A master of laws in U.S. law can be a career game changer for attorneys outside of the United States.
By exposing international lawyers to the basics of the American legal system, the degree can allow them to take on new clients, advance in their firm, call themselves an international lawyer and even take the U.S. bar in a few states.
"American law is becoming more and more the world's law, and therefore there is a greater need for understanding American law," says James Davids, associate professor and director of the LL.M. and M.A. program at the School of Law at Regent University.
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International students pursuing an LL.M. in U.S. law once had to come to the U.S. to study. Today, American universities are increasingly offering online LL.M. programs, allowing international students to complete a degree while saving money and staying put.
Enrolling in an online LL.M program has benefits and drawbacks, according to experts. Face-to-face and virtual programs may lead to an identical credential, but they don't provide an identical experience.
One advantage of an online LL.M program is the ability to study from anywhere. Many international students in LL.M. programs are already practicing law in their own country, says Michael Koby, associate dean for international and graduate programs at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, which offers an online LL.M. By going to school online, they can keep their clients happy and continue to work their way up the career ladder.
"There are a lot of experienced lawyers overseas who can't leave their job," Koby says. "If the opportunity to come to the U.S. has passed you by, this is the option."
Maria Marta Dias Heringer Lisboa, a 30-year-old attorney in Sao Paulo, Brazil, says she would love to come to the U.S. for a full-time LL.M. program. But as a woman with an already established legal career, she says an online LL.M. is a better fit. She plans to apply to the new online LL.M. program at University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, which starts in fall 2014.
"I love Los Angeles and I love the U.S." she says. "It's a dream. But two years is too much time. I need to work here because of my clients and because my law firm needs me here in-house."
Another benefit of enrolling in an online LL.M. program is the cost savings. While tuition at online and on-campus LL.M. programs is often the same, students taking their classes virtually don't have to pay for travel and housing costs. They also can keep working during their studies, avoiding lost wages.
"The value of online education is much better than picking up and moving to a different country," says Davids of Regent University, which is offering an online LL.M. in American legal studies in fall 2014.
Advocates of online LL.M.s say the best programs provide networking opportunities with other international students, enriching courses and inspiring professors – just like their on-campus counterparts.
One way the two models differ, however, is in their ability to provide total English language immersion.
"When a Chinese person comes here, they are fully immersed in English," says Davids. "Not only are they taking classes in English, they hear it all the time. They hear it on the news. That's got to improve their English proficiency.
"If you are still in China, you are listening to Chinese. You are speaking Chinese with your family. That's going to give the person studying on-campus an advantage."
Enrolling in an online LL.M. program will also affect an international student's chance to take the American bar, experts say.
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Students who enroll in a face-to-face LL.M. program are eligible to take the bar in a handful of states including California, New York, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners and the American Bar Association.
For students in an online LL.M. program, eligibility to take the state bar is a bit murky. Davids says students are eligible to take the bar in California – a state with a reputation for a difficult exam – but experts say each state handles eligibility differently. As a result, it's unclear how many states would allow online LL.M. students to take the bar.