By Damira Khatam¹
Over the past years I was contacted, often by perfect strangers, about my experience studying in the United Kingdom and the United States from the standpoint of an Uzbekistan educated lawyer. Having obtained my first degree in law in Uzbekistan from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy (UWED), followed by a Magister Juris from Oxford University and LL.M. from the George Washington University, I appeared to possess just the right assortment of law degrees to give advice on how to survive a British or an American law school program. I am happy to share my personal insights on a case-by-case basis, but answering such questions, no matter how straight-forward and general, is often time- and energy-consuming. So, when an Uzbek non-profit Tashabbus, approached me with a request to write about my experience for its website, I jumped at the opportunity to reach a broader audience and, of course, quite selfishly reduce the volume of individual e-mails I need to answer. One of Tashabbus’ mission statements—improving the rule of law in Uzbekistan through quality legal education—is near and dear to my heart, but I hope that my articles will be of use not just to Uzbek lawyers, but to any Central Asian or CIS students who are considering or currently pursuing an advanced law degree in the U.K. or the U.S.
In this article, I will address some of preliminary and more general considerations related to a decision to pursue the Master of Laws program. In the subsequent articles, I will focus on my individual experience in the U.K. and the U.S. and lessons learned from that experience. For the sake of convenience, the articles will be organized in the form of frequently asked questions.
What is the Master of Laws Program?
It is an advanced academic degree, which in most cases requires prospective students to already hold a professional degree in law. The program usually lasts one year full-time or two years part-time and offers specialized classes with either a mandatory requirement or an option to write a thesis. In the U.S. and the U.K., the Master of Laws is commonly abbreviated as LL.M. (from Latin Legum Magister), except in some universities such as Oxford University where the master’s level program is divided into the Magister Juris (MJur) for lawyers from civil law countries and the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) for lawyers from common law countries. Many universities offer LL.M programs focused on specific areas of law, such as Taxation, International Law, Environmental Law, Intellectual Property etc.
Should I do it?
This is actually a question that I am rarely asked, but I want to address it here, because I believe it needs to be carefully considered. It is often assumed among Uzbek law students that getting a master’s degree from a Western country is an absolute must by default. Little consideration, if any, is given to how the degree fits within individual career plans or how the benefits from acquiring an LL.M are worth the expenses. Unless you secure a full scholarship covering both tuition and living expenses, getting an LL.M, especially in the U.S. is a significant investment, which given the median income level in Uzbekistan, only a few can afford.
There are many reasons why each year thousands of foreign law students come to the U.S., for example, to pursue an LL.M. degree. Some hope to acquire a degree from a prestigious university and boost their resumes and improve chances to be hired back home or internationally. Some plan to immigrate or temporarily live and work in the U.S. and consider an LL.M. as a way of getting the minimum qualifications to sit for the bar exam and secure a legal job. Some seek international experience and hope to improve their language skills. Yet, others desire to develop a specialization in a particular area of law or have an academic career in mind. I encourage prospective students to treat the LL.M. program not just a goal in itself (albeit prestigious), but rather ponder about how it fits and benefits your individual career plans five or ten years after completion of the degree.
I left Uzbekistan for Oxford a couple of months after I finished my degree at UWED. Then, within less than a month after I graduated from Oxford, I started my LL.M in Washington, D.C. In my case, there were important personal and family reasons that affected my decisions and it all worked out well in the end. That being said, I would advise to consider having a few years of practical experience after your first degree in law. Not only may it improve your chances of getting admitted into a better LL.M. program but also may help you benefit more from the program itself. I remember how during my classes in Oxford, I admired some of my fellow-students’ legal experience and wished I could also contribute to the discussion from the position of a practicing attorney. In that regard, the few years I spent volunteering at UWED’s Civil Law Legal Clinic helped to have a better real-life legal framework for the theoretical legal issues we had discussed.
