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Are LLMs Losing? Law Schools Say Students Gain from Advanced Degrees


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Kathryn Kennedy, associate dean for advanced studies and research at John Marshall Law School. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

As law school graduates continue to struggle to find jobs, the juris doctor degree as a ticket to employment has come under criticism, with some JDs saying their degree isn’t generating enough interest or income to pay off their student loans.

For lawyers looking to enhance their credentials, the postgraduate master of laws, or LLM, degree that may be earned in a specialty practice area in a classroom or, increasingly, online has historically been viewed as a way to become more attractive to prospective employers.

However, the LLM has been subject to its own criticism recently. At January’s Association of American Law Schools’ annual conference in Washington, D.C., Steve John, a managing director with the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said advanced degrees in law—except tax LLMs and LLMs for foreign-trained attorneys—may work to a student’s disadvantage. They may signal uncertainty about lawyers’ career paths, attempts to avoid the reality of a difficult job search, or too much divergence from their practical experience. In fact, he says, some of his colleagues who work with associates seeking a lateral move to another firm advise them to leave LLMs off of their resumés.

John’s comments hit a nerve in the legal education community, with administrators of schools offering LLMs defending the degrees while distinguishing their programs from John’s critique.

John Marshall Law School in Chicago has more than 200 students enrolled in LLM programs, including a tax and an employee benefits program, which is also offered online.

Kathryn Kennedy, associate dean for advanced studies and research at John Marshall, says that in today’s tight job market many students “couldn’t get their foot in the door” without an LLM.

John Marshall is expanding its LLM offerings this fall with the addition of an estate planning degree. Kennedy says the school’s online employee benefits LLM is attracting the interest of students as far away as California.

Rejecting John’s criticism, Kennedy says the advanced degree gives credibility to a student’s stated desire to pursue a particular specialty.

“Let’s say a law firm decides they need somebody in a bankruptcy practice,” she says. “Three years down the road, you and the firm find out you hate bankruptcy. [But] the LLM gives credence to your choice because you can say I did well in it, I’m proficient. After two or three years you won’t say ‘I hate it’—that makes a lot of sense, it prequalifies you for that area.”

FURTHER BENEFITS

The LLM can also provide some level of assurance to firms who have been heard to complain that fresh-from-law-school attorneys aren’t fully ready to practice. Kennedy points to John Marshall’s employee benefits program, in which students compile a portfolio demonstrating they can draw up a benefits program, including the necessary filings with the IRS.

“In this way, students can show the portfolio to prospective employers and it demonstrates they can hit the ground running,” she explains. “It makes a good impression that you really have the skill set so the firm doesn’t have to teach the new employee.”

Jason Faust is a John Marshall student pursuing the employee benefits program and says it has already paid dividends.

“In this job market, where openings are not as plentiful as they used to be, an LLM makes you stand out,” Faust says. Last summer Faust landed an internship with the U.S. Treasury Department, and he says, “I wouldn’t have known about it without the LLM program.”

Skip Horne, director of graduate programs and continuing education at the University of San Diego School of Law, says John’s criticism of LLMs has little to do with the varied motivations of his school’s students who choose to enroll.

“He’s looking at it from a BigLaw and corporate client standpoint,” Horne says. “With our students in San Diego, we have some changing jobs, changing careers, switching directions and looking to add to existing skills. A variety of motivations with a variety of hoped-for outcomes, the least of which are jobs with big firms.”

USD has about 100 students in LLM programs, Horne says, with interest in recent years trending up in tax and comparative law. Of the 100, Horne says, half to two-thirds are in tax, one-third are foreign students studying comparative law, and there are a smattering in other areas such as environmental or international law.

Like Horne, Susan Prager—executive director of the Association of American Law Schools—says there are various motivations as well as opportunities for students pursuing the advanced degree.

“For some who study the law in other countries, familiarity with U.S. law is seen as a plus in their own countries, and the LLM can provide them access to taking a bar in one of the states,” she says.

“Historically, LLM programs attracted students trying to earn a specialized background that would make them attractive in their field. … Others wanted to enter teaching and got the LLM to help them build a scholarly record they didn’t have before,” Prager says.

She adds that “a recruiter telling people to leave their LLM off of their resumé overlooks the fact that the degrees help people build specializations, and historically that has worked.

“He may be talking about the most recent period, where some students were advised to stay in school longer, hoping the job market would improve. … In that context his comment may make greater sense.”

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