The LL.M. — past, present and will it have a future?

By Desiree Jaeger-Fine

The LL.M Past

To become a lawyer and practice law in most countries, a person must first obtain a law degree. While most countries require a Bachelor of Laws (or LL.B.), most U.S. states require a Juris Doctor to practice law. In order to be licensed to practice law within a jurisdiction, the first graduate degree in law is followed by a bar examination in most countries. 

If a person wished to gain specialized knowledge through research in a particular area of law, she would continue her studies after an LL.B. or J.D. with an LL.M. program (Magister Legum or Legum Magister). The word legum is the genitive plural form of the Latin word lex and means "of the laws." When used this way, it signifies a specific body of law, as opposed to the general collective concept embodied in the word jus.[1] A master’s degree is awarded for a course of study that demonstrates mastery of a specific field of study. This means that the primary intention of a Master of Laws program was to give an attorney specialized knowledge in a certain filed. 

The LL.M. Present 

There is no universal definition for the term LL.M. anymore and it is used in different ways by institutions around the world. Particularly here in the U.S., LL.M. programs are now often designed to teach foreign lawyers the basic legal principles of U.S law. More and more LL.M. students focus their LL.M. on U.S. law for two reasons: 1) To fulfill the ever-stricter requirements to be eligible to sit for the New York Bar Exam and 2) To feel prepared for the subjects on the bar exam.

More and more prospective LL.M. students thus choose an LL.M. precisely to take a bar exam and become admitted to practice law in a U.S. state. They have completed their education in their home country and do not wish to study for another three years to secure the J.D. Instead, they opt for the LL.M. since it is shorter and cheaper. Law schools try to tailor their offerings to meet this demand and design bar track LL.M. programs. 

Will the LL.M. Have a Future?

What will the future of the LL.M. program look like? Does the current development inhibit a future? The LL.M. morphed from a program to allow specialization and exposure to a different legal system to enhance one’s career back home into a short-cut to law practice in the United States. I, too, took advantage of the LL.M. to become admitted to practice in New York State but my LL.M. was nevertheless focused purely on IP/IT.

My only preparation for the bar exam was my commercial bar prep course two months before the exam. In the future, prospective students may expect that the LL.M. not only qualifies them to sit for the bar exam but that it also prepares them to pass the exam. Will the LL.M. become a drawn out and very expensive bar prep course? Will the LL.M. be a second-class J.D. program? 

While it is important to answer the demand of the market, it is more important that law schools strive to develop an academically strong LL.M. program that is true to its name and can fulfill its promise. 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Laws


Desiree Jaeger-Fine is director of International Programs at Brooklyn Law School and author of "A Short & Happy Guide to Networking" (West Academic Publishing) and "A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired" (West Academic Publishing).