With the job market for freshly minted American young lawyers so bad these days, many recent law school graduates are looking to burnish their credentials by getting an advanced law degree (typically an LLM).  About once a month, someone asks me what I think about “international law” LLMs or China law school LLMs and my response is always “not much.”  I elaborate by saying that as far as I know, the only LLMs that are likely to help in a job search are a tax LLM from NYU or University of Miami and that I have also heard that a Harvard LLM can help if you are seeking to go into teaching law. Beyond those though, I have the sense that LLMs generally benefit the law schools more than the students.

I then say that every American hiring lawyer with whom I have had the discussion (myself included) views someone who has spent time getting an LLM as someone who just happened to be wealthy enough to be able to delay their job search for another year.  I also note how I have heard from many foreign students who secured LLMs in the United States that no firms are interested in them because they do not have an American JD degree.  I then talk about how for lawyer hiring my firm only hires students with a JD degree.  We have hired many LLM students as interns and though we have been happy with most of them, none had the sort of rigorous legal training that we seek in hiring lawyers and that I do not think an LLM degree can provide that.

I also tell them that I am not aware of anyone who by virture of an LLM got hired as a China lawyer.  Not to say that has never happened, just that I am not aware of it.

I do usually also mention that American law school LLM degrees were originally intended mostly as a way to give foreign lawyers a flavor for American culture and American law and that they do work well for that.  Many of the lawyers with whom I work in Asia have LLM degrees and that those lawyers generally have a better understanding of American clients/companies than those without that degree.

A month or so ago, there was a discussion on Don Clarke’s CHINALAW listserve about the value of a China law school LLM degree.  Someone was soliciting views on the value of a China LLM and just about all of the responses downplayed such a degree as a way of helping a job search, but some did acknowledge that it is not a bad way to improve one’s Chinese or to gain more knowledge about China and its legal system.   I found Professor Carl Minzer’s response (I secured his approval to post this) to be the best answer:

For what it’s worth, my standard response to the students who have approached me for advice regarding English-language LLM programs in China is: they’re likely not worth your time and money.

Now – the disclaimers.  The students who are approaching me about these are generally third-year American JD students with a light background in China (perhaps a semester abroad in college, with weak Chinese language skills), who are facing student debt loads ranging between 100 and 200 thousand dollars, and think that doing an English-language LLM in China might open up useful job prospects working in China upon finishing the degree.

My own understanding, based on my own discussions with lawyers in the U.S. and China, is that the addition of an English-language LLM degree from a Chinese institution, does not really improve one’s job prospects either in the U.S. or China.  Consequently, I’m not able to recommend them to the students described above.

However, I’d really like to hear from other members on this list (which includes a number of practicing lawyers in China and the United States and likely some recent graduates who have gone through these programs), and correct my impressions, if they are incorrect. What do you think the value of these English-language LLM programs offered by Chinese law schools?  Useful or not? [The last I checked, tuition alone for these programs ran between 20,000 and 30,000 USD (excluding living and travel expenses).]

I’ll draw one other distinction — the above comments do not apply to 1) Chinese-language LLM programs (for foreign students) offered by Chinese institutions, 2) American students who are financially very comfortable (no debt, independently wealthy) and just want to spend time in China in an English-language program.  For the former, I do have the sense that a Chinese language LLM program offers an environment to improve ones language skills, and that the degree may be a useful marker of that that might improve ones job prospects.  For the latter, those students don’t face the same debt pressures as other students, and may have more flexibility to look at the English-language LLM program as an interesting year abroad.

LLMs for those wanting to practice China law or international law?  Waste of time or job boost or something more?

What do you think?

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan Harris is internationally regarded as a leading authority on legal matters related to doing business in China and in other emerging economies in Asia. Forbes Magazine, Business Week, Fortune Magazine, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist, CNBC, The New York Times, and many other major media players, have looked to him for his perspective on international law issues.