What is an LL.M.?

A Master of Laws degree — or an LL.M. — is typically a one-year degree for lawyers looking to expand their knowledge in a specialty area. What was once a degree primarily for foreign attorneys looking to practice in the U.S. is now a more common educational step for legal professionals. Much of that growth is due to the greater specialization of law.

There are 400 LL.M. programs in more than 100 practice areas. There are also more than 40 law schools that offer a general LL.M., and at many of these schools, students can structure their own studies.

Does an LL.M. really improve your job prospects?

While an LL.M. degree does not guarantee employment, it should improve your chances of landing a job. Increasingly specialized law fields, such as tax law, are much more likely to prefer an LL.M. degree.

“[Those are the fields] where they are going to become more attractive to various firms,” Alford said.

The reality is that there are some practice areas in which an advanced law degree is preferred. In other words, it is hard to get a job in certain specialties without the LL.M.

But there’s also a second, less talked about reality. Law firms lacking specializations may never mention those three letters. Big Law, for example, is an area in which experience is highly valued and graduate law degrees are less crucial.

What are the practice areas in which an LL.M. is preferred?

Practice areas with strong specializations include environmental law, health law, intellectual property and taxation. Emerging LL.M. programs in various fields may also indicate a larger demand for specialized attorneys in these fields. LL.M. programs in compliance and national security have surfaced during the past few years.

Do LL.M. graduates earn more than other attorneys?

While there is no hard data, anecdotal evidence suggests LL.M. graduates do earn more. And it makes sense — they have more specialized knowledge.

“An LL.M. is a way of distinguishing yourself,” said Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean for international and non-J.D. programs at Fordham University School of Law. “It can give you better job opportunities and a higher earning capacity.”

Other school officials report that employers will pay more for better-qualified lawyers, valuing the prestige of the degree in terms of compensation. But ultimately, one must consider if tuition costs are manageable before counting on getting a bigger paycheck just for having an LL.M. Luckily, schools are starting to offer more generous scholarship packages than they have in the past.

“Obviously the financial aid package one gets for an LL.M. has to be taken very seriously,” Alford said. “Programs are offering significant scholarships to students… and are very often a key consideration.”

Should you pursue an LL.M. to improve your chances of landing a Big Law job?

While it may seem like an additional degree could give you a second chance for a Big Law job, be very cautious. While employers will look at your LL.M. grades, they will still consider your J.D. grades and your J.D. school.

As Paul Caron, a tax law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law has written, “Tax LL.M. classes are rigorous and demanding. For many employers, both J.D. grades and tax LL.M. grades are extremely important. A prospective tax LL.M. student who is not genuinely interested in tax is not likely to do well in tax LL.M. classes. In addition, the potential résumé boost from successful completion of a tax LL.M. degree is greatest when applying for tax-specific positions.”

In other words, don’t pursue the LL.M. degree unless you are truly interested in the practice area.

Does it matter which school to attend?

Similar to J.D. programs, there is a hierarchy of top graduate law programs. For example, New York University School of Law and University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law are ranked as the top tax law programs by U.S. News & World Report. These rankings do influence employers.

Alford said to consider the reputation of the school and the reputation of the program itself.

“[Programs] are increasingly competitive and more and more students are applying for them,” Alford said. “But more and more law schools are offering them. It’s a time when the market is maturing.”

Many graduate law students choose schools in their hometowns. Attorneys recommend you factor in a school’s prestige with other factors such as cost and location.

What should you look at when choosing a school?

Attorneys suggest that prospective students look at a school’s faculty. You will spend a lot of time with a smaller number of professors than you did as a J.D. student. Are they experts in their fields? Are there hands-on practice opportunities? Externships, clinics and internships can help develop your necessary skills. How many curricular offerings in your field of study? Does the career placement office support graduate law students? Does the school offer scholarships?

The number of online LL.M. programs has exploded from just a handful three years ago to more than 20 today. While some in legal academia still question the value of online education, most now agree it is a well-accepted educational model.

Online programs use a mix of technologies to create an in-depth and meaningful learning experience. They use live interaction technologies — some using live video with webcams. But learning can be hindered by technological difficulties, and students may fall into a passive learning approach rather than the active learning they are so used to doing.