Law schools have many international students. As for any potential law school applicant, there are two main programs available to international students: a JD and an LLM. LLM programs often have more international students because these programs can provide an already practicing international lawyer the credentials to practice in the United States. For practicing attorneys from another country, it is typically a no-brainer to select an LLM over a JD.
However, many international students find themselves in an awkward situation: they might have the appropriate legal credentials to practice law in their home country, but they essentially only have a bachelor’s degree. For such applicants, there are real pros and cons to consider when deciding between an LLM and a JD. In this blog post, we at Stratus walk you through some important factors regarding these two degrees.
Are you qualified for both programs?
The first thing you need to determine is whether you are eligible for both programs. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree should be eligible to apply for a JD program. But if your program is not well known globally, it would be good to check with the law school to confirm that your degree qualifies.
For LLMs, it can become more tricky. Some programs will require a certain number of years of experience or admittance to practice in your home country. Therefore, if you only have an undergraduate law degree and you have not practiced yet, you might not qualify for certain programs.
Why do you want a US law degree?
Working in US Private Practice
People attend law school in the United States for all sorts of reasons. The most common one is to practice law in this country. If you want a US law degree for this reason, you must realize that you will compete for jobs against thousands of students who are spending three years learning about the US legal system.
If you enroll in an LLM program, where you only take one year of classes, you could be at a disadvantage for a few reasons. First, fair or not, employers will likely believe that you know less about law than your colleagues with three years of US legal education.
Second, given that you only have one year to learn US legal material, you will likely have a harder time passing the bar. It is good to check a particular LLM program’s bar passage rate and compare it to the school’s overall bar passage rate, to see if they are significantly lower. Additionally, only a few state bars even let students with just an LLM take the test, so that could limit your ability to find a job and practice law in the United States.
Third, completing three years of law school in the United States gives you more resources and opportunities to find a job. You will have two summers to intern, more opportunities to meet friends and professors, and more chances to work with your school’s career office. Many employers hire from special summer programs that are not available to LLM students.
Alternatively, if you want a US law degree to gain a credential in US law because knowledge of US law is valuable in your home country, then an LLM will likely suffice. In this situation, you might want to research the value of an LLM in your country. You could network with people who graduated from US LLM programs in general or programs of specific interest to you.
Similarly, if you are looking to specialize in a particular area of law in your home country, an LLM might prove more useful. For example, earning an LLM in contract law could be helpful because many laws in this area are the same across the world.
Working in Academia
For those who want to enter academia in the United States, it is crucial to evaluate what different programs offer. A JD allows you three years to make connections, offers more opportunities to write, and provides a stronger credential than an LLM. But if you are supplementing credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as a master’s or PhD, then an LLM is probably all you need.
Still, this is where researching specific programs helps. Some LLM programs feed into an SJD program, which is like a PhD program but specifically for law. These programs help you develop a marketable writing sample and give you the connections and mentorship to help you land a tenure-track position.
In general, you should look into the landscape of academia in the United States, as it is constantly changing. Some law professors only have JDs, while some have JDs and PhDs, and some have SJDs. The necessary credentials can vary by area of law, such as tax law versus constitutional law.
How will you finance your degree?
Paying for law school is a big endeavor for any law student, but international law students often face more challenges. Many students take out loans to pay for law school, and international students sometimes encounter more difficulties in qualifying for loans. Additionally, a lot of international law students come from countries where they do not have to pay for higher education, so the payment process can seem too daunting. If any of these factors apply to you, you might find it more enticing to enroll in a one-year LLM program.
Additionally, students often have more opportunities to receive complete financing for one-year programs. International programs such as the Fulbright Foreign Student Program will pay for students to attend a year-long program. Keep in mind that participants in these programs often have an obligation to return to their home country for at least a year to work. So, if you want to work in the United States, this could complicate matters.
In addition, some employers will pay for an LLM, but this is more common with mid-career LLM students.
Although an LLM may prove easier to pay for, given the potential challenges discussed above, it might be worth taking on the financial challenges of a three-year JD program if you are looking to work at a big law firm because it could pay off financially in the long term.
What personal obligations do you have?
Finally, your personal life might influence which program makes more sense for you. If you have a family or someone else you are supporting financially, you might only be able to afford to take off one year from work. You must also consider the potential financial costs that come with a degree, such as tuition, housing, school materials, and moving expenses, while in school.
Similarly, if you have family in your home country, moving away from them for more than a year could end up proving too difficult. Alternatively, if you are planning to work in the United States after you earn your degree, enrolling in a JD program and having your family move to this country during the program might prove more efficient because they will need to move here eventually anyway.
Both JD and LLM programs provide a lot of opportunities for people who want to work in law. But given that you are dedicating at least a year of your life and investing potentially tens of thousands of dollars, you should carefully consider the two options and decide which works best for you.