American law schools offer an increasing variety of advanced legal degree programs. Historically, an LLM in tax was—and still is—valued and specifically sought by employers in the market for new and lateral attorneys in tax, estate planning, and related positions. Rarely, if ever, do employers ask for candidates with an LLM in another specialty. Employers are less familiar with the other programs, so, if you earned a non-tax advanced degree, how do you sell it as a value-add to prospective employers?
Clarify your objective
If you’re clear about your purposes for earning an LLM, you’ll be in a better position to market it when you look for a new job.
There are many good reasons to pursue an advanced legal degree. During the recession, some recent graduates—and even experienced lawyers—saw it as a way to bolster their credentials while sitting out a bad job market. As the economy improved, however, that became a less compelling justification. For those who earned their JD in another country, an advanced legal degree may facilitate entry into the US legal job market.
Doing well in an LLM program is one way to rehabilitate your credentials if you attended a lower ranked law school or didn’t excel academically. Or, you may seek further legal education to gain deeper specialized knowledge in your current practice to differentiate yourself from the crowd or to retool your skills to pursue another practice area. It’s also an effective way to refresh your legal skills for reentry after a hiatus from practice for personal or professional reasons. Advanced legal degrees in a variety of disciplines can be valuable for candidates wishing to enter academia in those particular subjects.
Find the nexus
Research which skills and duties are required in your target position and identify similar or related competencies and experiences in your background. Prepare to clearly communicate to prospective employers why and how your skills—including those honed in your LLM program—can add value to their bottom line, making you better than other candidates for the position. Spell it out. Don’t expect them to review your resume and figure it out on their own. THIS IS KEY.
In every resume, cover letter, and interview describe examples of your related skills and experience. Read job listings and practice area descriptions on law firm websites. Use that terminology. Focus and tailor each presentation for the specific position sought, eliminating or minimizing any non-related information. You may have several versions of your resume and cover letter. Americanize your language and spelling, if necessary. Explain anything not directly transferable to the US legal market—such as foreign degrees, grading systems, and articling.
You want the reader to quickly scan your materials and clearly see “this is what I’ve done and what I can do for you.”
You may need to take a step back in your seniority level. You won’t necessarily get one-to-one credit for previous years of legal experience, especially if you were not practicing law in the US or your prior experience is unrelated to your target field. Moreover, don’t expect to receive credit for the time you spent earning your LLM.
You may also need flexibility regarding the kind of position you take. Your transition back into law practice might require some interim steps. If so, look for an internship or research position that is “on track”, adding to your skills for landing your desired lawyer job soon thereafter. Taking a paralegal or assistant position, however, may make it even more difficult to obtain the job you ultimately want. Rather, it will result in even more time out of the attorney job market, might appear as if you couldn’t land a lawyer job, or create the perception that you’re not serious about being a lawyer. Instead, take a contract attorney position if necessary, preferably in the practice area you wish to pursue.
Prepare for your interview
Do your homework so you can describe how your particular background can solve the prospective employer’s business problems. Tell a consistent and easily understood story about how your LLM makes sense in your career trajectory and adds value to their organization. Discuss only the relevant information and experience in your background, prioritizing your transferrable skills depending upon the position you’re seeking. Prepare answers to difficult questions, anticipating and addressing the potential employer's possible concerns, in an upbeat, non-defensive, and professional manner.
If you’re a foreign lawyer, research the legal requirements and become an expert in the process, timing, and expenses involved in hiring someone in your situation. The prospective employer will not necessarily know how simple or complicated it might be, and the unknown can scare them away. You need to assure them that it’s a manageable procedure and that you’re well informed and prepared to facilitate the process.
Sell “soft skills”
In addition to emphasizing the benefits of the additional legal knowledge and practical skills you gained through your advanced legal education, you can argue that the very fact you pursued an LLM degree demonstrates personal and professional characteristics that every law firm should value, such as perseverance, maturity, and a desire to grow. If you stay in touch with your classmates and colleagues from your LLM program, in addition to those from your undergraduate and law school classes, you’ll have the start of a solid network of mentors, resources, and possible business referral sources. These “soft skills” will enhance your ability to help law firm grow and generate more clients, making you a value-added candidate.