What Do International Students Pursuing a Master of Laws (LL.M. Degree) in the U.S. Need to Know About Their LL.M. Studies and Work as an Attorney in the U.S.?



This blog answers the many questions that international students, who are pursuing their Master of Laws (LL.M. or LLM) in the United States (U.S.), have about applying for and pursuing a LLM degree program, taking a state’s Bar exam, and practicing law in the U.S.  The author here recommends that students take a legal writing course preferably before they start their LL.M. studies, and certainly before they take a Bar exam or begin practicing in the U.S. There are essentially two pots of students who obtain a Master’s degree in law in the U.S., who are: 1) lawyers from the U.S. seeking specialization (like Criminal Law or Tax) and 2) international students, those coming from all over the world—China, India, Mexico, the U.K., etc.  These international students have a law degree from their home country, and seek a master’s degree in law from a law school within the U.S.[1]  This population is significant: as of 2017, international law graduates comprise as many as three quarters of the applicants to U.S. LLM programs.[2]  In many countries, the law degree is a first degree, and is often the LL.B.[3]  This blog concerns the latter group—international students seeking their LL.M.  We refer to these students as LLM or LL.M. students.  (There are many other terms for these students, too—international law students, international LL.M. students, foreign-educated law students).[4]  This blog explores:

  • Why Do International Students Seek an LLM from an American Law School?
  • Which Law Schools Offer an LL.M. and Can It Be Online?
  • What are the Costs of Tuition for an LLM Degree Program in the U.S., and is There Financial Aid Available to International LLM Students?
  • Which Skillsets do Prospective LL.M. Degree Students Need to Prepare for Their LLM Degree Program?
  • Is Taking a Legal Writing Course the Easiest and Most Accessible Option to Obtain Legal Writing, Legal Analysis, and American Grammatical Skills? 
  • How Challenging is the International Student’s Path to Stay in the U.S. After the LL.M.?
  • What Are the Benefits to LL.M. Graduates in Staying in the U.S. After Graduation?
  • Can LL.M. Graduates Take the Bar Exam in the U.S., and How Should They Prepare for it?


Why Do International Students Seek an LLM from an American Law School?

There are a variety of reasons that international students seek to obtain an LL.M. degree from a U.S. law school, which include: having an international schooling experience, practicing law in the U.S., or, having the foundation and degree from an American institution to return with the skillset and/or degree to the student’s practice in the student’s home country. Superstars from other countries have entered LLM degree programs in the U.S.  For instance, the general counsel of Haiti’s Central Band, the dean of the Mozambique law school, senior advisers to the Guatemalan Truth Commission as well as to the New Zealand Ministry of Maori Affairs entered one Columbia University Law School LLM program in 2005.[5] 

U.S. graduate law degree programs can assist the transnational lawyer’s career.[6]  The graduate program can provide important links to professional networks of transnational lawyers.[7]  Specifically, they offer graduates credibility, particularly experience in legal and business English that will allow them to connect with elite national and international law firms.[8]  The LLM degree will help graduates raise their status in their home country’s legal profession.[9]  And, these graduates will have the legal terminology crucial for their participation in the international market for legal services.[10]

Professor Carole Silver, a law professor who has written frequently about international LL.M. students, has noted that we live in a world of high legal fees and cutting-edge legal problems, and “national” may not be enough.[11]  Legal issues, clients, regulations, and yes, money, often have a “cross border element,” making lawyers with exposure to another jurisdiction’s approach to lawyering attractive as a representative and agent.[12] 

Which Law Schools Offer an LL.M. and Can It Be Online?

One source has indicated that 178 law schools offer LLM programs in the U.S. [13]  (See this last endnote for the actual schools.)  The one common feature in all U.S. LL.M. programs is the requirement of one academic year in residence at a law school.[14]  An international LL.M. student generally needs to have earned a first degree in law outside of the U.S. and enrolls in a U.S. law school degree program, which is distinct from the three-year J.D. program.[15]  This one-year academic requirement, though, translates to “vastly different credit requirements at different law schools, with graduation requirements ranging from as few as sixteen credit hours in one program to as many as thirty or more credit hours in several programs.”[16] 

Some law schools are offering their Master of Laws’ programs completely online or as a hybrid.  One source indicated that there were 188 online LLM programs in the U.S. as of February 2022.[17]  For instance, Northeastern University School of Law offers three tracks online, which are: International Property and Technology, International Business, and Bar Examination preparation (for the California Bar).[18]  And, American University offers an LL.M. online degree in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.[19]

What are the Costs of Tuition for an LLM Degree Program in the U.S., and is There Financial Aid Available to International LLM Students?

