Have you considered studying again? This week we spoke to Martin Luff, a 3yr PQE employment lawyer who is currently doing a Masters in Law at the University of Texas in Austin. We asked him why he decided to go back to being a student and the benefits of doing an LLM, as well as the practicalities of how much it costs and how the application process works.
mtl: Hi Martin, tell us about your legal career so far.
Martin: I studied Law with American Law at Nottingham and, during my second year, was swept along by the milk-round and decided to qualify. I had a very good training contract experience at Travers Smith and qualified into employment in March 2004. I stayed there for three years and really enjoyed the firm and the work.
mtl: So what made you leave to do an LLM?
Martin: I had always had the idea of pursuing my academic interests a bit further ever since I graduated from university. However I didn’t give it too much thought at first as I was serious about my career in London. I also felt that I needed at least two years of post-qualification experience in order to be able to take a year out without it seriously undermining my career prospects.
The main reason that I decided to do a Masters was academic interest. I was an exchange student in America as an undergraduate and wanted to pursue my interest in US capital punishment work and US constitutional law for at least another year. An LLM was a good way of being able to do that.
I studied the death penalty as part of my degree and maintained an interest in defence work by doing a couple of internships in the US before my training contract started. I was also involved in a couple of anti-death penalty societies in London (Amicus and Reprieve), both of which anyone can get involved in. I ran training and education programmes for them, which were aimed at English lawyers wanting to volunteer in the US.
I am also engaged to an American, and she is currently working in Houston. So that was another good reason for me to want to go to the US! I probably would not have left Travers Smith without this added incentive.
mtl: What’s the application process like?
Martin: It’s fairly straightforward and all the information you need can be found on the respective university websites. It does however take quite a bit of time and effort to compile the documentation required as you need letters of recommendation to support your application, including at least one academic reference from a past professor. You also need to get sealed transcripts of your results in a certain format and these take time to get.
Some universities require you to write a paper and most require a statement of purpose about your academic interests, but you almost certainly won’t be interviewed. Time-wise, you need to apply around September in the year before you want to take up a place and then you will hear between February and April the next year.
Some of the well-known US law schools are very hard to get into and you have to bear in mind that some LLMs are very focused and try to attract a particular type of person. For example, the LLM at Yale is designed for those pursuing a career in academia and so a corporate lawyer wanting to go back to corporate law would almost certainly not be admitted. Some schools offer general LLMs which let you study what you want and others specialise in certain subjects. For example, I think the LLM at Stanford requires you to specialise in one of a few areas such as IP, so there is less flexibility.
You need to decide for yourself what you want to get out of the LLM and what kind of experience you are looking for. Obviously, it’s a good idea to look at law school rankings to get an idea of the best law schools, and the most commonly referred to ranking in the US is published by US News. I ended up going to the University of Texas for a variety of reasons, but mainly to be close to my fiancée.
mtl: Dare we ask how much it costs?
Martin: Any of the top schools are extremely expensive and, realistically, will cost $50-$70,000 for the one year LLM degree, including basic living expenses, travel and tuition fees with some cash left over to have some fun along the way. Universities such as Columbia will be at the top end of the range due to the added cost of being in New York. The University of Texas is one of two State law schools in the top 20 list, which means it’s cheaper than the private universities. However it is not that much cheaper for international students than its Ivy League rivals and my budget is still $50,000.
Scholarships are available at some law schools and details of these are mostly on their websites. There a small number of other scholarships that you can apply for such as a Fulbright award. Those are generally very hard to get and you would have to be an exceptional student with a very clear idea of what you want to do with the LLM. The Fulbright Commission has lots of information about studying in the US and what scholarships are available and you can visit their UK base at Fulbright House in Central London to do your research.
mtl: So, what is the point of doing an LLM?
Martin: There are a couple of reasons that come to mind. Either it will be purely academic interest, which was largely the case for me. Or you could be looking for a career break but want to do something interesting and constructive which is related to your career. It could also assist you practising law in a foreign country, for example some US states require an LLM to take the relevant bar exam. If you are looking at doing an LLM just to take a bar exam, you should check the particular state’s rules first as they all differ and an LLM may not be necessary.
I don’t think that an LLM is of particular use to a British legal career unless you want to work for a US firm in London and want to be dual qualified, with a deeper understanding of US law. The death penalty work that I do in the USA is of course very different to the City, but ultimately I won’t make a career out of it. I will probably return to the City next year.
mtl: How are you finding it so far?
Martin: It is obviously a very attractive lifestyle after five years of working in the City and there are lots of benefits to being a student a second time round. In the US, law is post-graduate, so the students are more mature and it doesn’t feel like trying to be 21 again. Studying is taken seriously and is fairly competitive. If you want to get reasonable grades you have to work hard because of the bell curve way of grading.
I am treating my days as work and doing the equivalent of about four working days, with a long weekend every weekend. I have twelve hours of lectures a week and the rest is study and preparation for interactive classes which are taught by the Socratic method. This means that students prepare in advance and are “called on” by professors to discuss issues and hypothetical situations. My courses this semester are on the death penalty, mediation, international commercial arbitration, US civil procedure and appellate brief writing.
mtl: Anything else for potential LLM students to consider?
Martin: It is fun to be a student again, particularly as you can pursue a lot of other interests due to the control you have over your schedule and time. As long as you are interested in the subject matter then it is no problem to have to write essays again.
When choosing a place to study, giving priority to an international reputation limits you to a small number of law schools with big names, such as Harvard and Yale, which are very hard to get into. If you are only doing an LLM to build your CV then go to one of them.
However, the alternative is to go to a university with an excellent reputation in the US, such as UT, and you will then have a lot more choice. Austin is great place to live, with a low cost of living and an excellent lifestyle. The LLM I am doing is good value for money and I am really enjoying the experience, but it isn’t something that I am doing purely to impress prospective employers in London. Therefore, just think carefully about what you want out of it and what your priorities are.
mtl: Thank you for delaying your round of golf to talk to us and good luck with your exams!
Click on the link to find out about volunteering for Reprieve.
Click here for information about the UT LLM programme.
Law with American Law, Nottingham
Death penalty defense internship, Mississippi
Training contract, Travers Smith
Employment assistant, Travers Smith
LLM, University of Texas in Austin