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(Do you need an LL.M. or J.D.?)

By Marian Dent, J.D.

There is no undergraduate law degree in the United States; thus, students cannot expect to study law without first completing an undergraduate degree (bachelors or above). If you have a bachelor's or diploma in law obtained here in Russia, however, there are two main options open to you for continuing your legal education in the U.S. These are obtaining a three year JD (juris doctor) or a one year LL.M. (master of laws).


The Juris Doctor degree is simple to understand. It is the degree that American students must have to practice law in the United States. It requires three-four years of legal study, starting with the very basics of the legal system, through rather advanced material. It is fundamentally a degree for generalists in the law-there is no such thing as taking a specialized JD in a particular area of law. Instead, American law schools believe that a wide range of legal courses is the best preparation for the broad range of legal problems an American lawyer may encounter in his career.

After taking a JD, an American student must pass the "bar exam" in his or her state, to be allowed to practice law. The bar exam also tests on a broad range of topics. Because of its broad scope, the JD is primarily the degree you should think about if you plan to move to the United States permanently and to get a job with a law firm in the United States.

The LL.M. degree is more complicated to understand because it serves two functions: (1) as an additional, higher degree for American students who have earned an JD and want to specialize, and (2) an entry level degree in American law for lawyers who earned their law degrees in a country other than the United States. Thus, some LL.M. degrees--those designed for advanced American students--are very specific. For example, an American student, after completing a JD, might take an LL.M. in the specialized, complicated areas of taxation or environmental law. While some foreign students take these LL.M. degrees, most do not.

The second type of LL.M. degree is less specialized, and thus is designed for foreign students. About one-third of the law schools approved by the American Bar Association offer these LL.M. programs. Foreign students may take an LL.M. in international law, comparative law, or in American law generally. (Some American students enroll in international law or comparative law LL.M.s, but most of these LL.M. students are foreign.) Often, these LL.M. programs are very flexible, allowing a student to take practically any courses within the law school, under the guidance of a faculty advisor who suggests useful courses. The student often must take one or two introductory courses in American law or legal methods, but law schools assume that general legal theory was already learned in the student's home country. Thus, after some short introduction, an LL.M. student picks other courses of interest, and attends the courses along with the American J.D. students.

The LL.M. designed for international students is considered less than a JD by most American law firms. Because of the advanced courses and the stress on international issues, the LL.M. is the best degree for those wanting to work with an American or international law firm in Russia or in other parts of the world. However, for obvious reasons, American firms who practice solely American domestic law would generally prefer to employ a student with a three year JD. Thus, this is not the degree for someone planning to emigrate permanently to the U.S.

An additional thing to think about in deciding between an LL.M and a JD, is whether you want to take the bar exam. The bar exam is required for a license to practice law in the United States. If you get a JD from an American Bar Association accredited law school, you can take the bar examination in any U.S. state. LL.M. holders, however, are not permitted to take the bar in every state. About one quarter of the states allow a student with an LL.M. to take the bar and practice law in the United States. New York is one of the states that allows LL.M. graduates to take the bar exam, and thus, many Russian students who obtain an LL.M. then take the New York bar. If they succeed on the New York bar and later want to transfer their New York bar license to other states, they can do so provided they meet the particular state's conditions (which may vary).

Another factor in deciding which degree to take, is the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). In the year before starting a JD degree, students must take the LSAT. No knowledge of law is needed to do well on this exam; it is a standardized test of academic ability in reading comprehension and analytical and logical reasoning. THIS TEST IS NOT REQUIRED FOR ENTERING AN LL.M. PROGRAM, as American law schools assume that a student who has already obtained a law degree or is practicing law in his home country must already have the skills that the LSAT seeks to test.


As mentioned above, American legal education is fundamentally an education for generalists. It emphasizes the acquisition of broad understanding of the functioning of the legal system, and development of analytical abilities, more than knowledge of specific details. Logical skills are constantly emphasized and developed, often though a process called the "Socratic method" where students are assigned to read cases at home, and in class are questioned about the logic in the cases. In one sense, this method can be extremely frustrating for Russian law students, who are used to being told the law in lectures rather than being asked to tell the professor the law. At the end of a Socratic law school class, students sometime feel that they don't know the details of the law at all. But the system is designed to develop the critical thinking and argumentation skills that practicing lawyers need.