Costs for an LL.M degree program in the U.S. vary greatly.  Factors such as whether the program is one year or two or is online affect the price of the degree.[20]  Generally, tuition and fees for an LLM degree program can range anywhere from $12,000 to $70,00.[21] 

There is financial aid available for international students to fund their LL.M. degree program in the U.S.[22]  International students can seek grants, scholarships, loans, and even part-time work while in the U.S.[23]

Which Skillsets do Prospective LL.M. Degree Students Need to Prepare for Their LLM Degree Program?

Prospective LL.M. students should develop their English writing and analytical skills before they start their LL.M. Program.  Although accredited law schools admit international students, they do so “[any] without real assessment of the students’ needs and the best way to meet those needs.”[24]  English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students (those who study English as a second language, raised outside of the U.S.) do not have the English language resources that are available to students in the U.S. (or even from other English-speaking countries).[25]  For students for whom English is not their first language, this technical difficulty of being “international” extends to the classroom.[26]  These students are disadvantaged because they will be reading and writing about a common law system in English, which is a second language to them.[27]  The classroom may even be a hostile space for many of these students.[28]  One Chinese student remarked that he/she/they struggled with the language problem, the cultural issue of speaking in class, and understanding the American legal system.[29]  Both students entering the traditional law school (from within the U.S.) and those entering the LL.M. programs from other countries may be lacking the deductive and analytical processes necessary to succeed in law.[30] 

Is Taking a Legal Writing Course the Easiest and Most Accessible Option to Obtain Legal Writing, Legal Analysis, and American Grammatical Skills?  

LL.M. students should take a legal writing course before they start (or during) their LL.M. programs.  Most LLM degree programs do not offer students extensive legal writing experience in legal memoranda, demand and opinion letter, motion, and appellate brief writing.  International LLM students struggle with “the differences in the formal structure of written legal analysis and argument in U.S. legal writing, which is situated within a reader-centered writing culture.”[31]  Indeed, a Harvard professor remarked in 1950: “All of our instruction is in English, and our experience is that a foreign student cannot learn English while studying law—or perhaps I should say, cannot study law while learning English. . .  If a student has an excellent background in English, his English improves rapidly.”[32]  Even though the Test of English of a Foreign Language (TOEFL) measures general English proficiency, it does not measure U.S. legal English.[33]  International students’ pre-LLM high test scores in English do not necessarily predict a strong performance in law school.[34]  In fact, international students struggle with differences in the formal structure of written legal analysis and arguments U.S. legal writing, which is based upon a reader-centered writing culture.[35]  In other words, legal writing is “reader-centered”—the brief writing seeks to educate and persuade the court.[36]  The legal writer communicates all steps of the analytical process to educate the reader.[37]  One commentator noted that law schools should do more for international students in order to enrich their classroom experiences.[38]  According to one LLM program director, to obtain a job after graduation, grades matter, as well as the international student’s language ability.[39]

The author of this blog’s course, Legal Writing Launch (LWL), is a great choice and is available at https://legalwritinglaunch.com.  LWL introduces students to the critical thinking that law students and lawyers perform and the documents that students and lawyers draft.  The course also provides a strong foundation in American grammar.  All of which are all key to LLM student success in their LL.M. degree program.  LWL provides instruction via video, lecture notes, and samples upon samples of these kinds of legal memoranda, legal correspondence, motions, and appellate briefs, which are critical to the law practice. 

Equally important, LWL provides students with the power-packed paragraph™[40] structure—a construction central to the examination of an issue, using IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion).  For students who have limited time, they can simply watch the videos and review the sample pleadings (documents that lawyers file with the court in litigation).  For those students with more time to invest in themselves, they can undertake assignments that the author of this blog—an experienced lawyer and law professor—will personally edit, providing individualized feedback. 

As mentioned above, international LL.M. students should take a legal writing course before reaching at least one of their major career steps in the U.S.—their LL.M. studies, a State’s Bar exam, or practice in the U.S.

How Challenging is the International Student’s Path to Stay in the U.S. After the LL.M.?

There are many barriers for an international student, who has completed the LLM in the U.S., to stay and work in the U.S. after completing the LLM Program.  Students from the U.S. with the traditional three-year J.D., who are not from another country, have an advantage.[41]  Data has suggested that the path is arduous particularly for those students who do not come from English-speaking common law (ESCL) countries.[42]  This is because there is a resemblance in terms of the legal culture and language with the student’s home country and the U.S.[43]  Again, this is why taking a legal writing course before practicing would be particularly helpful to an LL.M. graduate.

