LLM Degree: What It Is and Why You Need One
After completing four years of college and then three years of law school, the idea of spending another few years in school might make some people cringe. Yet for some lawyers, earning a master’s degree in a specialized area of law — often referred to as the Master of Laws or LLM degree — is what they need to achieve their career goals.
While the most common LLM degree specialization in the United States is taxes, any area of law is open to advanced study, including environmental, bankruptcy, financial services, human rights and maritime law. Although the degree is not required to practice law in the United States, other countries around the world, particularly in Europe, require lawyers to hold both a first law degree and a master’s degree.
LLM Degrees: The Basics
Students who graduate from law school in the U.S. are granted a J.D., or Juris Doctor, a professional law degree. This is considered the first law degree. In most cases, those who hold the degree are qualified to sit for the bar exam to gain admittance to the state bar and practice law.
In order to enroll in an LLM program, candidates must have earned their first law degree, but do not necessarily have to pass the bar exam. However, experience working within the legal field can improve your chances of being admitted to law master’s programs. In fact, you may not have a clear idea of where you would like to specialize until you have some experience working in the field. You do not need to take the LSAT to apply to an LLM program, but since U.S. LLM programs are popular with international students, many schools require foreign applicants to pass the TOEFL or equivalent exam to demonstrate English-language proficiency.
To earn an LLM, students generally need to complete between 22 and 28 credit hours of coursework and complete an original thesis. Courses are geared toward the area of specialization; LLM tax programs, for example, include courses in federal and state income taxes, estate taxes, business taxes, international taxes and issues in the practice of tax law. In most cases, LLM programs are full-time academic programs, but some programs allow for part-time study.
Why You Need an LLM
There are a number of reasons that students seek LLM degrees — not the least of which is the potential earnings increase. Becoming an expert in a complex field like taxation can increase your marketability and employability — and law firms will be willing to pay for your expertise.
Beyond earning more money, though, there are several other reasons for seeking an advanced law degree. For example, if you have spent some time away from the practice of law, such as to raise a family, enrolling in an online tax LLM program will help you refresh your skills and knowledge before you head back into the working world. Earning an advanced degree can also help you move into a new area of focus in your career.
Another common reason that students seek an LLM degree is to strengthen their credentials, which may include a degree from a middle- or lower-tier law school. It’s a fact that degrees from some schools are looked upon more favorably than degrees from other schools, but earning a Master of Laws degree can bolster your eligibility for a position at a prestigious law firm, government agency or other organization.
Finally, for those who have a passion for the law but perhaps do not wish to practice, earning the LLM degree allows them to teach law, either at the undergraduate or first-degree level. Even those who want to remain in practice can use their LLM degree to land a part-time teaching position, allowing them to help train the next generation of law professionals.
Choosing to earn an LLM degree is a major commitment. However, with so many benefits, including increased earnings and opportunities, the LLM is a challenging and worthwhile endeavor.
About the Author: Doug Ericson holds both a J.D. and LLM in taxes and works for a San Diego–based law firm. He volunteers with his student alumni association, helping new law school grads navigate their career options.
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