American legal education is also strongly practical. Law schools provide students with opportunities for the application of formal knowledge to specific professional tasks, such as intensive instruction in legal research and writing during the first year, clinical education, and courses or seminars focusing on concrete problems of counseling, drafting, negotiating and litigating.

American legal education also emphasizes extra-curricular (outside of class) practice. Almost all law schools offer students the opportunity to work on law reviews that are student run and edited. Work on law reviews, if the quality is good, is well respected by potential employers, and thus makes a valuable listing on students' resumes. Most schools also have various moot court programs that use simulated cases for training in brief writing and advocacy. Students often join student advocacy teams that compete for awards against other law schools.

Finally, American legal education provides numerous research opportunities. Law schools compete for prestige by the breadth of their library and their computer resources. Thus, the amount of material students can find for research generally far exceeds comparable Russian law schools.

Be aware that European law schools, even those in the common law countries such as England, also have great opportunities for research. However, the Socratic method is not as widely used, and the educational system is much more theoretical and much more similar to what you are accustomed to in Russia.


(We focus only on LL.M. programs here because voluminous material is available on various web sites about entering JD programs.)

We already mentioned that the LSAT is NOT generally required for students entering an LL.M. program. In general, you must have completed a law degree in your home country and have the right to practice law there. As Russia has no national bar examination, this means that Russian students are qualified to enter LL.M programs as soon as they earn their Diplom. Note that most American law schools will not consider applicants who do not have a law degree at the college level, even though they may somehow have earned qualification to practice law in Russia. Also note that many American law schools will not find a law degree earned by correspondence to be an adequate background for an LL.M.

More prestigious American law schools may also have tougher requirements. For instance, most prestigious American law schools want to see LL.M. applicants with either Candidate degrees, graduate study, a few years of work experience in law, or perhaps a record of publishing professional articles about law. These schools offer places to LL.M. students that they think will eventually become high government officials, top legal scholars, or other leaders in the legal profession in Russia.

Most American law schools do not have much financial aid available to foreign students for post-graduate study. The exceptions are for the top students entering the most prestigious schools. For example, Yale has student loans available for foreign LL.M's and a loan forgiveness policy for those students who are going into the legal academic field. NYU (New York University) has a program to fund up to 20 outstanding foreign students in either the LL.M. or JSD (see below) programs. University of Chicago also has partial funding for foreign LL.M. students. Of course, scholarship opportunities awarded through special programs geared towards Russian students (i.e. the US Muskie Fellowships) might be available. Some of the better foreign law firms in Russia may also offer financial assistance to their employees who want to improve their qualifications with an LL.M.


When applying to a US law school, you may also find a number of other degrees listed, apart from the standard JD and LL.M.

Some law schools offer MCJ (Master of Civil Jurisprudence), MCL (Master of Comparative Law) or MLS (Master of Legal Studies). These are the equivalent of LL.M. programs, although they are not as universally recognized.

Some law schools also offer doctoral programs in law, which are generally intended to prepare graduates for academic careers. These programs include the Doctor of Juridicial Science (SJD), Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD),or Doctor of Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP). Frankly, the names of these various doctorates are as diverse as the law school professors who administer them. It is difficult for a foreign-educated lawyer to gain direct admission to a US doctoral law program. Most schools admit only those students who have already completed an LL.M. Remember also that, although these Doctoral programs are more prestigious, they are basically theoretical rather than practical. Unless the doctoral program is a standard JD, it is not a program designed to entitle you to practice law in the United States

© ANO Pericles, Moscow, 2000. ANO Pericles, American Business & Legal Education Project, 22, 1st Miusskaya Street, Room 310, Moscow, 125047 Russia, +7(495) 649-2273, You may freely print or photocopy this article for any non-commercial purposes provided you do not delete the name of the author and the name and contact information of Pericles American Business & Legal Education Project. If you use this article for your own web site, please link to our site rather than stealing it and reposting it on your own. For any other uses of this article, please contact us for permission. Your comments on this article are welcome.
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