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The Value Of An LLM Degree For Getting A China Lawyer Job. Not Much?

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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?

  • David H.

    I feel compelled to reply to this, particularly because Dan has been kind enough to share his advice with me regarding post-graduate employment. I am a rising third-year student in a law school with pretty awful employment prospects. I am also “proficient” in Chinese. I speak, read, and write well enough, but I am not comfortable with the word fluent.

    I specifically remember discussing tax LLMs with Dan. While useful, and this seems to be the broad consensus, if you are not able to secure employment with a larger firm with just a JD, a tax LLM will not help you. Experience is much more important. I would also caution any student against getting a degree which has no verifiable employment statistics (any US LLM).

    English-language LLM programs obtained abroad are just as risky. A Chinese-language one may benefit you, but only as a metric for your language ability. Even then, you are better off obtaining an internship or summer associate position abroad which requires you to use Chinese in a legal setting. Then get a letter of recommendation from a partner which speaks to your language ability. If you do not know Chinese, you should not pursue a Chinese-language LLM. The language barrier is massive. In other words, if you have what it takes to obtain one, it is not worth it. I would also posit that many Chinese schools are degree mills in some capacity and give their foreign students preferred treatment. A recommendation from a partner at a well regarded firm will go further.

    If you do not have the academic accolades to obtain a summer associate position, welcome to my boat. I directly contacted partners in firms from the United Kingdom asking them if I could intern for them. I targeted offices in China. I leave today for that internship. Target firms which DO NOT have US traditional summer associate positions, and ask them for experience. In my experience the partners are usually amenable to having you over for a spell. They are not married to the GPA/school rankings requirements that American firms are. In my limited experience, UK firms are prime targets because they are relatively well known by their American counterparts.

    My Chinese has benefited me in two ways, the first being able to obtain that summer position. The other was in my US internship. I work at a small law firm, and was able to leverage my Chinese and create clients by getting involved in the local Chinese community. This led to a permanent offer (which will service my loans). For those who know Chinese, exploit that advantage. Now I am going to intern in China to develop a skill, not get a job. If you really learned Chinese, you probably spent time in China. I reckon it hardened you personally, use that.

    Passing experience in China is not enough. It is an “interest” indicator, nothing more. Do not waste more money. When students come back from their summer trip in Hong Kong and tell me what China “is really like,” I feel sick. You need more than a passing interest or a knowledge of the culture. You need a marketable skill. On that note, I am going to plug in some advice Dan gave me. Your spoken Chinese does not matter (I dispute this in the context of acquiring clients, which most young attorneys do not do). The law is written. Learn how to read.

  • ASV

    Some input: I did an English LLM in Chinese Business Law during my 2L year. My US law school let me transfer all the credits back and I got my JD and LLM in three years. While I don’t think it was very helpful for finding a job, it didn’t hurt and it was actually cheaper to pay a Chinese LLM than for a year of US JD. I would recommend this whenever possible- US law schools are open to such suggestions lately.

  • kaley

    My husband is fluent in spoken and written Chinese. He lived in Taiwan for 2 years and later earned an Undergraduate degree in Chinese at BYU. He interned for Greenberg Taurig 2 years during law school and then worked there after law school for 2.5 years in litigation. We have thought about doing an LLM to help with placement over in China. I believe our Florida Law degree has not helped in landing a job in China. Would an LLM help someone in our situation? For us, we really just need to network maybe…. or is it still a waste of $$$$?