LLM vs. JD — Which One is Best for a Foreign Attorney Interested in Practicing Law in the U.S.? 

If you are currently practicing law outside the U.S., and you’re considering either 1) moving to America or 2) practicing law for clients with U.S. involvement from your home country, you may be wondering what type of credentials you need in order to obtain a license to practice law in the U.S.

The big question: LL.M. vs. J.D.

One of the toughest questions you will need to answer is the “LL.M. vs. J.D.” question. That is, whether it is better for you to pursue a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree. The answer to this question will depend on a number of personal factors, and also must be considered in connection with review of the requirements of the specific state you want to work in.

Each state has its own complex set of requirements for qualification of foreign attorneys to sit for the bar exam and become admitted to practice. Accordingly, simply knowing which state you intend to work in can clarify matters a great deal. Even if you don’t know the answer to this question yet, however, you can still get a sense of what each degree involves and offers.

LL.M. vs. J.D.: Breaking it down

In order to gain admittance to a J.D. program at a law school in the U.S., you will generally need a bachelor’s degree (or the acceptable equivalent). You will also need to take the LSAT exam; your score will play a large role in determining which law school you will be able to attend. A J.D. program takes three years, and is far more costly than an LL.M. The benefits are significant, however. At the end of the program, you will understand the necessary aspects of practicing law in the U.S. that any other U.S. attorney begins with, and you will generally be qualified to sit for the bar exam in your state of choice.

An LL.M., on the other hand, is far more convenient and less costly to obtain. It generally takes about a year and can even be done entirely online with a program such as @WashULaw, offered by our partner Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. The degree does not, however, qualify you to sit for the bar exam in every state, which is why it is imperative that you review the requirements of your desired state of practice in order to determine whether an LL.M. will be sufficient.

Which will help me pass the bar?

When it comes to the LL.M. vs. J.D. question, a J.D. may be more helpful due to the extra time spent in study of the American legal system, but it takes far longer, costs more, and generally requires travel to the U.S. for a long period of time.

For reference, here are the passage rates for foreign-educated attorneys in the two biggest legal markets, New York and California:

CA July 2012 Pass Rate: 12.8%

NY Feb 2013 Pass Rate: 30%

It can be quite challenging and also quite rewarding for a foreign attorney to pass the bar in the U.S. For attorneys that are able to set aside years for study, and bear the expense, a J.D. may be a good option. For those that would prefer to continue practicing law while studying, and who wish to earn their credential with a minimum of expense and delay, an LL.M. is generally the better option. Interested candidates should review the bar exam requirements in their chosen jurisdiction and then make an informed choice that suits their career goals and other circumstances.