INTERNATIONAL LL.M. PROGRAMS: OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE of LAW, COLUMBUS, OH, USA
Tra Pham, Assistant Dean for Graduate and International Affairs, thank you for taking your time to interview with me, and, Megan Avellana, Assistant Director for International and Graduate Affairs, for assisting me in arranging this interview. GHK
GHK: Assistant Dean Pham, in some countries, including Turkey, foreign LL.M.s are highly valued. Considering that Turkey has a civil law system, what benefits would an LL.M. in the United States provide Turkish law graduates or lawyers with civil law backgrounds?
TP: As the legal market has become increasingly global, it is important for lawyers working on international matters to gain solid understanding of international law as well as foreign laws that will help them address global legal issues. For example, a cross-border contract between two foreign parties requires a lawyer to identify the appropriate applicable law and the appropriate dispute settlement mechanisms that work best for his/her client. Knowledge of more than one legal system creates a comparative advantage for a lawyer in the legal service market.
LL.M. degrees are offered in almost every country nowadays. However, there are some advantages of doing an LL.M. in the U.S. and gaining knowledge of U.S. law in particular. The U.S. remains one of the key players in the global economy. U.S. companies and law firms of all sizes have greatly expanded their presence and operations overseas as part of their long-term development strategies. For example, according to Chambers Associate, there has been a big building up of U.S. lawyers in Asia and Latin America. Vice versa, the U.S. market has attracted businesses from key markets such as Canada, Australia, Japan, India, China, Brazil, Hong Kong, South Korea, Nigeria, and the Middle East, given its open investment policy. This means legal services for U.S. businesses and foreign clients doing business with U.S. businesses will continue to grow. As such knowledge of U.S. law, especially in the areas of corporate law, commercial law, and dispute resolution, creates an added-value for lawyers with a U.S. law degree. Given that a J.D. degree is a much more expensive investment, the LL.M. in the U.S. gives international lawyers an opportunity to learn about U.S. law with much less time and financial commitment.
Equally important for lawyers with a civil law background, the opportunities to develop lawyering skills, analytical thinking and problem-solving skills, and creativity in solving complex legal issues, are those that set an LL.M. degree in the U.S. apart. In the common law system, case law in the form of published judicial decisions is the primary source of law. While common-law lawyers can rely on the precedent to build a case, they can also use precedent to make a case for judges to develop new law in response to cases, facts and situations that were not anticipated or foreseen in the case law. In addition, the adversary system in the U.S. requires a much more active role of lawyers in legal proceedings as compared to the civil law systems. As a result, U.S. law schools prepare their students with the skills needed not just to be able to successfully represent clients, but also to actively contribute to legal development. Some law schools such as Moritz College of Law allow LL.M. students to participate in their schools’ law clinics, giving students from civil law backgrounds the opportunity to work in a real (not simulated) legal service atmosphere under the supervision of a licensed attorney and receive law school credit at the same time. Participating in a legal clinic is a great way for students to gain hands-on experience that increases their marketability in the job market.
GHK: To be admitted, would it be better to apply right after graduation, or does the Moritz College of Law prefer candidates with a few years of work experience?
TP: Moritz College of Law places strong emphasis on building a diverse class of LL.M. students each year. We take a holistic approach to application review, and appreciate candidates with different social, academic, and professional backgrounds. We believe each and every LL.M. student brings different values to our law school and hence enriches our community here at Moritz. Given the small class size at Moritz, LL.M. students are fully integrated with American students and interact closely with faculty and staff. As such, we all here at Moritz learn and benefit from the very different backgrounds and experiences of our LL.M. students. All this is to emphasize that we have no preference for a particular type of applicants. Based on their academic needs and professional goals, LL.M. candidates should apply as soon as they deem an LL.M. degree is necessary, be it to expand their legal expertise in a specific area of law, to advance their legal careers, or to realize their life-time dreams. Although doing an LL.M. is an important decision that requires careful considerations and preparations, keep in mind though – there is no perfect timing in life! Do it when you can and let your passion drive you!
