Law degrees

'Cash cow' or valuable credential?

Watch out, juris doctor. The master of laws is coming up.

No longer just for aspiring academics and wannabe tax lawyers, master of laws (LL.M.) degrees are gaining in popularity among foreign and domestic law students. The number of LL.M. degrees conferred by American Bar Association-approved law schools grew by 65% between 1999 and 2009 — far outpacing the 13% growth in J.D.s during the same period. In 2009, 5,058 students completed LL.M.s, compared to 3,069 a decade earlier. Despite that growth, the number of J.D.s still dwarfs LL.M.s, with 49,861 awarded in 2009.

The value of advanced law degrees remains something of a question mark, however. There are few studies or employment statistics available to quantify the career benefits of those programs — which typically last a year and cost about the same as a year of J.D. tuition. "I definitely think that a lot of people want to use an LL.M. as a fresh way to improve their résumé," said Jennifer Kowal, professor and director of the tax LL.M. program at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. "In this market, I think that's a dangerous gamble."

The ABA lists 295 LL.M. programs, although that number does not include some recently announced programs. During the past year alone, Duke Law School launched an entrepreneurial law LL.M. Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law added business law; arbitration, mediation and negotiation; international; and transnational law tracks to its existing program. New York University School of Law started environmental law and international business regulation specializations, among other new programs. A handful of schools, including Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Southwestern Law School and Boston University School of Law, are experimenting with distance learning as a way to extend the reach of their offerings. Fordham University School of Law's LL.M. student population has more than doubled during the past five years to 220, said Toni Fine, assistant dean for international and non-J.D. programs.

The programs are often sold as a good way for foreign attorneys to get a foot in the door at U.S. firms or supplement their local legal education, or as a way for U.S. attorneys to break into highly specialized practices such as tax law or transition from one practice into another. Some students simply want to take a year to focus on legal theory or write on legal issues.

Neither the ABA nor the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) collects employment data or salary data specifically for the graduates of these programs, as they do for J.D. graduates. "LL.M. programs are a mixed bag, educating both U.S.-trained and foreign-trained lawyers, and they are only very loosely regulated by the ABA," said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. "The result is that there is not a centralized data-collection process for measuring outcomes."

The Law School Admission Council is creating a centralized application system for the programs, which will generate national data on who is applying and how many programs are out there. For example, current statistics don't show what percentage of students are from overseas. The council's system, which is being launched in part to compile reliable figures on LL.M. programs, is expected to be functional next spring.

Hard to measure the benefit

Even individual schools have difficulty quantifying the employment benefits of their own programs, since students often return to their home countries, already have jobs and attend part-time, or complete programs so small that providing specific employment outcomes can present privacy concerns, said Ron Steiner, director of graduate programs at Chapman University School of Law. "It's hard to generate meaningful data," he said of Chapman's six programs, which typically have a combined 70 to 80 students each year. "We wrestle with that."

Colin Darke turned to attorney databases such as Martindale-Hubbell to see where attorneys with advanced law degrees are employed when he was considering the banking and financial law program at Boston University School of Law. He graduated from Michigan State University College of Law in 2004 and started working at a firm handling bankruptcy cases for trustees. He wanted to break into representing creditors and thought the program would help.

Taking on another year of tuition was a "huge consideration," but scholarships helped defray the cost and Darke completed the program in 2008. He now is an associate in the debtor-creditor rights and bankruptcy practice at Bodman LLP in Detroit — a well-known firm in the region that wouldn't grant him an interview when he held only a J.D. "It's a tougher market right now for attorneys beginning their careers," Darke said. "For attorneys who want to try a different specialty, it's really tough and you need something on your résumé to help you stand apart."

Several law school administrators speculated that the tight entry-level job market may be prompting more recent graduates to consider going for advanced law degrees. The University of California at Los Angeles School of Law in 2009 launched a "transition to practice" program designed for deferred law firm associates, though it wasn't offered this year.

Advanced law degrees from prestigious schools have been viewed by graduates of lower-ranked law schools as a way to boost their résumés. Kowal of Loyola, Los Angeles collaborated with University of Cincinnati College of Law tax professor Paul Caron and her Loyola colleague Katherine Pratt on a paper that cautions against taking that approach. They warn that many employers place a much heavier weight on the school from which a student obtained his or her J.D. "For large law firm positions, a tax LL.M. degree is most helpful at the margin — for students who did very well at a law school with a lower ranking, or did reasonably well at a law school with a higher ranking, but need something extra to get an interview with large law firms," they wrote.

With the exception of tax LL.M.s — which have been around longer than other advanced law degrees and are particularly relevant because of the highly specialized nature of tax law — the degrees don't necessarily set job candidates apart. "For our offices in the U.S., the only LL.M. degree that has much of an impact on our hiring decisions is a tax LL.M.," said Jones Day hiring partner Gregory Shumaker.

An LL.M. in comparative international law from a U.S. school may make foreign attorneys more attractive for positions in a firm's overseas offices, but there is less appetite for advanced degrees in domestic offices, he said. "If you're looking for an entry-level associate position in one of our U.S. offices, I am skeptical of the value of such a degree — particularly in this market, where so many students are simply extending their legal education because of the difficulty in finding a job straight out of a J.D. program," Shumaker said.

As at Jones Day, the perceived value of an advanced law degree varies at DLA Piper, which looks for graduates of tax programs and occasionally hires foreign attorneys with LL.M.s for international offices, said national hiring partner Benjamin Boyd. The firm doesn't generally seek out LL.M.s for other practices, however. Very specific advanced degree programs, such as the University of Arkansas School of Law's program in agriculture and food law, may set up students for specialized practices, but they don't guarantee entry into a major firm, he said. "Work experience, good grades and a good law school probably matter more," he said.

Tuition dollars

Law schools have their own reasons for adding LL.M. programs, which range from fostering international diversity among their student populations and providing more opportunities for practical training, to generating much needed tuition dollars. Administrators point out that per-student costs tend to be lower for advanced law degree programs because the curriculum largely consists of classes already offered to J.D. students — meaning there is little need to hire additional faculty. "Are these programs a cash cow? Yes and no," said Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington professor Carole Silver. "The school gets a year of tuition and the LL.M. students fill in the seats in classes that would otherwise be empty."

Schools can admit students into the programs without worrying about compromising their ABA accreditation or U.S. News & World Report rankings, since the ABA does not accredit LL.M. programs and U.S. News does not look at the test scores or grade-point averages of those students. "All schools need to be aware of the perception that LL.M. programs are just one more way to get another year of tuition from students who have already paid too much," said Chapman's Steiner.

The faculty at the University of Colo¬rado School of Law initially was hostile to the idea of launching three LL.M. programs this year for fear that they would compromise the quality and resources of the J.D. program, said Dayna Matthew, vice dean and professor of law. They came around after being assured the programs would stay small and accept only high-quality students. "We're not building an LL.M. program at the expense of the J.D. program," she said.

Phillip Marano doesn't regret his decision to get an advanced degree in intellectual property law at George Washington University Law School last year. He developed an interest in trademark, copyright and Internet law while attending Villanova University School of Law, but couldn't land an intellectual property position without experience. Instead, he worked at a small general-practice firm for a short time before enrolling in the LL.M. program. Meanwhile, he interned at an intellectual property boutique and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He now practices intellectual property law at a small Washington firm.

"The value of an LL.M. is whatever you decide to make it," he said. "My LL.M. demonstrates my dedication to the field I have chosen. It signifies to colleagues and clients my expertise in a complex area of practice."

(Published by The National Law Journal - September 20, 2010)

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