“Regular” J.D. The “regular” 3-year J.D. does not guarantee employment and does not cure the problems of needing work authorization, but it is the law degree in the U.S. and if we want to establish ourselves in the U.S. as an attorney we should choose the education developed for that purpose. Yes, I know, there are many successful attorneys with “only” an LL.M.. But if you want to have the best possible odds, choose the J.D. If you like to gamble, choose an LL.M.

But the following questions are not as straightforward:

1. Which degree should I choose if I want to return home upon graduation? 

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors. First, it depends on whether you want to spend one year, two years or three years abroad — and are willing and able to spend one, two or three years of tuition. It also depends on whether you want to learn U.S. law from the bottom up — the J.D.; or gain specialized knowledge in a certain area — the LL.M.

Finally, it depends on how the various U.S. degrees are perceived in your home country and which degree will help you reach your goals. It is fair to say that the U.S. LL.M. degree is still highly valued internationally. Employers in a few countries, however, especially in Asia, are increasingly interested in the J.D. 

2. Which degree should I choose if I am sure that I want to return to my home country and practice law there but want to get some practical experience in the U.S.?

No degree can guarantee a job opportunity, an internship or clerkship but finding short-term opportunities, especially during the OPT period, is — not an easy — but a realistic goal with either degree. Obviously, it is easiest with a “regular” J.D. but we have to balance the additional financial investment with the added value the degree has over an LL.M. in our home country. This investment can easily amount to $100,000 plus the opportunity costs of not working for two years.  If our home country does not care much for a J.D. and you do not want to spend two additional years and $100,000 more, an LL.M. may suffice.

Please note that an advisory article of 900 words has to be general in nature. There are many, many factors that have to be taken into consideration.

The key take-away is: Do not underestimate the impact of your choice on your future career. I have seen many regret the choices they made. Do not listen to one-sided advice but do your own extensive research so you can make an educated decision. The extra effort will pay out.


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).