INTERNATIONAL LL.M. PROGRAMS: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL, CHICAGO, IL, USA
I would like to express my gratitude to Justin Swinsick, University of Chicago Law School’s Director of Graduate Programs, for taking the time to answer my questions about obtaining an LL.M degree and important points to consider during LL.M. application process. Defne Kahveci
DK: Director Swinsick, as you may know, Turkey has a civil law legal system. To become a lawyer in Turkey, students must complete a four-year Bachelor of Law (LL.B.), and graduates must also complete a one-year apprenticeship with a law firm and court. A Master of Laws degree is not required to be admitted to the bar and enter practice but highly preferred by new generation lawyers who would like to specialize in their legal practice. Could you please share your thoughts on the value of an international LL.M.? Considering that Turkey has a civil law system, what are the benefits that an LL.M. in the States would provide to the Turkish law graduates?
JS: I think an LL.M. from a U.S. law school is beneficial to any law student, regardless of where they received their first degree in law, for a variety of reasons.
First, any attorney working with clients on international transactions will probably deal with U.S. law at some point in their career. U.S. law has a very wide reach, especially in transactional work. Further, international transactions and interaction between parties in an international environment trend towards a U.S. style in terms of analysis and reasoning. So, having an understanding of U.S. legal practice and how U.S. trained lawyers approach problems and problem solving, will be incredibly useful and can easily distinguish someone in the market no matter in which country they practice.
Second, an LL.M. in the U.S. is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen legal communication skills. Obviously, working, studying, writing and speaking English on a daily basis is incredibly valuable, but doing so in the U.S. and learning the language of U.S. lawyers is especially useful. Many legal terms used around the globe were developed and promulgated in the U.S. So, understanding what this “legalese” means, and how to properly apply it is incredibly valuable.
Third, the opportunity to develop your professional network and opportunities is especially unique at a U.S. law school. U.S. law schools, like the University of Chicago, attract the best faculty, students and professionals from around the globe. This means that you have the chance to expand your network on a global scale in a way that would be otherwise impossible studying anywhere else in the world.
Finally, I can’t recommend enough the intangible personal and professional benefits that come from studying an LL.M. in the U.S. Having the chance to completely take yourself out of your legal system and your cultural comfort zone and to force yourself to compare and contrast your system with that of the U.S. will make you a better lawyer no matter where you work.
DK: What are the benefits that are specific to the LL.M. at University of Chicago Law School?
JS: First is UChicago Law’s interdisciplinary approach. Law does not exist in a vacuum and our faculty provide the context necessary to understand how law affects the behavior of society. This is done through the lenses of the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences and our faculty includes historians, economists, philosophers and political scientists. UChicago Law is also known as the birthplace of the discipline of law and economics, and this certainly influences how many of our faculty approach their research and teaching.
Second, UChicago Law is a place where ideas matter, where ideas are worth discussing and learning is important simply for learning’s sake. This allows our students and faculty to engage in deep thought and theoretical exploration with a rigor and openness for freedom of thought and speech unparalleled at any other institution.
Third, the relationship developed between faculty and student at UChicago Law is unique. While our faculty are leading experts in their area and are among the most renowned scholars on the planet, they are also deeply committed to the learning experience of our students. This means that students develop close relationships with faculty. They also engage both in and out of the classroom on a daily basis and faculty work tirelessly to ensure that UChicago Law students understand the material. Couple this with the fact that we are one of the smallest law schools among our peers, and you can see how it is that much easier for faculty and students to get to know one another.
DK: It is highly competitive to get accepted to University of Chicago Law School as an LL.M. student– could you elaborate on who would be an ideal candidate? Does University of Chicago Law School look for LL.B. graduates with a few years of work experience, or is University of Chicago Law School open to a wide range of applicants?
JS: We are looking for students that have a very strong academic background, are passionate, and are individuals of excellence. There is no one perfect model for this, which is why I frame the answer broadly. We are looking for a diverse student body, so we are looking for people who have excelled in whatever area it is they have pursued. There are many ways to show the admissions committee how you are excellent.
Regarding work experience, we do not require any professional experience to apply but the vast majority of our student body does come to the program with at least a few years of experience. When we do admit students that are recent graduates, they tend to be at the very top of their graduating class (top 1%-2%).
DK: What advice would you give to the prospective applicants from Turkey when it comes to writing the personal statement? Any suggestions on the mistakes that prospective applicants should avoid?
JS: I always advise candidates to think about the personal statement as a way to add a little bit of personality to their application.
The resume and transcripts are more objective. They will provide the framework of your candidacy for the LL.M., but we want to know more about who you are. What do you think makes you special?