Many international LLMs describe their ideal job as one practicing in the U.S. office of a U.S.-based global firm primarily based upon their home country legal expertise.[44]  But, the market, in the U.S., for lawyers is “primarily a market for U.S. lawyers.”[45]  Most of the work performed in the U.S. offices for law firms—even global firms—is grounded in U.S. law, performed in English, and may be difficult for someone whose first language is not English and has only completed one year of coursework in a U.S. law school.[46]  Firms may hire LLMs, in the U.S., to develop an association with the LLM graduate’s firm in the home country or to have a business relationship with the corporation that the graduate maintains.[47]  This does not mean that only those LLM graduates who are well-connected at home will find positions in the U.S., but it sure helps.[48] 

LLMs in the U.S are most likely to work for an internationally-related law firm; for LLMs, who work outside of the U.S., their most common work-setting is in national firms with no international footprint.[49]  For LLMs who return to work outside of the U.S., “[t]he LL.M. is a badge. The bar is a badge.  People judge you by how many badges you’ve got.”  Professor Silver has said that the U.S. market for lawyers may be left behind if it fails to broaden its embrace to include shifting economic and political power beyond the borders of the ESCL world.[50] 

Other barriers include immigration issues.  While nearly all international LL.M.s qualify for a year of practical training after they complete their LL.M. Degree, staying beyond this may be challenging.[51]  Graduates may be tied to their current employers while trying to obtain a green card.[52]  It may be easier for J.D. graduates to obtain an H-1B visa, which allows for longer-term residency than the one-year post-LLM Degree, because it is more likely that a J.D. graduate will find legal work after graduation.[53]

What Are the Benefits to LLM Graduates in Staying in the U.S. After Graduation?

Many LL.M. graduates would like to live and work in the U.S. after graduating from an LL.M. degree program.  Of the graduate program directors surveyed, in 2006, nearly half estimated that seventy-five to eighty percent of their students wished to stay in the U.S. in order to work for at least some period after graduation.[54] 

The motivation can be economic: one graduate said, “[w]e can’t forget that the salaries here are just astronomical compared to anywhere else in the world for first-year lawyers.”[55]  Some have professional motivations—a desire to work in areas in which U.S. lawyers are more advanced than lawyers in their home countries and gain experience that would be highly valued at home.[56]  The motive can be personal—to stay with a partner that the student met during his/her/their year in school in the U.S., or to stay with the partner who accompanied the student to the U.S. and whose career requires a longer stay.[57] 

The motivation may be political—avoiding persecution at home and enjoying personal liberties in the U.S.[58]  One graduate explained that the powers that be in his home country did not accept his sexual orientation.[59]  Another described his desire to stay as motivated by an exclusion from professional opportunities at home because of his religion.[60]   

In some ways, these motivations are no different from those international students, who do not pursue LL.M. Degrees.  “The desire to engage in cutting-edge legal practice in the United States, working with elite firms while earning substantial salaries, might be analogous to working at Apple or Google for international graduates in the science or engineering fields.[61]

Can LL.M. Graduates Take the Bar Exam in the U.S., and How Should They Prepare for the Bar Exam?

Most states do not allow students with an LL.M. degree from a U.S. law school to sit for the Bar exam.[62]  As of 2016, New York, California, Georgia, Washington, and Wisconsin allowed students completing LLMs from a U.S. law school to sit for a Bar exam.[63]  It is worth noting that both California and New York allow international LL.M. graduates to sit for their Bar exams.  These populous states provide excellent practice opportunities for LL.M. graduates.    


Although it may be challenging, LL.M. students can study in the U.S., take a state’s Bar exam, and practice in the U.S.  Because LLM students wish to excel in their LLM studies, a state’s Bar exam, or in practice in the U.S., these students should take a legal writing course before any of these junctures.

[1] Carole Silver, States Side Story: Career Paths of International LL.M. Students, or “I Like to Be in America” [States Side Story], Articles by Maurer Faculty 2383, 2385 (2012), https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/783.

[2] Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen & Carole Silver, A New Minority? International JD Students in US Law Schools (2019) [A New Minority?], Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2019-12, 13 https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3353506, citing ABA Law School Data. 2017. JF and Non-JD Enrollment Data, Fall 2017, https://www.abarequireddiscloures.org (accessed May 14, 2018).  The American Bar Association (ABA) has estimated that roughly half of all individuals enrolled in LL.M. programs are graduates of international (also known as foreign) law schools.  Id.

