US Attorney Career Path Next Steps: Dual-qualification or LLM?
The bar exam is behind you and you’re a qualified attorney in your chosen state. Congratulations!
US attorneys looking to take the next step in independently advancing their careers, enhancing marketable skills and unlocking practice in the international market are often faced with a choice. They can study for the internationally-recognised LLM in a chosen subject, or dual-qualify as an advocate in their chosen jurisdiction (if that jurisdiction permits it).
Both options require significant commitments of time and money – each a valuable resource for the busy US attorney. Deciding whether the LLM or dual-qualification is right for you depends on your career goals and what you are looking to gain from your chosen qualification.
We’ll take a look at the LLM and dual-qualification as an English solicitor via the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) and the aims and outcomes of each, to help you decide which one is best aligned with your goals.
Do you even need the LLM or QLTS?
As a US-qualified attorney, you may be fortunate to have the opportunity to work in the UK without the LLM or dual-qualifying via the QLTS. Several US and international firms with a presence in the UK directly employ US-qualified attorneys to advise and work on US-law matters, usually relating to finance and securities.
However, opportunities are usually limited to New York-qualified attorneys with specific expertise, and you will be reliant exclusively on the firm that offers you this opportunity and covers your visa arrangements. Further, as you are not dual-qualified, you would not be able to act or advise on English law matters in their own right or as part of the transaction you are working on.
While this option may suit some attorneys, others prefer the independence and broader set of knowledge and skills that come from taking an LLM or dual-qualifying via the QLTS. Both options are open to US attorneys working in the US.
The LL.M. (Master of Laws) is a postgraduate qualification recognised worldwide. The qualification is administered by accredited institutions and can be offered and delivered in different ways, from a one year full-time on-campus course to a multi-year part-time or distance learning basis.
Unlike the academic study undertaken by lawyers as part of the qualification process, the LLM is not always a pre-requisite to admission and practice in a jurisdiction. Indeed, some LLMs don’t require prior undergraduate study in law at all. That said, in some countries the LLM can cover the basic principles of that country’s legal system as an aid for international lawyers seeking to broaden their knowledge of different legal systems.
Other LLM programs may have a focus on a specialised area or topic of law; such programs are ideal for lawyers seeking to enhance their interest or knowledge of a particular area of legal theory or practice. For law graduates who wish to focus on jurisprudence or forge a career in research or teaching, an LLM is often the precursor to a doctoral degree in law or a segue from practice into academia.
An LLM may be assessed by way of taught and examined classes, coursework or a combination of both. In this way, an LLM offers candidates the opportunity to sharpen their research and writing skills and delve deeper into an area of law they are especially interested in.
The motivations for studying for the LLM, and benefits of holding the qualification, differ among candidates. These can include ‘upgrading’ one’s alma mater; networking opportunities; academic recognition of study in an area of law of special interest to the candidate; research into an area of law that isn’t commonly practiced; standing out in a crowded job market; or to add to a CV as part of an application for a non-solicitor role where specialist study in a relevant area of law will help their chances.
The view of LLMs by employers differs. Some law firms may not attach any weight to it, and to these firms, an LLM graduate is no better off than a candidate without an LLM and less desirable that a candidate with industry experience. While the quote in the linked article – “We’d be neutral about a masters, which we don’t view as intrinsically better than a year spent working in industry” – was made in the context of domestic applicants, internationally-qualified applicants may also need to consider whether building up experience in their home jurisdiction before doing either the LLM or the QLTS would be a wise move based on their circumstances and aspirations.
On average, 19% of lawyers at 11 of the 20 largest law firms in the world working outside the US and the UK hold an LLM. That said, candidates wishing to apply for specialist legal roles or for work involving international law may find an LLM in that area good evidence of commitment to and interest in that field of law.
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme or QLTS is a fast-track route for qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales for international lawyers. The programme is administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the regulatory body of the Law Society of England and Wales.
