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Though Controversial, LL.M.'s Can Lead to Specialized Legal Jobs

In areas such as tax or securities law, experts say an LL.M. can add value to a J.D.

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Steven John, a managing director at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, made headlines recently by revealing that some of his colleagues discourage job applicants from mentioning an LL.M.—or master of laws degree—on their résumés. Other people have also questioned the value of the degree, which tends to attract either J.D.'s seeking more specialized legal training or international students hoping to better understand the U.S. legal system. 

In a post on the blog Above the Law, Elie Mystal wrote that he felt sorry for aspiring lawyers who pursue an LL.M. after failing to land a job. "They've spent three years and who knows how much money pursuing a career in law, and now they can't get a job. They're hoping that somewhere there is some magic bullet that can turn everything around. There is not," he wrote. "Watching a kid get an LL.M. degree is like watching a recovering drug addict fall off the wagon after a personal setback."

Howard Fenton, who moderated the Association of American Law Schools panel in early January where John made the comment about LL.M.'s, says John's criticism was referring to a specific context: Fortune 100 companies' general counsel offices who are very interested in applicants' pedigrees since going to law school. John was suggesting that those companies thought LL.M. degrees might indicate that applicants were unfocused in their studies or felt they had to bolster their J.D. credentials, Fenton says.

Fenton, who directs the LL.M. program in democratic governance and rule of law at Ohio Northern University's Claude W. Pettit College of Law, says it's important for prospective students to determine the value of an LL.M.

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"I think it's a very legitimate question, especially for someone just [graduating] from law school who's looking for a job [and] saying, 'Gee, should I get an LL.M.?'" he says. "The answer for a lot of them is no. It's probably not a good economic decision."

There are 360 LL.M. programs, with areas of focus such as tax, sports, space and telecommunications, and animal law, according to the American Bar Association website. Fenton says everyone agrees that specialized LL.M.'s in tax or securities law are valuable investments, because they help train students in nuanced areas of the law. The relevance and economic merits of other types of LL.M.'s depend on students' goals, he says, noting that the programs can help midcareer lawyers successfully switch practices, for example.

"A generic international law LL.M. ... probably [is] not going to give you that much of a boost. That may not be a good investment," he says. "The economic argument that's hardest to make is someone right out of law school pursuing an LL.M. that isn't highly specialized in a field where there's a lot of market opportunity," he says. 

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John Hinchey, a retired partner at King & Spalding LLC who holds an LL.M. in international law from Harvard Law School, agrees that certain LL.M.'s are more valuable than others. He singles out tax, international dispute resolution, and patent and intellectual property law as worth pursuing.

"Otherwise, the LL.M. would be nothing more than another year of law school, which in my opinion would not add value," says Hinchey, who is a panelist at the Irvine, Calif.-based mediation and arbitration firm JAMS.

Russ Ferguson, a Charlotte-based attorney, says his LL.M. in securities and financial regulation from Georgetown University Law Center provided more practical training, compared to the more theory-based courses he took in Georgetown's J.D. program.

Ferguson says he understands why some have been critical of LL.M.'s, and says he has been encouraged to leave other things—such as his experience on a law school tax journal—off his résumé. Legal recruiters can assume that applicants are unfocused or aren't actually interested in a particular job if their experience lies in other specialties, he says.