As a law graduate contemplating the next step in your academic journey, the question of pursuing a Master of Laws (LLM) looms large. In this article, we’ll explore the factors to consider when deciding whether an LLM is the right path for you. We assume that you are an LLB holder from either a UK or overseas university intending on practising as a lawyer (instead of pursuing academia) in the UK.
The General Case Against an LLM in the UK
For those who have already secured an undergraduate law degree from the UK, the case against pursuing an LLM is strong.
Law firms in the UK typically do not accord significant weight to an LLM during the recruitment process. Law firms in the UK generally prioritise the quality of your university and grades in undergraduate, then practical experience and the skills gained during internships (vacation schemes and mini-pupillages) over further study.
One might assume that a top LLM from say UCL, LSE or even Cambridge would help elevate one’s CV and bring it higher in the pile sitting in the graduate recruiter’s table, but based on empirical evidence, that is generally not the case. Most solicitors in the City of London do not have a masters and go in with an undergraduate degree from a decent (at least RG) university. Check linkedIn for confirmation. However, the Oxford BCL is an exception, see below.
Cost and Time Concerns
Pursuing an LLM can be a substantial financial investment. For example, at LSE, the LLM costs £22,176 for home students and £36,168 for international students. On the cheaper end, at Manchester, the LLM costs £13,500 for home students and £26,000 for international students.
The time spent on further academic study might not align with the practical skills demanded in the legal profession. The reality is, the academic knowledge that you pick up in an LLM, even courses relating to corporate/commercial/other specialisms in do not have much to do with the actual work that you will be doing as a junior lawyer, particularly for solicitors. By the time you have finished your SQE and start your training contract, you would have forgotten whatever you have learnt. You will pick up any essential legal knowledge on the job anyways.
Relocation to the UK
One notable exception where an LLM could be advantageous is if you obtained your undergraduate law degree from another country and are looking to work in the UK. You will get a foothold in the UK and be able to apply for and attend internships in the UK while on a T4 student visa.
This can be advantageous as the salary for commercial solicitors in the City of London greatly exceed those of their compatriots in other countries, with the exception of the US. As such, pursuing a top tier masters in the UK from Oxbridge or from UCL or LSE can be very practical. The utility of an LLM from any other universities is doubtful.
The other option would be to get qualified and work in a firm in your home country and then relocate to the UK – this is particularly easy if you are in a Common Law jurisdiction such as Australia, India, HK etc. However, the downside of this approach would be that you might be excepted to take a PQE (post-qualification experience) cut. This means that if you were a 5th year associate in Sydney, you might only be ranked as a 3rd year associate in London.
Direct Recruitment to US BigLaw Firms
The prospect of working in the United States can significantly alter the calculus. Pursuing an LLM can serve as a direct pathway into prestigious American law firms, commonly referred to as BigLaw.
Skipping Qualification Processes
Unlike the traditional barrister or solicitor qualification routes in the UK, an LLM from a reputable institution can fast-track your entry into the US legal market as an Associate, rather than as a trainee or pupil in the UK. You will also not need to take a year out to pass the SQE, as you can take the bar exam after your LLM is finished in the summer before you join your firm. This saves you a total of 2 years (SQE + 2 year TC = 3 years).
Easy relocation back to London
US law firms now have massive presences in the City and relocation from markets like NYC to London is certainly possible. What’s more, you will be coming back as a US Associate, meaning that you will obtain in some cases, up to £80,000 of ‘Cost of Living Adjustment’ pay, on top of your basic salary. Yes – this seems almost too good to be true.
However, note that this approach is risky, it will only work if you have a top undergraduate degree and are pursuing a masters from top US law schools, like Harvard, Yale, Columbia etc. US LLMs are also extremely expensive, costing up to $75K USD a year on tuition alone. There is also no formal recruitment process for LLM students unlike JD students, so you will have to reach out to firms directly and to alumni for help. But it has been done by many before and is certainly possible.
Aspiring Barristers and Prestigious LLMs
If your ambition is to become a commercial barrister, certain LLM programs carry significant weight. The Oxford BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) is a notable example. A quick look on linkedIn will show you that this degree has become almost a necessity to break in. It might be thought that the equivalent LLM degree in Cambridge would carry similar weight, but whatever the actual quality of teaching in those courses are, the difference in reputation and career value of those degrees remain stark.
Increasingly, LLMs from esteemed US law schools like Harvard or Yale can also enhance your credentials and open doors in the competitive pupillage market.
In conclusion, the decision to pursue an LLM is multifaceted and depends on your career goals and context. The general tip is that most of the time, they are not worth it, however, exceptions do apply in very specific cases. Always weigh the costs, benefits, and your individual career objectives before taking on a masters that can add significantly to your student debt.