How to choose the right school to pursue your LL.M.

By Rob Thomas

Foreign attorneys pursue LL.M. degrees from U.S. schools for a variety of reasons. So choosing the right program can sometimes be complicated.   

Goals for post-LL.M. employment vary widely, from joining a major Wall Street law firm, to joining a smaller firm that represents clients from the student’s home country, to returning to their country of origin and working for the government, to joining international organizations such as the United Nations.  

So certainly, the programs students choose need to help them reach their specific goals. But that’s just one of the factors students need to consider.  

There’s also geography, affordability and fit.  

George Edwards, a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, is the author of “LL.M. Roadmap: An International Student’s Guide to U.S. Law School Programs.” He advises students to ask themselves a couple of questions before beginning the process of choosing a school:  

“What do you hope to accomplish in a U.S. LL.M. program?” and “Are your expectations reasonable?” 

Edwards said seeking the highest ranked school or the most prestigious LL.M. program isn’t necessarily the ideal approach. Instead, one should ask: “What is the best law school for me?” “What is the best LL.M. program for me?” 

A high-quality education from a school that meets the student’s academic needs is critical, as is finding a school that fits the student’s financial needs and will be nurturing, Edwards said. The pros and cons of the school’s location shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

Helen Zheng, a regional legal and compliance officer in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, China, was once faced with such a decision.   

She decided to go to Temple University – James E. Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. Zheng had a friend who had graduated from Temple’s LL.M. program a year earlier, so she had insight. She also liked Philadelphia’s climate, which is similar to Beijing’s, she said.  

Temple also offers an LL.M. in Beijing in collaboration with Tsinghua University School of Law, so Zheng was able to tap into that connection.  

“An existing and long history of joint cooperation with Tsinghua University made it easy for me to obtain more information about this project,” she said. “I had a call with the project director at that time to communicate details. A long history of cooperation with Chinese graduates convinced me this was a good project.”  

Some foreign students look for prestige when choosing a school. However, Jimmy Ilseng, international programs director at University of Colorado Law School, warns against looking solely at national rankings.  

“Rankings are a traditional factor for any student considering a higher education institution,” Ilseng said. “For many foreign attorneys, a particular law school’s rank, brand and reputation in their home countries can be helpful when considering post-LL.M. professional opportunities. For those considering a specialized LL.M. program, specialized rankings provide a bit more of a nuanced factor in their decision. 

“However, it should be noted, LL.M. programs have no impact on U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings… rankings that rely exclusively on J.D. program-based metrics. Thus, a U.S. law school’s overall rank is not necessarily reflective of the quality of its LL.M. program and, in my opinion, should not necessarily be a primary factor when choosing a LL.M. program.” 

The financial side can’t be overlooked, Ilseng said. 

“Cost is another traditional factor when considering a program of interest,” he said. “Cost varies widely, and tuition alone ranged from approximately $26,000 to $77,000 within the ‘Tier 1’ U.S. law school paradigm in 2019-20.  

He also noted that cost of living can vary greatly depending on where in the U.S. the program is located. 

“If cost is a constraint, cost will obviously play a crucial role in choosing an LL.M. program,” Ilseng said. “However, there are many LL.M. programs that offer internal scholarship opportunities, and anyone considering a program with a high sticker price will need to research and identify potential funding opportunities, opportunities that could fund tuition and fees and/or cost of living.” 

Roxana Mastor, project manager at Office of the Quartet in Jerusalem, said rankings played a role in her decision to choose Vermont Law School for her LL.M. in energy law. 

The fact that it was ranked  as the best environmental energy law school in the nation and offered some of the most comprehensive and competitive programs was important to her, Mastor said, but availability of scholarships was important as well. 

 “I was lucky enough to obtain the Global Energy Scholarship that allowed me to have a full tuition waiver for my LL.M. in energy law, as well as working for the Institute for Energy and the Environment as a Fellow,” she said. 

Last but not least, there’s location to consider. Mastor, who is from Romania, said it was an added bonus to work and study in the Green Mountain State and in what she called the school’s “idyllic location” in South Royalton. 

Ilseng recommended being “overly mindful of law schools that rank well in terms of holistic development and quality of life.”  

“Ultimately, in the long run, your LL.M. experience will not be solely based on academics and the classroom experience,” he said. “Instead, most LL.M. alumni reflect on the networks that they developed and maintain, the unique U.S. university student experience, and generally, the overall quality of their holistic experience.” 

Other thoughts 

Ilseng advised that foreign attorneys searching for an LL.M. program look beyond the academic rankings and classroom experiences. He suggested that they also ask: 

•What types of support services are available for foreign LL.M. students? 

•Does the LL.M. program have a department and/or administrator exclusively dedicated to supporting LL.M. students? 

•What active student organizations, both within the law school and on the main campus, are available, and how well do they align with my needs and interests? 

•What types of extracurricular activities are available to help me maintain a well-balanced experience?  

 

 

 

Edwards recommended that potential LL.M. students ask:  

•Does the LL.M. program offer the specialization that interests me?

•Is the LL.M. program type suitable to me (e.g., residential, executive, online, partially online, etc.)?

•Will the LL.M. program permit me to enroll in experiential courses, such as internships, moot courts, law clinics and law review?

•Will the LL.M. program permit me to write a thesis that can serve as the basis for my S.J.D. (doctor of juridical science) dissertation proposal?

•Does the LL.M. program offer solid instruction in Legal Analysis and Research & Writing, as well as Legal English and other English instruction for those who need it?

•Can I afford the LL.M. program?

•Can I get a scholarship?

•Will the school let me work on campus? Will the school help me find a job on campus?

•Can I get a U.S. visa?

•Will the school help me find a job after I graduate? Does the school have a job placement office for LL.M. students? 

•Does the school offer professional and social events for LL.M. students?