What is an LLM?
An LLM is a Master of Law Degree. The full name, Legum Magister, is, like so many other aspects of the legal profession in the US, derived from Latin and literally means Master of Law. Typically a one year program, the LLM serves as an introduction to the US Legal System and is most often requested of applicants to the bar who were educated in or practiced outside the US.
Do I need one?
Because all US lawyers are required to be admitted to the bar and each US state (and the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.) sets its own rules for bar admission, not all foreign-educated lawyers need an LLM. Some 23 states require all bar applicants, regardless of their origin, to earn a law degree from a school accredited by the American Bar Association. In these states, an LLM is not a useful option – although the system of reciprocity LINK set up by the various US jurisdictions might be. Nevertheless, because many foreign lawyers enroll in LLM programs because they plan to take the bar exam for New York or California*, the LLM continues to be a viable option.
But not all foreign-educated lawyers need an LLM to sit for the exam. As noted above, New York State, one of the largest and most attractive jurisdictions in the US, is among the most open to admitting foreign lawyers to practice. In fact, in New York, foreign-educated lawyers can qualify for the bar examination without an LLM if they successfully completed a three-year law program in a country where the legal system is based on the English common law system. In fact, such applicants would be eligible to sit for the bar without having to obtain any further American law school study. In this case, however, foreign-educated lawyers must begin the process by getting their law degree reviewed and analyzed by the American Bar Association (ABA) and not all who apply are allowed to proceed without the LLM.
For those not educated in civil law or otherwise ineligible for a waiver from the ABA, an LLM is a necessary next step. The LLM is important because, at its heart, it provides an overview of US law for foreign lawyers in one year in place of the a more traditional three year law program required of first time law students.
Indeed, most LLM programs in the US are offered by established law schools and most US LLM programs allow foreign attorneys to take law courses together with their normal domestic students. There are also online degree programs for the LLM program that allows attorneys to work collaboratively in an international virtual classroom. The University of Liverpool offers an online LLM program in International Business Law, International Finance and Banking, and in Technology and Intellectual Property Law. These LLM programs are designed to prepare students for a high-level career in an international law firm, multinational company or governmental organization.
In practice, therefore, a US LLM program provides foreign-educated lawyers exposure to a US law school for one year. In the course of their LLM program, students learn how traditional US law is practiced. Courses emphasize the aspects of the legal profession that form the heart of the American Law School culture in order to teach LLM students how US lawyers think about the law.
In addition to this broad overview, LLM students are also required to take courses that reflects the aspect of law they are interested in pursuing. Examples include Criminal Law, Corporate Law, Real Estate Law, Torts, and more. Regardless of their emphasis, however, once foreign-educated lawyers complete the LLM program they, like their domestic classmates, will have the opportunity to sit for the bar exam as well.
* Two US states that allow all LLM graduates without a formal law degree from the US to sit for the exam.