Getting An LLM Degree

Q #1: I have been out of school for two years practicing construction litigation with a medium-sized firm. I do not like litigation, and want to get into a transactional practice. I am considering attending the University of Florida to get an LLM in taxation. Am I shooting myself in the foot, or will I have a good selection of well-paying jobs when I graduate?

Q #2: I have been a prosecutor for the last seven years, and am now thinking about getting an LLM in tax. I truly enjoyed the tax classes I took in law school; all of my attorney friends who have their LLMs in tax enjoy what they do. With the economy the way it is, do you believe it would be worth going back to school to earn the degree? What kind of money can one make with this degree? Are there firms that may hire me part-time after I complete a semester of school? Would any firm help me pay for the cost of tuition if I committed to working for them for a number of years after graduation?

Q #3: I have been a litigator for the Department of Justice for almost seven years, and I want to move to a corporate or transactional practice. Is it worth my while to get an LLM in corporate/securities law to acquire the substantive knowledge, or should I take a junior position at a law firm?

Q #4: I was recently let go by my law firm after working in commercial litigation for five years. Although I enjoy the commercial aspects of the practice, I do not have the fortitude to be a litigator. Now I'd like to move on to an in-house position, preferably in a financial institution. Would it be a good idea to earn a relevant LLM?

A: As highly educated people, all of these lawyers have been conditioned to look at formal education as the best way to strengthen their qualifications and expand their opportunities for the career move they contemplate. The problem is that education provides only a knowledge base, while most employers value an applicant's past experience much more highly.

Any lawyer who wishes to switch practice areas faces competition from those with actual experience in the subject matter, or with experience that is more obviously transferable. Putting an LLM on a resume will separate these lawyers only from colleagues without relevant experience who claim an interest in a new subject matter area but haven't done anything to prove it.

It won't make them more attractive than lawyers with relevant experience. This is especially true when the lawyers already have substantial experience in an unrelated area of practice. Employers will presume they want to be paid for that experience even though they are as green in the new field as a new law school graduate.

Employers pay tuition for employees when they believe the added knowledge base will make the employees more valuable to the organization. Law firms rarely pay for LLMs -- whether for current partners and associates or prospective ones -- because having practical experience is so much more valuable than merely knowing the law. Only a law firm that refers a lot of tax business to other firms will want the knowledge base added to their mix. But they're much more likely to encourage an existing partner or associate to get the education, than to take a chance on someone new to the field.

As for getting hired part-time while still in school, plenty of firms will pay law clerk rates for assistance from LLM students. An LLM student without relevant experience, however, will have a difficult time finding a well-paid position in the new field, especially on a part-time basis.

Earning an LLM isn't automatically a bad idea for lawyers in transition. But it is an expensive and time-consuming tactic, and may not advance their careers any faster than moving to law firms where they can develop some expertise in the new area while contributing to the bottom line by using the skills they've already developed. A small, overloaded law firm that handles both litigation and transactional work would be a good target.

In my experience, LLMs are expensive detours that rarely prove to be effective marketing tools. Earn one if you find the subject matter fascinating and want to immerse yourself in a challenging educational environment. But don't expect the degree to make relevant an otherwise discordant resume. It won't.