See also, Julie M. Spanbauer, Lost in Translation in the Law School Classroom: Assessing Required Coursework in LL.M. Program for International Students” (2007) [Lost in Translation], International Journal of Legal Information: Vol. 35: Iss. 33, Article 5, 396, 404 & note 31, citing W. Burlette Carter, Reconstructing Langdell, 32 Ga. L Rev. 1, 237 (1997), https://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/ijli/vol35/iss3/5.  About three-quarters of applicants to U.S. LLM programs are international law graduates.  About half of the law schools’ student body are in LLM programs.  In 2007, 114 of the 195 American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools in the U.S. admitted international students with the vast majority admitted to the LL.M. Program.  See id. 398 & note 8, https://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/ijli/vol35/iss3/5

[3] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 408, note 51, citing http://www.abanet.org/legaled/postjdprograms/postjd.html (“Programs for Foreign Lawyers”).  Very few U.S. law schools admit any students who do not hold an undergraduate degree.  Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 396, 405 & note 37, citing Gabriel, Henry D., Graduate Legal Education: An Appraisal, 30 S. Tx. L. Rev., 129, 133-35 (1988).

[4]  Silver, States Side Story, 2384, note 1, & Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 397 & note 1.  

[5] Silver, States Side Story 2389, note 23, citing Goldhaber, Michael D., They Rule the World: One-Year LL.M. Programs at U.S Law Schools Are on the Rise Again, Attracting Fledgling Power Brokers from Around the World, Am. Law., Sept. 2005.

[6] Silver, Internationalizing U.S. Legal Education, 144.

[7]  Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Silver, States Side Story, 2387. 

[12] Id.

[13]  LL.M. in the United States (USA), LLM GUIDE, Master of Laws Programs Worldwide (accessed February 20, 2022), https://llm-guide.com/schools/usa (listing of the 178 law schools offering LL.M. degree programs to international students) & Silver, Internationalizing U.S. Legal Education: A Report on the Education of Transnational Lawyers (2006) Cordozo J. Of Int’l  & Comp. Law, Vol. 14:143, 147 (Articles by Maurer Faculty) [Internationalizing U.S. Legal Education], https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/321, citing a 1998 presentation by J. Richard Hurt, then-Deputy consultant on Legal Education for the ABA, as part of a presentation to the Conference on Post-J.D. Education for Foreign Lawyers held at Duke University School of Law (Spring 1999). 

The law schools listed as of 2006 were:

Alabama, U. of, Albany Law School, American University, Arizona, U. of, Arkansas, U. of, Baltimore, U. of, Boston Ul, Brigham Young U., California Western, California-Berkeley, California-Davis, California-Hastings, California—Los Angeles [UCLA], Capital U., Cardozo School of Law, Case Western Reserve U., Chicago, U. of, Chicago-Kent, Cleveland State, Columbia U., Connecticut, U. of, Cornell U., Denver, U. of, DePaul University, Duke U., Emory U., Florida State U., Florida, U. of, Fordham  U., Franklin Pierce Law Center, George Mason U., George Washington, Georgetown, Georgia, U. of, Golden Gate U., Hamline U., Harvard U., Hawaii, U. of, Hofstra U., Houston U. of, Howard U., Illinois, U of, Indiana U. (Bloomington), Indiana U. (Indianapolis), Iowa, U. of, John Marshall School of Law, Lewis and Clark College, Louisiana State U., Loyola U. (Chicago), Loyola Marymount University, Miami, U. of, Michigan State U., Detroit, Michigan, U. of, Minnesota, U. of, Missouri, U. of (Columbia), Missouri, U. of (Kansas City), New England School of Law, New York U., Northwestern U., Notre Dame, U. of, Pace U., Pacific, U. of (McGeorge), Pennsylvania State U., Pennsylvania, U. of, Pepperdine U., Pittsburgh, U. of, Saint Louis U., San Diego, U. of, San Francisco, U. of, Santa Clara U., Seattle U., Southern California, U. of, Southern Methodist U., St. John’s U., St. Mary’s U., St. Thomas U., Stanford U., Stetson, U., Suffolk U. SUNY Buffalo, Temple U., Texas, U. of, Touro College, Tulane U., Tulsa, U. of, Utah, U. of, Valparaiso U., Vanderbilt U., Vermont Law School, Villanova U., Virginia, U. of, Wake Forest U., Washington and Lee U., Washington U. (St. Louis), Washington U. of, Wayne State U., Whittier Law School, Widener U., Willamette U., William and Mary College, Wisconsin, U. of, Yale U.

