INTERNATIONAL LL.M. PROGRAMS: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL, ANN ARBOR, MI, USA
I sincerely thank Theresa Kaiser-Jarvis, Assistant Dean for International Affairs, for taking the time to answer my questions and Dora-Maria Sonderhoff for assisting me in arranging this interview. GHK
GHK: Assistant Dean Kaiser-Jarvis, globalization has been accelerating exponentially in the last decades, promoting a global competition in obtaining the best available legal education. In light of this, more and more graduating law students from Turkey are pursuing an international LL.M. degree. What do you think is the point of an international LL.M. degree from the United States, considering Turkey has a civil law system?
TKJ: This is a great question, Gizem, and you are right that students are considering LL.M. studies in their home countries more than ever before. However, there are several compelling reasons to pursue a master’s degree elsewhere, and particularly in the US. Students immersed in the US legal educational environment gain many valuable skills and competencies that will propel them to satisfying and successful careers. For example, LL.M. students in the US will gain first-hand knowledge about the legal system driving the largest common law economy in the world.
Second, students will learn critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of US legal education, providing a completely new way to think about the law. Third, students will begin to understand American culture by living it, thereby gaining important soft skills that will benefit their careers. Fourth, students will improve their English, which is the global language of business and law. Fifth, students will develop an international network of lawyer friends and colleagues thanks to fact that the US remains a melting pot and a destination of choice for the world’s top talent. Finally, the US is unique in allowing certain LL.M. graduates to qualify to take particular state bar exams and become certified to practice law in the US, meaning Turkish students could become qualified to practice law in two countries.
GHK: Michigan Law, as a prestigious law school, should be highly selective in admissions. Could you give an insight to prospective applicants from Turkey on what an ideal candidate’s application might look like? To be admitted, what qualities might he or she possess?
TKJ: As one of the top law schools in the US and with one of the smallest LL.M. programs (by design), you are right, Michigan Law is highly selective in admissions. Ultimately, we seek to enroll a diverse class of extraordinary LL.M. students each year across all measures – age, experience, interest area, geography, goals, etc. We also try to identify students who are likely to make an impact during their time with us and beyond. To achieve these goals, we look for students with proven academic chops, solid legal experience, clear purpose for wanting to study at Michigan, and indisputable English ability (100 TOEFL minimum). Beyond that, we are looking for people who are curious about the world, hardworking, fearless, and passionate about something.
GHK: Does Michigan Law have an approximate hierarchy on what is most valuable for admissions: GPA, language score, personal statement, and letters of recommendation? Should an applicant include an addendum to explain his or her low GPA or language score?
TKJ: At Michigan, we consider all applications holistically, so there is no formal hierarchy. For example, some years of successful legal practice may balance out a GPA that was below the top 15% of graduates. The one factor we never compromise is the language score. If your English level does not meet our minimum, we will not admit you. That would not be fair to either you or us. As for addenda, yes, please do explain anything you think might strike us as worrisome and is not mentioned elsewhere – a low grade in one particular course, unfinished academic work, gaps in your resume, etc. You do not want to leave us with questions or with us making inaccurate assumptions.
GHK: Does the admissions committee come across letters of recommendation that hurt an applicant’s admission chances? If so, what sort of letter should be avoided? Could you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
TKJ: Letters of recommendation that hurt an applicant are the ones that are not there. For example, if you mention having a mentor, employer, or professor who is a Michigan Law alumnus and do not include a letter of recommendation from that person, we assume the worst (at best, we are left with questions). Likewise, if you have a dissertation supervisor, but do not have a letter of recommendation from that person, we take that as unwritten negative communication. When it comes to letters of recommendation that are actually submitted, there are generally two types – those that help and those that neither help nor hurt. Letters falling into this latter category are usually written rather blandly and do not tell us anything new or unique about the applicant. It is a missed opportunity for you, but we understand this is often not the applicant’s fault. Letters that help are those written by people who genuinely know you and can put your work, achievements, and potential into context for us. How big of a deal was that award you won? How amazing were you compared to other students in the class or other lawyers in the firm? Remember, we are receiving applications from so many countries around the world that we cannot possibly have an intimate understanding of everyone’s local culture, standards, and legal landscape. Good letters of recommendation are invaluable in this regard.
GHK: Could you offer any advice on the best way for a student to write a resonant personal statement? Could you stipulate any pitfalls or clichés an applicant should avoid?
TKJ: Another great question, Gizem! Personal statements are students’ one chance to explain who they are and why they are a great fit for Michigan. My first piece of advice would be to make sure your personal statement is additive to your entire application. Do not repeat things we will see elsewhere, such as on your transcript or resume/cv. My second piece of advice would be to make sure you are telling us about you. I am not so interested in hearing how your grandmother persevered during difficult times if she is not the one applying. Likewise, I would rather hear about what moves you as a person and a lawyer than I would about your in-depth legal analysis of a particular case, law, or philosophical theory. Your intellectual acuity will be evident from your transcript, resume/cv, and letters of recommendation. Your passion and goals will not. Besides, while I am also a lawyer, the chance that I am well versed in the legal topic you are discussing is small, meaning much of your cleverness will be lost on me, unfortunately.
