Becoming a lawyer is a dream career for many — and understandably so. It’s an invigorating, rewarding profession that works to promote justice, protect the rights of others and compassionately resolve legal issues.
With such a high level of responsibilities and job requirements, it’s also a career that requires considerable schooling. While most people believe there is only one path to practicing law — earning an undergraduate degree, pursuing law school, sitting for the bar exam and then becoming an attorney — there is another opportunity to learn about U.S. law, specifically when it comes to international legal professionals and lawyers.
But what exactly is an LLM degree? Who should seek enrollment? What are the benefits?
We spoke with Anne Marlenga, director of special projects and adjunct assistant professor of law at USC Gould, to gain a better understanding of the LLM and the benefits it provides graduates.
What Is an LLM Degree?
The acronym for “LLM” comes from the Latin phrase Legum Magister, which means “Master of Laws.” In terms of what the degree itself entails, the LLM is a master’s program for those who are already lawyers and are looking to further specialize their legal expertise, according to Marlenga.
“There are two types of LLM degrees. One is for international students — so, they’re law graduates in a different country, and they want to learn about law in the United States. They could either pursue a Juris Doctor (JD), which is three years long, or get an LLM, which is one year long. The other type of student is a J.D. graduate who seeks an LLM degree in a particular subject,” Marlenga explained.
For example, lawyers commonly pursue their LLM in taxation because U.S. tax law is extremely specific and complex. Others who have earned their JD later return to school to earn an LLM to better focus on areas such as dispute resolution, compliance, health care and more.
Simply put, it’s an opportunity for lawyers to gain more knowledge in their individual fields.
Can You Earn an LLM Without a JD?
Technically, you can pursue an LLM degree without ever earning your JD. That’s only possible, however, if you’re an international student who studied law outside of the U.S.
“You have to have what we call a first law degree. In the U.S., your basic first law degree is the JD, so you do need it to get your LLM. But in other countries, it’s often a bachelor’s degree in law. In those other countries, you do your four or five-year degree in law, and then you can practice law,” Marlenga explained. “So, for international students, they have a JD equivalent. For U.S. students, it’s needed.”
Who Should Pursue an LLM?
Clearly, international students who have earned their Bachelor of Laws (LLB) or equivalent are perfect candidates for an LLM program, whether or not they wish to practice law in the U.S.
“Sometimes, these international students are seeking [the LLM] because they want to sit for a bar exam in the U.S., and they can after getting this degree. Other times, they’re using it to beef up their resume so they can go back home and use it — because it’s definitely a well-known degree worldwide,” Marlenga said.
Alternatively, JD graduates can pursue their LLM degree if they want to concentrate on an area of law that they’re unfamiliar with.
At USC, for example, students can specialize their online LLM studies with a variety of certificates, including privacy law and cybersecurity, business law and more to amplify their legal knowledge and open up career opportunities in a variety of fields.
What Are the Benefits of Earning an LLM?
For domestic students, an LLM can prove to both clients and employers that you have a specialty in a certain area of law. That’s because when you graduate from a JD program, you often aren’t focusing on a single field.
“Sometimes you’ve shown an interest in a certain topic area, sure, but a lot of times, you’re not specialized, whereas these LLM degrees offer that for you,” Marlenga said.
With the LLM, future employers will be confident that you are best suited for their legal needs, helping you stand out in a sea of applicants. This is also true for international students, as it proves you have become fluent in legal English and the U.S. legal system.
“You can deal with international clients, particularly with American clients, and you truly have that international experience,” Marlenga noted.
For both domestic and international students, attending graduate school for your LLM is also an effective way to expand your professional network.
At USC, LLM students are able to access Trojan networking events, make alumni contacts and really immerse themselves in the university community. These benefits can provide lawyers unparalleled support as they jump-start their careers in new areas.
What’s an LLM Program Like?
Of course, many lawyers or attorneys who have already earned their JD may be reluctant to go back to law school. But LLM coursework isn’t a repetition of what you’ve already learned — it’s a graduate school experience that’s tailored to your personal motivations and career goals.
That means if you’re an international student, you’ll take standard American law classes so you’re well-versed in the country’s legal system. These students will also take bar exam prep classes and introductory courses in property law, torts, criminal law and more.
When it comes to the specialty LLMs, that’s where you’ll experience curriculum that is tied to your specific field or subject matter. For the LLM focusing on cybersecurity, you’ll find classes like “Computer Crime Law,” “Intellectual Property,” and “Counterterrorism, Privacy and Civil Liberties.” For the LLM in Alternative Dispute Resolution, you’ll take classes like “ADR Ethics,” “Divorce and Family Mediation,” and “Meditation Advocacy.”
After all, the aim of a specialized LLM is to become an expert in one particular field, not spend time on subjects you’re already familiar with.
The Bottom Line
A JD is still the law degree most U.S. students obtain, but you do have options — whether you’re an international student who doesn’t want to spend three years on a generalized degree, or you’re a domestic JD graduate who wants to focus on a certain area of law.
If either of those situations apply to you and your career path, an LLM program could very well be the right next move.
Learn more about the online Master of Laws (LLM) degree from USC Gould today.