[14] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 409-10 & note 58, citing Carole Silver, The Case of the Foreign Lawyer: Internationalizing the U.S. Legal Profession (2002) [The Case of the Foreign Lawyer], 25 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1039. 

[15] See Silver, States Side Story, 2384, & Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 2384. 

[16] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 410 & note 59.

[17] 188 LLM Programs in USA, Keystone Lawstudies (accessed on February 20, 2022), https://www.lawstudies.com/LLM/USA/Online/.

[18] An LLM Degree with Global Reach: Learn How Northeastern Law’s Online Master of Laws Program Can Benefit Your Career (accessed on February 20, 2022), https://llmonline.northeastern.edu/online-llm/.

[19] American University Washington DC (accessed on February 20, 2022) https://www.distancelearningportal.com/universities/11225/american-university-washington-dc.html.

[20] See Tuition Fees of a US LLM, LLMStudy.Com, No. 1 Site for LLM Programs and Master of Laws Programs Worldwide (accessed February 20, 2022), https://www.llmstudy.com/editorial/country_of_study/master_of_laws_in_usa/fees-and-funding/us-llm-tuition-fees//.

[21] Id.

[22] Funding Your LLM, LLM Guide, Master of Laws Programs Worldwide (accessed February 20, 2022), https://llm-guide.com/llm-faq/funding-your-llm.

[23] Id. See LLM Scholarship Guide Directory, https://llm-guide.com/scholarships.

[24] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 399-400 & note 10. 

[25] Id., 398-400 & note 9, citing Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs 203 (2 ed. Section of Legal Educ. & Admission to the bar 2006).

[26] Ballakrishnen & Silver, A New Minority, 28.

[27] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 402 & note 23, citing Ramsfield, Jill J., Is “Logic” Culturally Based? A Contrastive International Approach to the U.S. Law Classroom, 47 J. Legal Educ. 157, 186 (1997).

[28] Ballakrishnen & & Silver, A New Minority?, 28-29.

[29] Id. at 13.  

[30] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 402 & note 24, citing Lisa, Writing in the Legal Academy: A Dangerous Supplement? 40 Arix. O. Rev. 105, 114 (1998). 

[31] Id. at 400.

[32] Id. at 410 & note 61, citing Griswold, Erwin N., Graduate Study in Law, 28 Can. B. Rev. 172, 176-77 (1950).

[33] Id. at 414, note 76, citing Deeringer, Paul A., No Shirt, No Shoes, No English  . . .  No Dice? How Should We Test English Proficiency for Foreign-Trained Attorneys?, 18 Geo. J. Legal Ethics, 691, 712 (2005). 

[34] Id. at 414-15, & note 58, citing Ramsfield, Jill. J., “Is “Logic’ Culturally Based? A Contrastive International Approach to the U.S. Law Classroom,” [Is Logic Culturally Biased?] 47 J. Legal Edu. 157, 185-189 (1997).

[35] Id. at 400, & note 14, citing, Crist, Maria Perez, The AE-Brief: Legal Writing for an Online World [The AE-Brief], 33 N.M.L. Rev. 49, 67-68 (2003) & Ramsfield, Is Logic’ Culturally Based?, 163.

[36] Id. at 400, & note 14, citing, Crist, The AE-Brief, 67-68.

[37] Id. at 400, & note 14, citing, Ramsfield, Is Logic’ Culturally Based?, 163.

[38] Id. at 400. 

[39] Silver, Internationalizing U.S. Legal Education, 171.

[40] The power-packed paragraph is a trademark of Legal Writing Launch, LLC. 

[41] Silver, States Side Story, 2385. 

[42] Id. at 2387. 

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at 2425. 

[45] Id. 

[46] Id. 

[47] Id. at 2426. 

[48] Id.

[49] Id. at 2427. 

[50] Id. at2385. 

[51] Id. at 2428. 

[52] Id. 

[53] Id. at 2429. 

[54] Silver, Internationalizing U.S. Legal Education, 170.

[55] Silver, States Side Story, 2429 & note 162. 

[56] Id. 

[57] Id. at 2429. 

[58] Id. 

[59] Id., 2431. 

[60] Id.

[61] Id. at2420. 

[62] Spanbauer, Lost in Translation, 409 & note 57, citing Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, National Conference of Bar Examiners & ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (2007).

[63]Using the LL.M. to Take the American Bar Exam,https://llm-guide.com/articles/using-the-llm-to-take-the-american-bar-exam.

More to explore

November sale

25% Off

Get 25% off with coupon code 25SALE for a limited time!

Enter coupon code at checkout:


Or click the button below to add it automatically to the checkout.