What is an LL.M Degree?

The Master of Laws (LLM) is the degree of choice for career advancement and international credibility, particularly in today’s competitive and globally focused legal environment. Early- and mid-career lawyers pursue the LLM voluntarily when looking to expand their proficiency in a specific area of law.

Derived from Legum Magister, meaning master of laws in Latin, the LLM degree is an internationally recognized post-Juris Doctor (JD) law degree, most commonly sought out by legal professionals interested in specializing. In the case of foreign-educated lawyers, the LLM is used to become more familiar with the intricacies of the U.S. legal system.

Unlike the JD, a requirement for earning eligibility to sit for the bar examination, the LLM degree is optional. While JD degrees provide students with the knowledge necessary to become lawyers through a broad, general education of basic legal principles, concepts, and theories, LLM degrees provide students with advanced study and specialization in a particular topic of law.

In other words, the JD degree is considered the first degree among law professionals, while the LLM degree is considered the secondary, optional degree for lawyers interested in pursuing advanced study in a particular area of law once they have earned the JD. The LLM degree, therefore, denotes a legal professional who has acquired advanced, specialized legal training.

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Understanding the Purpose and Benefits of Earning an LL.M Degree

LLM degrees are a valuable investment for many lawyers, as they provide an exploration of the nuances of law. An LLM degree may provide early-career lawyers with a competitive edge over other candidates, while for many mid-career lawyers, an LLM degree may allow them to successfully switch practices or expand their practice to include international clients.

LLM degrees allow legal professionals to specialize in either a broad area of study, such as international law, or in an area of study with a much more narrow scope, such as arbitration or tax law. Still other LLM degrees allow students to design their own program of study, focused on their specific career interests.

Although tax and securities law remain popular LLM degree programs due to their significance in today’s legal environment, lawyers may find relevance and economic merit in many different types of LLM programs, depending on their professional goals and interests.

Just a few of the contemporary topics studied in LLM degree programs include:

The LLM Degree and International Law

The LLM degree often proves to be a critical credential for lawyers practicing international law. Many international law firms and private corporations demand lawyers who possess a global perspective and international expertise. Lawyers who achieve an in-depth understanding of complex international transactions through an LLM degree specializing in international law may possess a distinct advantage when seeking to expand their professional activities and gain mobility in the international market.
Just a few of the LLM degrees sought by lawyers seeking international expertise include:

  • International criminal law and justice
  • Business and trade law
  • International arbitration
  • Trade regulation
  • Transnational law
  • Global health law
  • Global securities and financial regulation
  • International environmental law
  • International taxation
  • International legal studies

For foreign lawyers, a U.S.-based LLM degree is a valuable stepping stone to acquiring proficiency in the intricacies of the American model and achieving employment in the U.S. Depending on the state, foreign-educated lawyers who complete a U.S.-based LLM degree in U.S. Master’s in Legal Studies from an ABA-approved school may be eligible to sit for the bar exam.

The LL.M Degree: Structure and Design

According to the American Bar Association, there are no less than 360 LLM programs in the U.S. The American Bar Association maintains a comprehensive list of schools that offer the LLM degree.

It is important to note that not all law schools offer LLM programs, and those that do may or may not offer programs for international students.

Law schools in the U.S. provide two types of LLM programs: the General LLM (also often referred to as the Individualized Study LLM) and the Specialized LLM. While both result in a Master of Laws, the General LLM allows students to study a diverse collection of law topics and create an individualized course of study that meets their specific career goals.  

The General Law LLM provides a customizable course of study for students whose interest areas may not entirely fit into a specialized track.

The Specialized LLM, on the other hand, provides a concentrated course of study in a specific area of law, such as constitutional law, human rights, or business organization and finance, for example.

LLM degrees are often research-oriented, combing both coursework and research and culminating in a thesis. Most programs take about one year of full-time study or two years of part-time study to complete. Coursework requirements often range from 22 to 28 credit hours.

Because practicing legal professionals seek LLM programs, many law schools afford students the opportunity to complete a large portion of their coursework through online study.

Admission Requirements

U.S.–educated applicants must possess a JD degree to qualify for an LLM program, while internationally educated applicants must have a first law degree from their country of origin. The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is not required for admission into LLM programs in the U.S.

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Due to the competitive nature of these programs, law schools tend to view a candidate’s entire application when determining admission, taking into consideration both their dedication to the field of law and their superior academic track record.

International graduates must submit an English proficiency examination score if English is not their native language (Test of English as a Foreign Language -TOEFL or the International English Language Testing System – IELTS). Graduates may or may not qualify to sit for the bar exam if their first degree was earned outside of the U.S. Each state sets its own criteria for bar admission.

Currently, New York, Maryland, Washington D.C., and California remain among the few states that allow international LLM graduates to sit for the bar.

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