GHK: Could you please explain the weight or emphasis given to each part of a student’s application, such as GPA, language score, a letter of motivation, and letters of recommendation?
TP: As I mentioned above, we take a holistic approach to reviewing LL.M. applications. Each and every component of an application plays an equal weight and makes up for each other. For example, if an applicant has a lower GPA but his/her extra-curricular activities in law school or work experience after law school are terrific, and her/his academic capabilities are supported by the recommenders, we would be confident that such a candidate will be able to succeed and bring value to our program.
GHK: I understand that the LL.M. class is purposely designed to be a moderate size – approximately 30-35 students. Could you please tell us more about the benefits of a smaller class size? Why do smaller classes improve academic outcomes?
TP: At Moritz, the benefits of a small class size are multifold. Students have more opportunities to interact with classmates and professors, to participate in class discussions, and to receive greater attention and mentoring from the professors. In addition, with smaller classes, the faculty members are better equipped to evaluate students’ progress more closely, provide regular feedback, and identify students that need more guidance and support. Professors have more time for office hours with students. Each LL.M. student is also matched with a Faculty Resource Advisor for mentoring and academic advising. Last but not least, the administrators are also able to provide individualized advising and support to LL.M. students, making sure their academic and professional needs are met.
GHK: The number of courses can initially be quite overwhelming for students who sit down to create the right curricula for themselves. I see that the Moritz College of Law offers each student to meet with the assistant dean for international and graduate affairs to design his/her individual schedule. Could you tell us a bit more about this process? What factors does Moritz Colleges of Law consider when developing an individual academic plan for the students?
TP: That’s correct. Each LL.M. student at Moritz is directly advised by me, Assistant Dean for Graduate and International Affairs. In my role, I make sure that students can get in the courses they want, and when a course is full, I will find an equally enriching alternative course for them. I earned LL.M. degrees from Europe and the U.S., and I am an international lawyer and academic myself. Therefore, I understand the importance of course selection for LL.M. students and advise students to be strategic in their course planning. I consider the following factors when developing an individual academic plan for LL.M. students: (i) the career track they plan to pursue after the LL.M. degree – are they going to practice law at a law firm or as an in-house lawyer, or are they set on an academic career path? (ii) the student’s academic interest; (iii) their past work or extra-curricular experience; (iv) their intention to take a bar exam in the U.S. (for example Ohio, New York, DC, Texas, or California); (v) and whether they want to take an academic concentration (at Moritz, we have 6 concentrations: Alternative Dispute Resolution, Corporate Law, Intellectual Property and Technology Law, International and Comparative Law, Employment and Labor Law, and Criminal Law). These factors help me advise students in choosing courses that are best tailored to their career goals.
GHK: One of the obstacles that applicants often face is choosing referees. Could you tell us what advice you would give to applicants from Turkey in this regard?
TP: In reviewing an application, we want to evaluate, among others, a candidate’s academic capability, professional strengths, and ability to think critically, solve problems, and work independently and with others. Therefore, LL.M. candidates should select referees who know them well enough to be able to attest to these qualities. Referees can be professors, supervisors, colleagues or anyone who has a professional relationship with the candidate.
GHK: It is a common understating that an LL.M. degree is a key for practicing in the United States for someone who has a foreign law degree. Do you think an LL.M. degree is the best choice for international lawyers who plan to remain and practice law in the States?
TP: For foreign law graduates who do not want to, or can’t, commit to pursuing a J.D. degree in the U.S., an LL.M. degree is a good alternative. Besides the New York bar exam which is the most popular bar exam for international LL.M. students, an increasing number of states have allowed international LL.M. students to sit for their bar exams upon meeting certain requirements, such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Texas, California, DC, and Washington. Thus LL.M. graduates can explore the opportunity to remain in the U.S. and practice law with bar admission to at least a jurisdiction in the U.S.