The QLTS assessments comprise a written examination and practical assessment. The purpose of the assessments is to ensure that all candidates who qualify as solicitors have the knowledge, skills and ability necessary to perform their role competently and ethically.
US attorneys studying for the QLTS will cover the same areas of law and legal skills that English solicitors who qualify domestically have to study and develop, meaning that they will become familiar with such wide-ranging concepts as the law of tort, equity and trusts, criminal law and English contract law.
Both the preparation and the assessments are detailed and intense. The emphasis is on volume and breadth, rather than the narrow and specialist focus of the LLM. US attorneys come from a common law jurisdiction, so have a slight advantage over civil law candidates due to familiarity with the concept and mechanics of a system of judge-made law, but still have to cover a lot of law in a short amount of time, then recall this knowledge and demonstrate their skills to a high level in a timed and pressured assessment environment.
The administration of the QLTS assessments has recently been simplified, so there are no pre-requisite certificates of eligibility. A candidate simply needs to turn up to the assessments and demonstrate that they meet the criteria required to pass and be admitted to the roll as an English solicitor. The qualification process can be completed in just a few months.
For US solicitors looking for the freedom to live and work in the UK while employed by and able to move between both US, international and local firms, advise on English law matters and practice internationally outside of the UK (English law is the jurisdiction of choice for many businesses, transactions and dispute resolution mechanisms), the QLTS is the most practical choice over the LLM. Further, US lawyers seeking to go in-house, eventually establish their own practice in the US or carry out locum work (including remote legal work via ‘virtual law firms’) will find that dual-qualification via the QLTS enhances their personal offering and expands the types of work they may undertake, directly impacting on the opportunities available.
However, US lawyers looking to undertake work in specific jurisdictions or in matters of international law and for particular organisations may not find the QLTS to be as beneficial as an appropriate LLM course, due to the very specific and professional nature of the qualification and lack of specialisation in a particular area of law.
Mr. Oliver Brettle of White & Case, when asked whether dual-qualification is a worthwhile step for international lawyers, replied, unhesitatingly: “Abundantly, yes.”
The LLM can cost up to $50,000 or more, and that doesn’t include the price of textbooks and other supplies. For students looking to study full-time, you should also factor in the cost of living if you move somewhere to take the LLM, along with the lost wages during your period of study.
The cost of the QLTS, including course materials and assessment fees, can be less than $9,000. You may study at any time and place that suits you, and you need only leave the US and come to London twice: once to sit the Multiple Choice Test (MCT) and the other to sit the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE), which are the two elements of the QLTS assessment.
Which to choose?
A considered analysis of your career objectives, what you want to gain from the qualification and how you intend to use it should be the foundations of your research. You may also find it beneficial to understand the academic or professional requirements of the organisations relevant to your field, whether they’re private companies, law firms, NGOs or supranational institutions, to put you in good stead.
Finally, you may also wish to consider your ‘exit strategy’ – alternative uses for your qualifications and experience should your efforts to forge your chosen career path not succeed. In all of these areas, the LLM and QLTS will each have their advantages and disadvantages, and a judgement call based on your own circumstances will be the final arbiter of your decision.
For the QLTS, we interviewed several of our US-qualified candidates who passed the QLTS assessments as to their background, motivations for taking the QLTS, preparation and assessment experience and how the qualification has helped them. You can view their stories here and these may assist in offering a few examples for your consideration.
If you have any questions about the QLTS that will help you reach a decision based on your own circumstances and aspirations, we’d be happy to answer and offer any perspectives that may assist – you can get in touch with us here.
- Tips for Success in the QLTS Multiple Choice Test (MCT) Assessment
- How to Become a Lawyer in the UK
- Supreme Court Plays Wild Card to Cash in Ghosh’s Dishonesty Chips
- Joint Statement regarding a Settlement Agreement between the Law Society of England and Wales and QLTS School
- Important Updates to the MCT Course (April 2017)