Most of the universities prefer and some (such as Stanford Law School) even require that candidates have a certain number of years of work experience to be considered. There are obvious reasons for it: more mature lawyers have higher chances of surviving often academically challenging LL.M. programs and also can contribute more meaningfully to class discussions. I know many of you are impatient to travel abroad or think of a foreign LL.M. as a natural continuation of your law degree from Uzbekistan, but taking a more strategic approach to your career and getting practical experience before pursuing an advanced law degree may help you in the long run to become a better lawyer.
How Will a Degree From a Common Law Country Help in Practicing Law in a Civil Law Country?
In the fast-paced interconnected world we live, understanding how legal systems work in other countries and having international experience is more valuable to lawyers than ever before, especially if you plan on working for a law firm, international organization or government agencies such as Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, Investment and Trade. Obvious benefits of an LL.M., such as having an opportunity for in-depth study of a specific field of law and learning how the common law system works will help you to be more prepared for dealing with a client, a business/political partner or an adversary from common-law or mixed common law jurisdictions.
However, another equally important and often overlooked benefit of attending an LL.M. in the U.K. or U.S. is your chance to significantly improve legal writing skills. In Uzbekistan’s law schools, writing skills receive very little attention, but in common law schools, legal writing is pivotal. There are specific formats and methodologies used for legal analysis and writing, such as IRAC (Issue, Rule, Argument and Conclusion) or many alternative versions. Many American LL.M. programs along with substantive, specialized areas of law offer special classes focused on training legal writing skills for foreign lawyers. Needless to say that better legal writing skills may help you communicate your point to clients and partners more efficiently or draft a winning brief in courts or international tribunals.
Which Program to Choose?
Research. Research. Research. With so many universities in the US and the UK offering LL.M. programs, there are abundant choices. It seems an obvious thing to do, but it is amazing how little research prospective students conduct before submitting their applications.
Apart from the location, you should consider factors such as strength of the university in the particular legal field you are interested or faculty members with matching research interests. For example, Oxford University has an unmatched reputation when it comes to Jurisprudence and Legal Theory; Harvard—in Business Law; Stanford, not surprisingly, offers course-based curriculum in Law, Science & Technology; NYU and Georgetown Law pride themselves on their International Taxation programs, whereas the George Washington University Law School offers LL.Ms in Intellectual Property Law and International and Comparative Law. Again, thoroughly researching the strengths of the particular law school and perhaps talking to alumni or currently enrolled student will help you not only to make a well-informed decision, but also to submit a solid application essay.
Are there Scholarships or Financial Aid?
Apart from government-sponsored programs such as British Chevening Scholarships or The U.S. State Department’s Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program most of American and U.K. universities offer merit-based or need-based private scholarships and financial aid. Almost all American universities offer some sort of need-based financial assistance, for which you can apply either as part of your admission application or shortly after you are accepted. As part of financial aid application process, be prepared to answer detailed questions about your and your family’s income.
What Can I Do to Improve My Chances of Getting Admitted?
In addition to having excellent grades and high scores on TOEFL and IELTS exam (and in absence of post-graduation legal experience), having an interesting internship, legal clinic or volunteer experience may help your application stand out. Many American applicants before going to or during law schools get involved in such community and volunteer work. Hence, admission officers for LL.M. programs want to see similar leadership and altruistic characteristics in their foreign applicants. In that regard, think of how your prior formal and non-formal legal training relates to the specific LL.M. program you want to pursue. You should present a coherent and comprehensive story about who you are and why you want to pursue this particular program.
Lastly, many foreign LL.M. applicants underestimate the importance of putting together a strong application essay, resume and in some cases research proposal. Remember writing skills are essential for your success and admission officers want to see your skills shine through any piece of writing you put forward as part of your application.
¹Bachelor in Law 2004, University of World Economy and Diplomacy (Uzbekistan), M.Jur 2005, Oxford University, LL.M. in International and Comparative Law 2006, the George Washington University Law School. Damira currently works as an associate at Kalbian Hagerty LLP, a Washington, D.C. based international law firm. The views expressed in this article are not attributable to her law firm or any of the universities she has attended.