Potential employers of LL.M. students include law firms that have presence in the home countries of the LL.M. candidates or that serve clients involving in cross-border transactions, as well as corporations and companies (in-house positions), international organizations, and NGOs. US companies and law firms with global outlook seek international lawyers for entry-level positions such as International Associate/Specialist; Foreign Legal Consultant/Specialist; Contract Specialist/Associate; Compliance Specialist; Law Clerk; Trainee Lawyer. Please note that more often than not, these positions do not require a bar admission right away. Employers may consider hiring on the condition that the international candidate has met all the requirements to qualify to sit for the bar exam in a U.S. jurisdiction and that she/he will be able to take the exam and obtain a license to practice in that jurisdiction within a designated timeline.
GHK: 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?
TP: Based on my personal experience (having studied and lived in Asia, Germany, Belgium, and the U.S.) and four years of experience leading LL.M. programs in the U.S., I recommend LL.M. candidates focus on networking and professional development. While academic achievements and good grades are no doubt important, building relationships with your classmates, your professors, and staff at the law school, as well as with practitioners outside of the law school, is key for your future career success. Finding a job is not just about making a good strategy for job search, writing a good cover letter and resume, or preparing well for interviews. Part of it is luck, and part of it is about the people you know who are willing to mentor you and recommend you to potential employers or introduce you to important professional contacts.
Given the importance of networking and professional development, here at Moritz and OSU, we offer two mentoring programs to LL.M. students: the LLM Mentoring program matches an individual LLM student with a lawyer, and the Mentoring & More program at OSU invites LLM students to meet throughout the semester with a professional in the legal field to learn from their experience and receive career tips. Students learn by example from mentors who care deeply about improving law and its administration, have high expectations for themselves and their colleagues in the profession, and are willing to help guide those who follow them into the profession. We also have the J.D.-LL.M. Buddy Connection Program to connect LL.M. students with J.D. students, which helps LL.M. students integrate into the law school community. LL.M.s are also assigned a faculty advisor, which is a great way for the student and faculty member to connect on a more personal level. Last but not least, we organize workshops and panels composed of practitioners and alumni to enhance even further networking and learning opportunities for our LL.M. students. We also help LL.M. students take advantage of the free law student memberships to various organizations, such as the Columbus Bar Association. These groups host networking and educational events that our students are welcome to attend during their time at Moritz.
GHK: What is student life like? When international students are not studying or taking classes, what types of activities might they engage?
TP: We encourage students to take advantage of all that Moritz, Ohio State and Columbus have to offer during their time here. One of the great things about Ohio State’s robust international student populations (around 7,000 students!) is that there is a myriad of events organized for them by our Office of International Affairs (OIA). Through OIA, students go to the Columbus Art Museum together, go shopping, go to the movies and take trips to other cities in Ohio such as Cleveland or Cincinnati. There’s always something to do on campus or free events in the city for students. Many LL.M. students enjoy attending Ohio State’s athletic events, such as American football games in the fall and basketball games in the winter. Ohio State is proud to have one of the best football and basketball teams in the country!
LL.M. students often share how much they love the city of Columbus and all there is to do! Columbus is the capital city of the state of Ohio and headquarters of the state government. It is the largest 14 city in the country, and is one of the most powerful economic and political centers in the Midwestern region. Given its fast-growing economy that has attracted corporations, companies and millennials from all over the country, the city boasts a vibrant life with lots of activities happening throughout the year. In addition to getting involved in student groups at Moritz or on campus, our students enjoy exploring neighborhoods throughout the city. A favorite is German Village, which is a charming area with bookshops, shops selling traditional German goods, pubs, beautiful brick roads and historic homes. Students often spend time in the Short North Arts District, checking out art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants with their LL.M. and J.D. classmates. We’ve also taken students on trips to Amish Country, gone snowtubing, and watched a professional soccer game together. Since our program is relatively small, LL.M. students have the opportunity to get to know their classmates really well and form close relationships, which is one of their favorite parts of their LL.M. experience.
GHK: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Assistant Dean Pham. Anything you would like to add for the Turkish law graduates reading this article?
TP: Studying abroad is a life-changing experience that goes a long way to help you make a difference and create change for yourself and for the community. Create the opportunity for yourself and take it when you can. It’s important to carefully research various LL.M. programs and choose one that can help you to grow professionally, academically and personally, and most importantly to make an impact.