Does a graduate law degree increase a lawyer’s value on the legal job market?

Not according to Steven John, a managing director at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

John delivered that unwelcome assessment to a roomful of law school administrators during the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington on Jan. 7.

In fact, John said, advanced degrees in law — with the exception of LL.M.s for foreign-trained attorneys and tax LL.M.s — can actually hurt job candidates, because they may signal uncertainty about their career paths or attempts to avoid the reality of a difficult job search. Also suspect is when candidates study in areas that do not dovetail with their practice experience.

John said he asked his fellow recruiters at Major Lindsey whether they ever had a client specifically request candidates with advanced degrees — with the exception of tax LL.M.s — or whether a candidate ever secured a job because of an advanced degree.

The answer to both questions was no.

“The market has never demanded it,” he said during a panel discussion. “Advanced degrees never come into the conversation.” In fact, he added, some of his colleagues advise job seekers to leave LL.M.s off their resumes.

Practice experience, especially in specialized areas of the law, is what his clients want, John said.

The programs were not without their defenders. Several panelists argued that they can help graduates get a leg up in the job market outside the large law firms that Major Lindsey serves. They also can help mid-career attorneys trying to break into new areas of law, or help attorneys enter new geographic markets, said New York Law School professor Marshall Tracht, who runs an LL.M. program in real estate law. Students can complete a J.D. and real estate LL.M. in seven semesters, paying a discounted price for the advanced degree. “It’s been effective in getting people job interviews and some job opportunities,” he said.

Tracht noted that the market for real estate attorneys has been markedly slow during the past three years. Subsequently, when firms advertise for attorneys with two to three years’ experience, they are flooded with applications from candidates who don’t meet that requirement. Under those circumstances, their LL.M.s have helped his graduates land interviews, mostly at firms with between three and five attorneys, he said.

“Depending on where you are in the market, you face different economics,” he said. “I think there is a strong case to be made for students to do advanced, specialized degree programs.”

Of course, law schools have a financial incentive to maintain advanced degree programs, since they help generate tuition revenue, said James Rosenblatt, dean of the Mississippi College School of Law. His school has launched an LL.M. program for international lawyers intended in part to “relive some pressure as far as building the J.D. class.”

But he stressed that money can’t be the primary motivation and disputed the perception that LL.M.s are “cash cows.” He noted that it requires significant resources to ensure that international students can communicate effectively in the classroom and are not isolated from the J.D. students.

The University of Pennsylvania Law School has an LL.M. program for 100 international students and is exploring the possibility of working with other schools within the university to offer additional advanced degree programs, said assistant dean for graduate programs Matthew Parker.

Still, when consulted by law students and attorneys considering LL.M. programs, John said that he and his colleagues wave the yellow flag.

“We urge them to exercise caution,” he said. “The additional six months or a year of training can only help you if you understand why you’re doing it, and if you can articulate in a job interview what it brings to the table as far as benefiting the firm or the client.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.