10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting an LLM Program 


This 10 List-authored article was originally posted on the International Jurist website. https://nationaljurist.com/international-jurist-advice/10-things-i-wish-i-knew-before-starting-an-ll-m-program/

Generally, there are two types of Master of Laws (LLM) )students.  There’s the academically inclined type, who desire to specialize in a specific area of law. And then there are foreign LLM students.  These LLMs went to law school overseas and now wish to get an LLM in the USA so that they are eligible to take the bar exam. The latter is the type of LLM student I’m focused on here.   

I’m a bit of an oddball this way.  Although I’m American, I also hold British citizenship.  After living in various European countries with my husband and three children, we decided to relocate to the USA at the onset of the pandemic.  This resulted in a pivotal career shift. Instead of pursuing a career as a solicitor in England, I enrolled in the Flex LLM program at George Mason University with a new goal of becoming an American attorney.  

Embarking on an LLM program is a big decision that involves thoughtfulness, consideration, and planning. The year I spent in the LLM program was vibrant and challenging, culminating in my representation of the graduating LLM class at George Mason University’s law school convocation. In the spirit of the 10 List, a law journal specifically for LLM students, I’d like to share 10 things I wish I had known before starting an LLM program. 

  1. Time is of the essence. LLM programs, typically spanning a year, demand meticulous planning and organization. By the time you figure things out how law school works, half the year is gone already.  The transition phase is swift, and having a clear strategy on post-law school life is essential. Calendarizing every crucial date, being cognizant of when your optional practical training (OPT) starts, and finding the right time to explore job opportunities is pivotal. 
  1. Comparison is the thief of joy. The more you compare your law school’s LLM program to the JD program, the more miserable you will be. Each program is distinct and caters to different academic and professional needs. I get it.  It can be challenging to see JD students accessing opportunities not readily available to LLM students, e.g. OCIs, Moot Court, Law journal, Write On, etc.. Understanding and embracing the uniqueness of your LLM journey and the different set of opportunities it presents is crucial. 
  1. Grades.  Grades aren’t everything. What’s that saying, “C’s get degrees” ? I spent my first LLM semester obsessed with attempting to achieve straight A’s.  I exhausted myself and became singularly focused.  Maybe I needed to prove more to myself than to others.  Although pursuing high grades is natural, it’s essential to maintain a balanced approach. As an LLM, understanding and internalizing the black letter law is far more crucial than the grades you attain. JDs are ranked, graded on a curve and highly competitive with each other.  Don’t buy into that as an LLM.  Your primary concern should be passing the bar exam. 
  1. Be your own Career Services Office.  For LLM students, proactive career planning is crucial. Unlike JD students, there isn’t a predefined path to follow; therefore, relying on your school’s Career Services Office may leave you waiting indefinitely. It’s imperative to actively network, seek opportunities, and target firms likely to hire international candidates. In my experience 

Getting that first American legal job is EVERYTHING.  In order to be a marketable candidate you need to show that you have some US legal experience. This means that you need an internship, externship, OPT or job in the legal field in the US..  Pro bono work can also bolster your resume. 

  1. Preparing the bar exam application is a job itself.  Preparing the bar exam application is a meticulous task, involving; extensive documentation and information going back ten years years or more.  The application can be especially tedious if you moved house several times or if you had a series of different jobs. You should allow for sufficient time to apply especially when requesting documents from overseas.  Perhaps I was an extreme case, but it took me 22 days to complete my bar application, working 6 hours per day. 
  1. The Bar exam is no joke.  Understanding the challenges of the bar exam is crucial. As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are “Known knowns,” and there are Unknown knowns.  The first time I took the bar exam I felt like I was in the “unknown knowns” territory.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  The second time I took the bar, I had more confidence and study time under my belt. By then, I knew what I didn’t know. Looking back, despite doing my best to tackle Barbri, I should have hired a bar coach from the start.  I needed an advocate and someone who would hold me accountable.  I wish I realized that from day one. 
  1. Learning to write well is really, really important.   Proficiency in legal writing is of paramount importance. It’s one thing to be able to write. .  And it’s a whole different story being able to write well in a legal capacity.  LLM programs tend not to emphasize legal writing so much.  It wasn’t a requirement for my cohort yet, it is something that I use everyday in my position as a law clerk. 
  1. Take time to learn Bluebooking.  Gaining proficiency in Bluebook citation is something I regret not doing. Many foreign LLM students, including myself, often need to gain knowledge in this particular citation system. And though I somehow managed to wrangle my way into a clerkship without knowing it, I was at such a disadvantage compared to the other law clerks.  Even when you have drafted excellent memos and opinions for your judge, improper citations can diminish the perceived quality of the work.  
  1. The Work Permission Privilege.    I recognize my privilege as a dual citizen in automatically having the right to work in the USA.. Many foreign LLM students on F-1 visas need help securing employment post-graduation due to restrictions and limitations on H1-B visas, necessitating job sponsorship. The cap on H1-B visas further complicates matters, turning the pursuit of sponsorship into a precarious endeavor. I stress the importance of acknowledging and advocating for the challenges foreign LLM students face in this regard. 
  1. Work as a Clerk.  Clerking is often overlooked as a viable career start, especially for LLM students unfamiliar with the role. In fact, I never met any other LLM law clerks aside from a colleague I with whom I shared an office.  While federal clerkships usually have citizenship requirements, state and local courts often do not, making them accessible options for foreign LLMs. Exploring clerkships can open up alternative pathways in American law careers, serving as a valuable stepping stone even for those aspiring to secure positions in big law. 

So that’s my list of 10 things I wish I knew when starting my degree. LLM students are on their own path but they can certainly use a helping hand. That’s why I established the 10 List.  Part portfolio, part law journal, the 10 List showcases scholarly articles the best and brightest LLM students in the United States.   

The 10 List and Law Journal is currently seeking submissions for the 2024 Edition.  For more information.

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