I also think it is incredibly important for candidates to paint a picture for the committee on how they plan to use the LL.M. to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. This will show the committee that you have really looked at the program and thought critically about why you want to study at UChicago Law rather than another school. It also is beneficial for candidates to go through this process to help focus their attention on what they want and why.
DK: What could distinguish someone who perhaps has a lower LL.B. GPA?
JS: There is no getting around it, grades matter. Schools take very seriously a candidate’s prior academic achievements and UChicago Law is no different. We want to know that a candidate can handle the academic rigor of our program. For a candidate that did not perform as well during their university studies the one factor that can help is professional experience. Get out there, get some experience and show that you know this material. A candidate with significant and important experience may overcome a weaker transcript.
DK: Applicants often face some difficulties with choosing referees – what advice would you have on approaching this component of the application process?
JS: It is very important to choose someone that really does know you and the quality of your work, either academic or professional. Whether that is a professor or a supervisor, make sure that they can provide a true account of their experience with you and your ability to succeed in a rigorous academic program. A formulaic and generic letter from someone who clearly does not know you can have a negative effect on an application.
DK: The cost of LL.M. education can have long-term implications on one’s life. Could you please tell us a bit about the financial aid University of Chicago Law School offers that are available to international LL.M. students?
JS: The financial piece of deciding whether to pursue an LL.M. and where is incredibly important. I encourage anyone thinking about these programs to do a full accounting of what the cost will be for them and seek out as many different financial aid opportunities as possible. I also think it is important for candidates to speak with alumni from the schools they are considering and ask them whether the cost of the program was worth it. I feel very strongly that it is, but it is important to hear directly from the people that have made this investment.
At UChicago Law we provide merit scholarships of up to 50% tuition waivers. All candidates are automatically considered and we do not require a separate application.
DK: It is a common understanding that an LL.M. degree is a key for practicing in the States for someone who has a foreign law degree. Do you think it would be realistic to think that an LL.M. degree is the best choice for international lawyers who plan to remain and practice law in the States?
JS: The reality is that very few students find full time employment practicing in the U.S. after the LL.M. If the sole goal of pursuing the LL.M. is to stay in the U.S., then you really need to rethink that. There are students every year that do achieve this goal, but it is a small percentage. I do not encourage students to pursue our LL.M. program if that is the only goal they have in mind. Make sure that you know how the program will benefit you back home or in another country first. If you find an opportunity in the U.S. that will be a pleasant surprise, but you will also be prepared to apply your degree no matter where you end up.
There are opportunities for students to stay and pursue internships or other projects through Optional Practical Training (OPT) for a year following the LL.M., but firms and companies do not readily hire LL.Ms for full time positions. I do encourage our students to try and find these kinds of opportunities.
DK: For those who do not wish to practice law, what are the other employment or internship opportunities available to University of Chicago Law School graduates in the States? What should international LL.M. graduates do to increase their chances of recruitment after graduation?
JS: The vast majority of opportunities available are going to involve the practice of law. The contacts and job opportunities that come through the school are invariably with firms, lawyers, public service organizations and NGOs, and companies looking for legal practitioners. This means that to find an opportunity outside of the practice of law a student will have to go the extra mile to network and find opportunities elsewhere.
No matter what your career aspirations, you are going to have to be very proactive. You need to leverage opportunities in as many areas as you can. At UChicago Law, we provide many opportunities for students to network with alumni, employers, and stakeholders, as well as to participate in job fairs and resume collections. I always suggest that students use their contacts from back home to help as much as they can, as well as anyone they know in Chicago or elsewhere in the U.S.. Any contact could help open up a door. The key is to get out there and not leave any stone unturned.
DK: Considering the relatively short nature of the LL.M. degree itself, what should the LL.M. candidates do to make the most of their LL.M. experience?
JS: Study really hard and take advantage of as many different activities as possible!! You’re probably not going to get as much sleep as you would like, but you’ve got nine months to really squeeze as much as you can out of it. I also encourage students to attend classes, talks, seminars, etc. that are out of your comfort zone. Do something different because you won’t have many more chances once you return to your practice.
DK: I am sure this has been asked you quite often lately, but how has University of Chicago Law School dealt with the COVID pandemic?
JS: This has obviously been a very challenging period for everyone, but I am exceptionally proud of and impressed with how UChicago Law and our faculty, staff, and students, have handled the entire situation. Following state and local guidelines, we have provided a hybrid format for the 2020-2021 academic year. This has meant offering both in person and remote classes. Overall, it has been a great success and students have been able to pursue the program in the format that best fits their needs.
We are still in the planning period for 2021-2022.
DK: Lastly, anything you would like to add for the Turkish law graduates reading this article?
JS: I encourage you to come speak with me about the University of Chicago Law School! I work very closely with all of our students and am happy to speak directly with anyone interested in our programs or studying law in the United States in general.