Why U.S. law firms are hesitant to hire foreign LL.M. grads

By Deiree Jaeger-Fine

"After my LL.M. I would like to work at a U.S. law firm for a few years. I might stay in the U.S., I am not sure yet, but I really hope to get a few years experince under my belt." 

If I ask 100 LLM students about their goals, 99 of them will answer in a similar fashion. The above example is a reasonable answer. Complementing one’s LL.M. study with practical experience is a valid goal. But is it an attainable goal? What do employers think about this “a few years plan?”

Hiring and training associates is very expensive. I knew that it was, but I was stunned by just how expensive it really is. Firms spend an average of $12,000 in recruiting and training each associate they hire. That figure increases to $62,000 for law firms with more than 250 employees.[1]

That cost range may not seem much considering the annual revenue of law firms. However, law firms do not recover their initial investment in an associate until close to three years from the date of hire.[2] If we add paychecks and other support to the equation we find that firms spend between $500,000 and $700,000 identifying, recruiting, paying and supporting an attorney during the first three years of hire.[3]

Now imagine you are an employer, and you know that you will spend at least $500,000 on your new proud LL.M. graduate. And then after three years, the LL.M. student says:

“Thank you for this valuable experience, I learned a lot and it certainly enhances my resume. I am going back home now. Goodbye.”

Even if an LL.M. student has the intention of staying in the U.S. permanently, the risk that the foreign LL.M. changes her mind along the way (due to visa, family, or other reasons) and leaves the firm and country is high.

When firms invest so much in hiring and training associates, attrition has an obvious negative effect on the bottom line.[4] Turnover in law practice “create a staggering annual cost of more than $25 million for a 400-attorney firm.”[5] There is also the client perspective. Clients understandably find attorney attrition to be disruptive.[6] Linda Madrid, former general counsel at CarrAmerica, notes that it is “frustrating when outside counsel don’t provide consistent lawyers… [N]othing [is] worse than investing in and relying on someone, and then having that person pulled out.[7]

So, while an LL.M. student’s goal to complement her LL.M. with practical experience is a good goal for her, it does not consider the employer’s side of the story. An LL.M. student whose goal is to work for a U.S. firm should educate herself about the costs and risks involved for the employer and come up with tangible benefits of her hire that will outweigh the risks involved. It is possible and done every day, but it involves thinking beyond one’s personal goals.

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).


[1]                   Robert Half News Release, One-Quarter of Firms to Expand First-Year Associate Hiring (September 20, 2017), available at http://rh-us.mediaroom.com/2017-09-20-One-Quarter-Of-Law-Firms-To-Expand....

[2]                   New York State Bar Association, Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession at 78 (April 2, 2011), citing Peter Giuliani, Parting May Be Sweet Sorrow, But It’s Getting More Expensive, N.Y. ST. B.A.J. 32 (May 2006). Available at https://www.nysba.org/futurereport/.

[3]                   Id. at 76.

[4]                   Id.

[5]                   Assessing Lawyer Traits & Finding a Fit for Success: Introducing the Sheffield Legal Assessment 3, available at http://therightprofile.com/wp-content/uploads/Attorney-Trait-Assessment-.... This includes a $250,000 cost to recruit one first year associate. Id. at 4.

[6]                   See Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession, supra at 74-75.

[7]                   Joan C. Williams, Cynthia Thomas Calvert, & Holly Cohen Cooper, Better on Balance? The Corporate Counsel Work/Life Report, 10 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 367 (2004) available at http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=w... at 367.