Please welcome guest writer Alison Donahue Kehner to discuss how to choose courses as an LLM student. She is a Legal Practice Skills Lecturer who also coordinates the LLM Legal Writing course at her law school. In her role as coordinator of the LLM Legal Writing course, Alison regularly works with LLM students and the Graduate Programs Office.
LLM Students: I have good news and bad news. If you’re reading this now, the good news is you’re about half-way to reaching your goal of receiving an LLM degree. Congratulations! But the bad news is . . . your whirlwind, one-year LLM experience is about half-way over. You only have one more semester left, so you must choose your remaining courses wisely. To help, this post provides five tips to help you make every credit count as you navigate spring course-selection mania.
We’ve talked before about the unique challenges that LLMs face: new country, new culture, new legal language (and for many, new language entirely). Another challenge is a very short window of opportunity. Foreign-trained lawyers seeking an LLM degree have only one year to soak up as much knowledge of US law and legal practice as they can. The best place to look for specific advice about your law school’s offerings is your school’s academic advising team—usually housed in the Registrar’s Office or Office of Graduate Programs, depending on the size of your school’s LLM population. Talking to LLM alums from your law school helps too, although I’ll remind you of the age-old adage: You can’t believe everything you hear. Before talking with others, you’ll want to frame your thinking and prepare yourself to ask the right questions.
1. Align Course Selection with Career Goals
Most LLM students from outside the US arrive here with practice experience in their home countries. Savvy LLM students leverage this degree to increase their career opportunities with international employers or to increase their stature when they return to their prior employer. As we’ve chronicled elsewhere, there are many excellent reasons to pursue an LLM; whatever your motivation is, selecting courses that align with your goals will give you data points to discuss when you graduate. For example, if your background is in international banking, registering for the Law and Literature class and the E-discovery seminar with the top-ranked professors on ratemyprofessor.com are not the best choices.
If part of your career plan is to sit for a US bar exam, that should inform your course selection as well. You couldn’t (and shouldn’t) spend all of your credits taking every bar-tested subject. We recommend a mix of courses to maximize your law school experience (see number 2 below). And the same is true even from a bar-exam readiness perspective, as we’ve said before. But enrolling in one or two bar-tested courses would give you a head start on learning some black-letter law and understanding the underlying philosophy (assuming your school permits you to enroll). How much of a head start really depends on who’s teaching the course, but that’s where talking to former LLMs comes in handy.
2. Mix It Up
Don’t just take large lecture-style classes. Sure—if you’re a corporate lawyer in your home country, you should take Corporations. But be sure to sprinkle in some experiential learning courses and classes with smaller enrollment caps.
Smaller classes benefit you in two ways:
(i) Inevitably, these courses provide a deeper dive into a particular area of law; and
(ii) Structurally, they give you a chance to practice your written and oral communication skills more frequently and in a less intimidating setting.
Find out if your law school permits LLM students to enroll in its clinical offerings. Many do. Also, ask your advisor about upper-level practice simulation courses. While Appellate Advocacy or Civil Pretrial won’t fit your needs (assuming you are not drafting and submitting briefs to US courts), a contract-drafting or commercial real estate drafting course might.
3. Consider Cross-Disciplinary Offerings
Law touches and concerns all aspects of everyday life. Business, Sociology, Psychology, Healthcare, Medicine—these subjects, just to name a few, greatly influence legal discourse in law school and vice versa. If your law school permits it, enroll in a course offered in a different department in your university. Doing so likely will give you a different perspective and fresh ideas on how to address some of the tough issues we face as a global community.
4. Go Pro Bono
There is an old Chinese proverb that sums up this point well: “If you always give, you will always have.” Helping others through pro bono work feels good, but it also provides you with tangible educational benefits: you will build relationships that could open doors in the future; you will sharpen your understanding of how theory and practice work together; and you will hone your English communications skills in a real-world setting. Your law school likely has a center coordinating the pro bono workflow, and you should ask your academic advisor if you can obtain a credit or two if you lend a hand. Most law schools require students to complete pro bono hours or strongly encourage it. And when you seek out opportunities, consider what’s meaningful to you (both personally and career-wise—see tip 1 above).
5. Skip Journal Work
This last one might be surprising to some, but I’ll say it anyway. Law school student-edited journals provide excellent experience for JD students to practice their bluebooking and editing skills. And journal membership is especially important to those in the JD constituency who wish to clerk for a judge after graduation. But for LLM students with so little time and so few credits left to spare, journal work doesn’t give you the most return on your credit investment. While you will have the chance to work on a longer piece of academic writing if you join a journal or law review, your time is better spent taking a writing class geared towards drafting documents in your practice area (see number 2 above).
And if I may offer a final word of advice: Use your remaining time to soak up as many intellectual and social experiences you can. Many of my former LLM students report that this was the best year of their professional lives.
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