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What are LLM and JD Degrees and Why Study Them?

While the Juris Doctorate ('JD') degree may be the most commonly known law degree in the US, it’s not the only one. Another popular degree choice among aspiring legal professionals? The Legum Magister ('LLM'). Here’s a closer look at these law degrees and why they are great paths to a career in law.

Aug 13, 2019
  • Education
What are LLM and JD Degrees and Why Study Them?

While the Juris Doctorate ('JD') degree may be the most commonly known law degree in the US, it’s not the only one. Another popular degree choice among aspiring legal professionals? The Legum Magister ('LLM'). Here’s a closer look at these law degrees and why they are great paths to a career in law.

What is an LLM Degree?

An LLM degree is an advanced law certification with global credibility. This one-year, full-time or two-year, part-time course of study generally follows a first degree in law, such as the JD.

According to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), “The LLM curriculum varies depending on the program. Many programs provide a broad curriculum in American law, the US or Canadian legal system, international law, and comparative law. Others provide more specialized courses in subfields such as taxation, intellectual property, human rights law, or international environmental law. Some programs incorporate required courses; some do not.”

The JD versus the LLM

The JD is considered to be the first degree in law in the United States. In other words, it is the standard educational requirement to practice law in that country. JD programs cover a wide range of legal topics and prepare students to take the bar exam. This course of study usually spans two to four years. Many JD program graduates go on to take the bar exam and secure work as licensed lawyers.

The LLM is a secondary law degree; it is a shorter, more specialized degree program. In many cases, LLM students are able to choose coursework in specific areas of the law which aligns with their career goals and interests. While many LLM graduates eventually work as lawyers in their areas of expertise, others become law professors, judges, government officials, diplomats, and other careers. It’s also important to note that the JD -- or other first degree in law for foreign students -- is usually a prerequisite for the LLM.

In sum, the JD degree is usually broader in scope and longer in duration, while the LLM is briefer and more specialized in nature. While both types of law degree prepare students for careers in the law, they may be different in purpose. US News & World Report states, “The purpose of a JD is to prepare someone to practice law, while the mission of an LLM is to provide advanced training.”

In addition to highlighting the value of the LLM for US-trained lawyers seeking to master a specific legal discipline, US News & World Report also highlights the value of the LLM degree for “foreign-trained attorneys who need lessons in American jurisprudence.”

The benefits of getting an LLM

There are many benefits to getting an LLM degree, including the following:

· It offers specialized legal knowledge in a particular area of law. While a JD offers an overview of most concepts, the LLM drills down into specifics.

· An LLM is an effective way to differentiate yourself from the tens of thousands of aspiring lawyers who graduate from JD programs every year.

· It can open the door to other career paths. For example, it can be a stepping stone to a PhD, which is essential if you are thinking of becoming a law professor.

· You will enjoy improved earning potential. A postgraduate degree, such as an LLM, demonstrates advanced knowledge as well as other key skills that make you worth more to employees. For example, some private firms start first-year associates with LLM degrees at the level of second-year associates, according to In the government sector, meanwhile, the overall average starting salaries for new hires with LLMs is higher than the overall starting salaries for people with JDs alone. You’ll also be eligible for more senior roles and responsibilities.

· You’ll keep up with the ever-changing law world. Today’s employers are all about lifelong learning, and this is especially relevant in the evolving legal sector.

IS an LLM right for you?

As more LLM programs continue to emerge at law schools across the globe, you may be wondering if an LLM is right for you. In many cases, the answer is “yes” -- especially if you have your eye on working in an in-demand area of law, such as the environment, healthcare, tax, national security, trade, cyber or immigration. Having an LLM can give you the expertise you need not only to land a job in one of these disciplines, but also to succeed in your role and at an instantaneously higher level.

Tax law, especially, is a field where the LLM is highly valued -- both by employees and employers. Practicing tax attorney Christopher Harris told U.S. News & World Report, “I found my LLM to be one of the best things I ever did. It was an absolutely rewarding experience. I learned more in a single year than in any other aspect of my educational experience….I probably wouldn’t consider a candidate unless they had an LLM in tax.”

Meanwhile, Karen Thornton, director of government procurement law at The George Washington University Law School, told the National Jurist, “Students seek an LLM out of intellectual curiosity, a desire to advance their careers, or to make the switch from one sector to another. They succeed in the job market because they are able to join the conversation as equals when faculty introduce them to employers at conferences and networking events.”

That’s not to say an LLM isn’t valuable otherwise. “An LLM degree in almost any subject can help lawyers advance their careers. But some practice areas are so complex or evolving that a graduate degree is almost required for new attorneys,” concludes The National Jurist.

If you are thinking of pursuing a legal career in another country, meanwhile, an LLM can also offer an invaluable edge due to its international status.

The decision to pursue an LLM might be a no-brainer if it was free, but what about when there’s a steep price tag attached to it? According to U.S. News & World Report, conducting a cost-benefit analysis -- factoring in key impacts like job placement rates and career advancement among graduates -- can help you decide whether or not an LLM is worth it. Advises legal recruiting firm CEO Harrison Barnes, “The most important thing is to talk to the school and find out what’s happening to the graduates.”

Talking to people with jobs to which you aspire can further inform your decision: In addition to sharing their opinions regarding whether an LLM has value, they can also offer additional guidance on LLM programs and courses of study.

Indeed, as with any education-related decision, practicing due diligence is essential when it comes to deciding to pursue an LLM and choosing an area to specialize in. Mary Mayer, who advises law students on legal careers, asserts, “You really have to be sure that this is what you want to do to study it for a year, to really delve into it and to make your career in this area.”

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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