Today, LL.M. degrees, a.k.a. Masters of Law, or, for the fancy, the Latin name Legum Magister, are offered in a variety of legal specialties ranging from trial advocacy to intellectual property to international law to taxation. Each of these areas of the law is a special niche that requires a precise knowledge of its legal concepts. The 24 credit hours spent in the classroom while obtaining an LL.M. will surely provide you with an in-depth understanding of the law in a specialized area, but will it help you get a job in this specialized area?
Based on my personal experience, the answer is a resounding "yes"; I would not be where I am in my career without the degree. To give you a frame of reference, I recently switched jobs from an in-house position to a firm position. I asked my current boss, who is also an LL.M. recipient, whether he would have hired a candidate without an LL.M. for the position. He answered with a resounding "no" and expounded on his reasoning by saying the degree "affords mastery of the job market for recent graduates and for the more experienced practitioner, mastery of the quest to build an intellectually satisfying and financially rewarding career." And yes, he talks like that. He has an LL.M.
As for me, I completed my J.D. in the summer of 2008 and my LL.M. in December 2012. I took my LL.M. courses at night so I could work during the day, and yes, it took me four years. Note to reader: Obtaining your LL.M. also requires a serious amount of commitment. My LL.M. is in taxation, which is an intricate area of the law, heavily based in regulations and estate planning concepts that can be extremely complex. Studying with and learning from the most esteemed estate and tax practitioners in the Philadelphia area (as the professors at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law LL.M. program are) was invaluable. My professors taught the tricks of the trade, knowledge that only comes with real experience and passion for what you do. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and I developed my own sense of excitement when knotty issues came across my desk, both inside and outside the classroom. I began enrolling in courses that would allow me to really cultivate and hone my craft.
When my job search began, I was able to field every interview question regarding tax and estate planning concepts; I had seen, drafted and been tested on each issue thrown my way. The program went beyond providing me with knowledge to do my job efficiently and appear erudite on an interview by offering me a network within my focused legal community. The relationships I made with students and professors during my time at the Temple LL.M. program (nurtured by the worldly yet maternal program head, Kathy Mandelbaum) proved invaluable during both my job search and my career thereafter. Mandelbaum pays it forward, too — she has put countless students in touch with me so I may return the favor and guide them with their job search. From a professional standpoint, the contacts I made during my time in the LL.M. program provided a cache of professional knowledge that I consult when I am perplexed by an issue and need a sounding board. Recently, my boss even sought out advice from his former LL.M. professor on the best way to approach a problematic estate he and I were working on.
I was curious to determine whether other LL.M. recipients shared similar experiences as I, and did those additional three letters after a J.D. really make much of a difference? Brittany Horn Cook, a fellow J.D. LL.M., stated that her LL.M. helped set her apart and gave her a better opportunity to get interviews within the appropriate practice areas. Cook claims she "definitely saw an uptick in responses to applications" once she was simply admitted to the LL.M. program. Cook began her LL.M. study immediately after completing her J.D. in 2010, on the heels of a barren job market. While attending her first semester in the LL.M. program, Cook happened upon a fellow LL.M. student who was working as a trust administrator for a large bank. This student, upon hearing of Cook’s job search, offered to pass Cook’s resume along to her boss. And thus, Cook entered into the world of trust administration; she now works for a prestigious trust company in Wilmington, Del. Her current job boasts eight employees in its Delaware office — four of whom hold LL.M. degrees.
Obtaining an LL.M. is certainly not without its detractors. Above the Law, a popular legal blog with millions of readers, recently published a post lamenting, "I feel bad for people seriously considering most LL.M. programs. They’re in a tough spot. They’ve spent three years and who knows how much money pursuing a career in law, and now they can’t get a job." Yikes. Above the Law even quoted Steven John, a managing director at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, as stating that "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." 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. degrees, or whether a candidate ever secured a job because of an advanced degree. Yet again, the answer to both questions was a resounding "no." According to John, practice experience, especially in specialized areas of the law, is what his clients want.
I reached out to Joyce Feinstein of Abelson Legal Search, which does its legal recruiting primarily in the Philadelphia area, to determine if John’s analysis applied in our local market. She concurred, and like John, singled out the LL.M. in taxation as the exception. She explained that although the tax LL.M. does not necessarily guarantee a job offer, in a tougher economy, it might actually be an advantage. Feinstein estimated that, for her clients, who range from small to large law firms, and corporations, it is "50-50 if this credential is requested." She has found that larger firms seem to look for this advanced degree, as do more sophisticated estate planning firms. Feinstein submitted that "having some work experience first, then getting the LL.M. in taxation, is viewed as a thoughtful approach to earning the advanced degree." All in all, Feinstein has observed that specific advanced degree programs may increase the odds of employment for young attorneys for specialized practices, but they don’t guarantee entry into a major firm. In the larger firms, it’s still about attending top schools, graduating magna cum laude or better, and good summer associate experience. But what about the rest of us?
An LL.M. in taxation is seemingly exalted, but other specialization in this degree should also be discussed. Young attorney Danielle Holander received her LL.M. in intellectual property from Yeshiva University in 2010 and is currently unemployed. Holander nonetheless states the experience of obtaining her LL.M. was extremely rewarding intellectually. She does admit that the degree itself has unfortunately not yet produced any practical rewards, financially or otherwise, and in hindsight may not have been the best investment. Then again, the trial advocacy program at Temple Law, which has consistently been ranked in the top two by U.S. News & World Report for trial advocacy, boasts supreme alumni who are top litigators and criminal defenders in the area.
So dear reader, as a young lawyer gazing across the bleak landscape of a weary job market and wondering if going back to school for your LL.M. will help you finally land a gig — the answer is a resounding … probably not, unless you have an interest in taxation (which is probably a long shot). Then again, if you are enjoying your education, and you are passionate about a particular area of the law, go for it. If nothing else, it will introduce you to other practitioners in the area, and like Cook, that may be the start of your career in a field you would not have otherwise considered. Or it may teach you the nuances of your specialty and with that knowledge you can master any interview you are fortunate enough to obtain. Or, like Holander, it may just quench your intellectual thirst for the time being. A little more education never can hurt, but it just may not always help as much as you would like. •
Dayna Rose Benn is a tax and estates associate at Kaplin Stewart in Blue Bell, Pa. She earned her LL.M. from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in December 2012. Her primary practice areas consist of trusts, estate planning and tax. She can be reached at 610-941-2492 or email@example.com.