GHK: Could you please tell us a bit about merit or need-based scholarships that Michigan Law offers? What kind of characteristics does Michigan Law look for in a candidate for merit or need-based scholarship? Does applying for financial aid affect one’s chances of admission?
TKJ: At Michigan, we use our scholarship money to build that diverse and extraordinary class I mentioned previously. Candidates who tick both of those boxes are the ones most likely to receive financial aid offers from us. Financial need, while not considered during the admissions decision, is a factor when distributing our funding and it is rare for us to offer scholarships to students without some financial need. Michigan is fortunate to have a flexible funding model, which allows us to offer scholarships of varying amounts, up to full tuition and fees. My advice to any prospective student is to apply despite the published cost of attendance. Many of our students receive scholarships and you very well could be one of them!
GHK: 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 an LL.M. degree is the best choice for international lawyers who plan to practice law in the States?
TKJ: This is a very interesting question with a more complicated answer than you might expect. For some people, an LL.M. degree will suffice to support long-term legal work in the US. For others, I would recommend the J.D. The “best choice” will differ for each individual person, taking into account his or her background, experience, area of legal practice, legal skills, personality, and language ability. Even politics, trade, global business trends, national economies, and market demand play a role…and these factors are always changing! Certainly, there are Michigan Law LL.M. graduates every year who land permanent jobs in the US. However, when considering any US law school, I would recommend thinking carefully about how best to match your ultimate goals with the degree programs available.
GHK: Is there career placement assistance for LL.M. students who wish to practice law in the States or their home countries at Michigan Law? What should international LL.M. graduates do to increase their recruitment chances after graduation, considering the economy affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
TKJ: Michigan Law offers career services to both our LL.M. and J.D. students, providing advice, counseling, and opportunities. We do not offer career placement, per se, meaning we do not find jobs and then recruit students for them. We do, however, work diligently one-on-one with our LL.M. students as needed to help them achieve their career goals. Some of the career opportunities for our LL.M. students include participation in the New York LL.M. job fair and the ability to apply for Michigan Law-designated slots at places like the International Law Commission, UNHR-Geneva, the AIRE Centre, and non-governmental organizations in Namibia. When it comes to increasing the chance of getting a US-based law job, my advice is to start early, dive into the law school’s alumni network, and be flexible. It is unlikely your first job will be your dream job and that is okay – the key is getting that first step on the ladder.
GHK: I understand that an LL.M. degree from Michigan Law is preferable to be admitted to Michigan Law’s S.J.D. Programs. Do you have any general advice for S.J.D. Applicants from Turkey who apply directly to Michigan Law’s S.J.D. program before putting together applications? If applicants with prior legal training in the Anglo-American tradition apply to be admitted to a modified one-year Michigan LL.M. degree followed immediately by the S.J.D. Program, could they get any financial aid or a paid position at the law school to finance their LL.M./S.J.D. Degrees?
TKJ: The best advice for admission to Michigan’s S.J.D. program, whether applying directly or coming through our LL.M. program, is to find a Michigan Law professor who is an expert in the field of your research and then to do everything you can to work with that person and get to know him or her. Eventually, you want that professor to advise you as you refine your S.J.D. application and then agree to serve as your supervisor, if you receive admission to the program. Having an enthusiastic Michigan Law professor who is willing to serve as your S.J.D. dissertation chair is a key component of successful S.J.D. applications. This is a much easier task when you are with us for an LL.M. year. It is trickier when you are reaching out anonymously and remotely. Typically, students who bypass the LL.M. year with us have instead spent substantial time in Ann Arbor as part of our research scholar program. Students who are admitted to our LL.M./S.J.D. modified program are eligible for financial aid just as our regular LL.M. and S.J.D. students are.
GHK: In closing, is there any general advice you could share with the prospective applicants from Turkey regarding the Michigan Law application process or regarding success in the LL.M. program?
TKJ: My general advice is the advice I give to LL.M. applicants around the world: Do your research and be yourself. US LL.M. programs are not regulated by any governing body, so there is little standardization, and LL.M. program metrics do not factor into any law school rankings. Consequently, there is good news and bad news. The good news is there is lots of variation among LL.M. programs from which you can choose. The bad news is there is lots of variation among LL.M. programs from which you can choose! To find the best fit for you, research schools of interest to explore things like the grading system, the curriculum options, the LL.M. class size, the English language minimum, the LL.M. class diversity, and the level of LL.M. student integration into the law school. Then be yourself. Be honest about what matters to you and be honest about what you say about yourself in your application. You only get one chance to do an LL.M. We all want to make sure you are in the right place for it!