A Matter of Degree
Some days, attorney Tommy Warlick will be patrolling the auto racetrack in search of counterfeit NASCAR items. Other days, he can be found in the boardroom negotiating a TV deal.
As an in-house intellectual property lawyer for NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. in Daytona Beach, Fla., Warlick has a job he loves—and one that many lawyers would envy.
He owes it, he says, to the LL.M. in intellectual property that he earned in 1998 at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Getting the graduate degree “was absolutely the right decision for me because it allowed me to get into the field of practice that I actually wanted to be in,” Warlick says.
It’s the right decision for many lawyers who face a career roadblock. After all, lawyers got where they are by going to school, so it’s natural to choose more school to advance.
A growing number of law schools are offering advanced degree programs for attorneys, and in a variety of areas such as IP, trial advocacy and international law. Until a decade ago, practically all LL.M.s were issued in the field of taxation.
More education isn’t always a cure-all for a stalled legal career, experts say. Going back to school is often expensive for a practicing law- yer who, in addition to paying tuition, will likely lose income because of the demands on his or her time, says Jane G. Heymann, assistant dean for career services at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
Heymann also questions whether most lawyers who earn advanced legal degrees will get a bigger paychecks afterward. The one exception, she says, are master’s degrees in tax, prized by big law partnerships and accounting firms.
“Except for LL.M.s in tax, I never see, or almost never see, a job posting in which someone is seeking an LL.M. in a particular subject area. So I’m not sure it’s all that great an idea,” Heymann says.
An advanced degree would be worthwhile to lawyers like Warlick, who want to move into a new practice area and can’t get enough experience in that field in their current job, Heymann says.
That, Warlick says, is the reason he got his LL.M. It’s also why Cynthia L. Besecker, an associate doing medical malpractice work at a Chicago law firm, got hers. “It helped me move into the health care area,” she says of the LL.M. in health law she earned in 1999 from DePaul University College of Law.
A 1995 graduate of John Marshall Law School’s night law program, Besecker already had a master’s degree in social work and was working as a federal probation officer when she went to law school. After graduating she worked as a lawyer for the city of Chicago and taught sociology courses at DePaul as an adjunct instructor.
“Because of that, I’ll be frank, my tuition was free,” Besecker says. “I think DePaul is wonderful. For every class that I taught, not only did they pay me, but in addition I was able to take a class for free.”
Like Heymann, Besecker questions whether most lawyers who earn LL.M.s will see bigger paychecks.
“While I think that it can help people move into the area that they’re interested in, I’m not sure it necessarily results in a higher salary,” Besecker says. “I think if that is someone’s goal, they shouldn’t do it. But if people like the additional education and the learning environment and they’re really interested in a particular area, then they should go forward.”
Warlick, too, says he did not get his LL.M. expecting a bigger paycheck. He also warns that earning an advanced degree at night while working a day job can be arduous.
“For me, it was a very, very hard two years,” he says. “But I loved every minute of it. … I would not hesitate to tell anybody, if it’s an area of law that you really enjoy and really want to specialize in, go for it.”
Says Heymann: “You’re going to get the same entry-level job you’d get with a J.D., but you might increase your chances of getting a particular kind of job.”
She also warns that an advanced legal degree probably won’t compensate for lackluster grades in law school, if the firm expects stellar academic credentials from other associates. “Firms that have extremely competitive hiring criteria,” she says, “I don’t think are going to look on an LL.M. as a substitute for academic achievement.”
Lew R.C. Bricker, hiring partner at the midsize Chicago litigation firm where Besecker works, says an advanced degree in a relevant field gives an additional edge to applicants who are already attractive.
However, he says, it can be a disadvantage if the degree is in a practice area irrelevant to the job sought. Bricker says it is better for a lawyer to practice for a few years before going on to get a master’s degree in a specialized field.
“If you are contemplating continuing your education and getting an advanced degree, understand that you are limiting yourself in your potential options,” he says. “Because people will read your resumé and see that you have identified an area that you want to target yourself to.”
But deciding to go immediately for an advanced degree makes sense for those who are already specialized—say, a certified public accountant seeking a tax LL.M., or an electrical engineer pursuing a master’s in patent or trademark law.
Lawyers who think an advanced degree might make sense for them should research the subject carefully, experts advise.
Warlick says the starting point should be setting career goals. For Warlick, the goal was easy—he knew he wanted to practice full time as an intellectual property lawyer. But he was not and was never going to be a patent practitioner, and this made it hard to persuade firms looking for an IP generalist to hire him to do only copyright and trademark work, he says.
Told by a career adviser that a handful of law schools offered advanced degree programs in intellectual property law, Warlick contacted the schools for more information and decided the program was for him.
Among the questions would-be students should ask, Heymann says, are “whether their LL.M. program has any sort of campus interviewing” program, as well as how any such program works and the school’s placement statistics for program graduates.
Says Warlick: “It’s just a matter of doing your homework and figuring out exactly what you want to do and figuring out what it would take to get there.”