Advice for LL.M. Students as They Pave Their Legal Career Paths
Many LL.M. students come to the U.S. with dreams of finding a job with a U.S. law firm and planting roots. But the LL.M. job search is significantly different from that of J.D. students, and sometimes candidates must get creative in how they plot their careers, especially when it comes to networking. Vault sat down with Desiree Jaeger-Fine (LL.M.)—author of multiple publications on career development and Director of International Programs at Brooklyn Law School—to discuss job search advice for LL.M. students and how they can set themselves apart.
What avenues can LL.M. students use to search for law firm jobs?
There is no one go-to place for LL.M. students to find jobs. Simplicity is a job board that law schools typically offer their law students, but it is primarily geared toward J.D.s. There is no job board or search engine yet that is specifically for foreign-trained attorneys who would like to work in the United States. That makes the job search very difficult and different from the traditional job-search approach they are used to in their home countries.
The primary means of finding a position in the U.S. is through relations. Networking is the most important part. Because there is no one place where jobs are posted, jobs are most of the time filled by word of mouth. Those LL.M.s that are most connected in the legal industry are the ones most likely to find a job. The job search is so difficult because there is no one-two-three-step process.
What advice do you have for networking?
I share a lot of useful advice in my book: The Short and Happy Guide to Networking with West Academics. Many LL.M. students are confused when they hear the word “networking,” and I was confused too when I came to the U.S. as a foreign-trained lawyer. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about when they discussed networking.
LL.M. students confuse the why and the how. You have to network to find opportunities. That’s the answer to “Why?” When they ask “How?” it is building meaningful relationships in the industry and beyond. What LL.M.s do is they confuse the two—they try to build relationships by finding people who can find jobs for them. Even though it is necessary for a successful job search, it should be forgotten. [Instead, they should] look around them and find people with similar interests or who have followed a similar path as they have. For example, if you are interested in IP, look for an IP association so you can find people who have a commonality with you. When they surround themselves with people who share common interests, they shouldn’t do it just to see what they can get from them; it should be for building meaningful relationships.
The issue is that an LL.M.’s timeline conflicts with the process of building relationships, which takes time. That is a problem we cannot eliminate. It’s going to be there. Those students who are successful understand the need to be within the industry through meaningful relationships from the moment they step into this country. They are relentless in building those relationships through their entire LL.M. and beyond. Students who focus on grades only in lieu of networking fall behind in terms of job opportunities.
How realistic is it for LL.M. students to find jobs within the U.S.?
It very much depends on what kind of student you are and by student, I mean student of life. A foreign attorney who understands the market, understands the constituents, and understands the game—plus knows how to play it—is very likely to find a job. Everyone else who tries to change the game or not accept it is very unlikely to find a job. When I came from Germany to the U.S., in the beginning, I was set in my ways—I was used to doing things a certain way in Germany, and I tried to do it here, and it didn’t work. I was banging my head against the wall. At some point, I realized, They do it differently here, and at some point, I need to adapt. I live in a different environment, and I have to understand how the game is played and play by those rules, and that will make all the difference.
Where should LL.M. students look outside of large law firms?
Many students look at big firms because they are under the mistaken impression that a big firm in the U.S. is more likely to sponsor a visa than a smaller firm. It just seems that way because a bigger firm has more attorneys and, therefore, more attorneys from foreign countries and, therefore, more visas. It is not more likely. … When it comes to a big law firm here in the U.S., there are many opportunities but also a heck of a lot of competition. You have to work really hard to find a job in BigLaw, and you may be better off and have more chances finding opportunities in a smaller firm or your home country. Sometimes, it’s better to go back to your home country and use that experience [and] then return to the U.S. People think once they leave the country, [their] American dream is over, but that’s not true—it’s just delayed a little bit, and you can use [the] experience you gain in your home country after in the U.S.
What kinds of work experiences can LL.M.s pursue?
The typical that come to mind are externships and internships during the LL.M. They have the visa that allows them to do an externship that while studying. After they graduate, [they should] make good use of the OPT, which is optional practical training that allows them to be in the U.S. for a couple of months and gain some work experience. As an employer, it is easier to swallow because they don’t need to sponsor a visa.
The other option that very few know about are foreign associate positions. A foreign associate position is a position in a U.S. law firm for a set period of time, with a goal that the foreign associate gains experience in the U.S. but returns home eventually. The returning home part is important because the law firm would like to forge relationships with another country. Because they are limited in time and do not require H1B sponsorship, these positions are very interesting for many law firms. Many don’t post the opportunities on their websites. Often times, the student approaches the law firm. One way to find out about these foreign associate positions is to use LinkedIn and the advanced search feature, and put “foreign associate” or “foreign law clerk” or “foreign counsel” in quotations. Look at people who are currently working as foreign associates or have in the past, contact them, ask how they got there, and then contact the firm.
How can LL.M. students maximize Career Services at their law schools?
Listen to the Career Services office. LL.M. students have to understand what the Career Services function is. The Career Services function is not to bring them a job or jobs from which they can choose. The Career Services office is there to assist them and guide them through the process. The best thing an LL.M. student can do is to listen to the career counselor. When I was a consultant, I was amazed to see how desperately [career counselors] tried to help the LL.M. students, and the LL.M. students never saw how the law school tried to help them. The market is what it is—there is nothing the law school can do about that. Rather than saying “Career services only want to help the J.D.s,” which is not the truth, sincerely listen to what they have to say. It can change your career.
Desiree Jaeger-Fine (LL.M.) is the Director of International Programs at Brooklyn Law School. Previously, Desiree was principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, a consultancy for international attorneys who seek to work in the United States. She is a member of the New York bar and has authored more than 120 articles and three books about professional development and the U.S. Master of Laws degree. Her recent book, A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired, was published by West Academic. Desiree holds law degrees from both the University of Bonn (Germany) and Fordham Law School in New York from which she graduated cum laude with a Master’s degree in Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law.