Why do you want to earn an LL.M.?

The fall semester has just begun and incoming LL.M. students are thrilled to start an exciting year. “Why are you doing the LL.M.?” is a fairly simple question, but one that many LL.M. students struggle with. Of course, goals can be comprised of multiple objectives and can change over time, but many fail to give this question the consideration it deserves. Having an awareness of why we are doing the LL.M. will help us set our compass in the right direction. In the first weeks of your LL.M. you are involved in figuring out how everything works, overwhelmed with the amount of new information. In these moments you can easily get on the wrong track.

There are basically three different objectives one can have for his or her LL.M. There is not necessarily a clear divide between these goals. The most important part is thinking about it, before or at the beginning of the program.

No goal is better than the other. The worthiness of a goal can only be answered by the student. Every goal is a legitimate goal.  Not having a goal at all is the problem.

The reason why it is so important to be aware of one’s objective is because your goal will determine the effort you will need to achieve it. It happens all the time that an LL.M. student comes to me asking for help with his or her job searcha month before graduation. For many, that may be simply too late to undertake a meaningful job search.

Goal #1: Enjoy a year abroad

The goal that requires the least amount of effort is enjoying a year abroad, although it can be very difficult to enjoy once we get caught up in class preparation and grade pressure. Pursuing an LL.M. is for many the first and maybe last time they will have the chance to live and study abroad for over a year and they seek mainly to enjoy it. I know of many that say that the LL.M. year was the best year of their life. The program not only allows you to immerse yourself in U.S. culture, but also to explore the many different cultures from which other LL.M. students come.  This is one aspect I loved about my LL.M. Sitting in a classroom with students from over 40 countries was simply amazing. If your goal is to enjoy a year abroad, there is just one thing you have to remember: Enjoy it, and don’t get caught up in the craziness of class and exam preparation.

Goal #2: Enhance career options in home country

The second goal many LL.M. students have is to use the LL.M. credentials to enhance their career in their home country. The U.S. LL.M. is very well regarded outside the U.S., and some law firms may even require their associates to obtain one. For those pursuing that goal, there are a couple of factors to bear in mind. First and foremost, you want to make sure that you actually graduate. I personally never heard of anyone not succeeding in the LL.M. program, but you never know. Besides that, you want to make sure that you really enhance your English skills. I heard a partner of a European law firm complaining that his associates failed to acquire sufficient English-language skills during their time in the U.S. Many are under the assumption that the mere fact of being in another country for an extended period of time and having to study in English will enhance one’s English skills. This couldn't be further from the truth.  

What really will enhance your language skills is how often you are forced to use English outside the classroom, and outside the law school. Many LL.M. students live with roommates from their home country, so the only language they speak at home is the one they have spoken all their lives. On top of that, many LL.M. students have the tendency to stick around their peers. It is quite normal at the beginning of the LL.M., to seek something familiar when everything is strange and new. We are quite naturally drawn to those students that come from where we come from because it gives us a feeling of comfort. However, one big aspect about the LL.M. is to step outside one’s comfort zone.  Being forced to make yourself understood in English is certainty outside our comfort zone, no matter how well we think we speak English before we come to the U.S. It is very easy to get caught up on the wrong path at the beginning of the LL.M. if you don’t remind yourself of your objectives.

If you your goal is to enhance your career options in your home country, it makes sense to build some professional relationships during your time in the U.S.  Law firms worldwide value strong global networks, and you should use your time in the U.S. to enhance your own.

It further helps to gain knowledge about the U.S. legal industry. Many LL.M. students have the tendency to never leave “the campus.”  It is important to enjoy law school as much as possible and to take the opportunity of extracurricular activities such as law journals or clinics. But it is equally important to communicate with practicing attorneys at U.S. in law firms, corporations, NGOs, etc. At the end of the day, law is a business and you need to understand how the business works. 

 

Goal #3: Enhance career options in U.S.

This goal often comes with two problems.  The first is that many develop this goal at a later stage during their LL.M. and the second problem is that achieving this goal takes an extra amount of energy that many are not prepared to exert. The legal industry is undergoing extreme changes. New technologies as well as competition for clients are just a few reasons for the change.  The current situation does not make for a good employment market for either domestic or foreign lawyers. The unemployment rate for lawyers may be improving, but it is still challenging.  The LL.M. student who seeks to enhance his or her options in the U.S. with the LL.M. should have an in depth understanding of the profession and the job market. Many LL.M. students are under the assumption that they have more opportunities in the U.S. than they would have in their home country. This assumption is mostly based on false ideas about the U.S., not on well-researched facts.

Foreign lawyers were hired in the U.S. in the past and they will be in the future. But one should not underestimate the work and determination it requires to secure employment here in the U.S. If your goal is to enhance your career options in the U.S. you will have to be very engaged and focused on attaining that goal.

 

Each goal mentioned above is a legitimate goal. The only difference between them is the effort you need to achieve them. Obviously, enjoying a year abroad is straightforward. Enhancing your job opportunities at home requires more from you and finally, enhancing your opportunities in the U.S. is the toughest and most demanding. 

Because of the difference in effort it is of crucial importance to give your goal much consideration before you start your LL.M. so that you can begin your time in the U.S. on the right track.  Time is a crucial element of success. No matter what it is that you want to do or seek to accomplish you need time for things to evolve. That is why you have to set the stage at a proper moment so that you have enough time at your disposal.

Desiree Jaeger-Fine, Esq, is a regular contributor to The National Jurist and principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, The Hub for Foreign Legal Talent™ - helping foreign lawyers seek employment in the U.S.