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3 Times When It Makes Sense to Get an LLM

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 01, 2015 10:58 AM

A Juris Doctor is a terminal degree. Not because it kills you, though it might, but because it's the highest level of degree awarded in legal studies. So what do you do if a J.D. just isn't enough? You go down one -- to a Master of Laws, or LL.M. degree. An LL.M. is usually a one year course of study in a specialized area of law. You can get, for instance, an LL.M. in environmental law, tax law, or fashion law.

Generally, LL.M.s require a lot of extra debt while resulting in few career benefits. That's why people often refer to it as a "Lawyers Losing Money" degree. They're not worth it -- except when they are. Here are three times when it might make sense to go back and get an LL.M.

1. When Someone Else Is Paying for It

If you want to learn about water law, mergers and acquisitions, or divorce, you don't need to pay someone thousands of dollars for the opportunity. Most LL.M. programs are very similar to traditional JD programs: you read case law, attend "Socratic method" lectures, and take one big test at the end. Guess what? You can do that on your own.

But if someone else is paying for it? Why not! If an employer is willing to pay to retrain you, an LL.M. can add a little bit of expertise to your resume without bogging you down in thousands of dollars of extra debt.

2. When You Have a Foreign Degree

Many LL.M. students are foreign lawyers looking to learn American law, want to practice in America, or both. In most countries outside of America, a law degree is simply a bachelors degree (often called an LL.B.) obtained during normal undergraduate studies. That's good enough to practice in France or Brazil, but not the United States. Completing an LL.M. can allow foreign lawyers to sit for the bar without spending three years obtaining a J.D.

3. When It's an LLM in Tax Law

The ABA doesn't track employment statistics for LL.M. grads, so hard numbers are rare, but the general rule is that anything but a tax LL.M., unless you're a foreign lawyer, is useless. In fact, they may hurt your career prospects, according to a managing director at the legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey.

If you're unemployed after graduation and not interested in tax law, your money would be better spent volunteering for a year rather than paying for a degree that could make you less attractive in employers' eyes.

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