Will the in-person LL.M. survive the pandemic?

With the vaccinated population rising steadily, I dare to look ahead to a time after the pandemic. Will LL.M. students ever return to a U.S. campus, or will they choose to stay in their home countries and study online? Online LL.M. programs were on the rise even before COVID-19, and for those schools that did not yet have online programs, the idea has become ever more alluring.

I understand the appeal of studying from one’s home country, which brings with it saving the expenses of moving to another country, staying in one’s job and close to family, having more flexibility, etc. But I think that the online LL.M. and in-person LL.M. are two different experiences serving different purposes. 

Bar Exam Eligibility

Many LL.M. graduates sit for the New York bar examination and become qualified attorneys. For most foreign-trained attorneys, this is a possibility only for those who complete an in-person LL.M. Under § 520.6 (b)(3)(viii) of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law in New York State, “no credit is allowed for correspondence courses, on-line courses, or other distance learning courses.” This rule was waived during the pandemic but does not suggest a change of heart by the Court of Appeals. The court may be open to allow for partial online study, but there is no indication that the court is inclined to allow for 100% online study in the future. For anyone interested in becoming an attorney in New York state, an online LL.M. will not be an option.

Working in the U.S.

If one seeks to work in the US, even for a short period, there is no substitute for physical presence. From a purely competitive perspective, an employer is not likely to hire someone who is not physically present when he can choose from among thousands of LL.M. graduates who are already in the country. Many remote internship opportunities were available during the pandemic, but most or all are likely to return to being in person again soon.

Enhanced Network 

The pandemic taught us that physical distance does not mean networking is on hold. On the contrary, I find that I could attend more events than in “normal” times. While online networking is effective, in-person networking adds an additional level of connection. Sitting together for lunch or coffee allows for more natural interaction. Studies have shown a clear correlation between social eating and social bonding.

Hallway Learning

So much of what we learn in an LL.M. program happens outside of a classroom. When we access the classroom remotely, our interactions with classmates, faculty members, and guest speakers and visitors end when we leave the Zoom room. Our ability to harness the power of these extra-classroom interchanges can be very meaningful. My first law-related job in the US—a research project funded by Google—came to me through my professor in the law school corridor. This equivalent of “water cooler talk” is largely absent in a remote world.

Curricular Choices and Integration

We do not yet know where the dust will settle, but I expect that most law schools will return to primarily in-person teaching for their standard curricula. This suggests that online LL.M. programs will be ecosystems unto themselves. This has two important implications: First, that the curricular choices in these programs are likely to be more limited than in traditional LL.M. programs. Depending on your academic and professional goals, this may not matter—but for some, it could be imperative. Second, students in online LL.M. programs will have fewer opportunities to interact with JD students. Working with US law students and understanding their approach to legal issues is an essential element of the traditional LL.M. program that many may not want to sacrifice.

 

Desiree Jaeger-Fine is director of international programs at Brooklyn Law School and author of Pursuing Happiness: One Lawyer’s Journey (Carolina Academic Press, forthcoming summer 2021), A Short & Happy Guide to Networking (West Academic Publishing) and A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired (West Academic Publishing).