Thursday, October 05, 2006

Belle Lettre Tries To Explain Herself, or "Just What Is An L.L.M. Anyway?!"

First of all, a big thank you to Jim Chen for allowing me to contribute to this venerable forum, and for the warm welcome he and Jeff Harrison have extended to me.

Second, a little bit more about myself (although Jim did a great job of introducing me):

I graduated in 2005 from a "Top-20" (by U.S. News and Leiter Rankings standards) law school "poised to become Top-10" (according to Brian Leiter), where I concentrated in Critical Race Theory and anti-discrimination law. I still write generally in the area of anti-discrimination law, but have since moved onto other research interests, as I explain later.

I am now enrolled in an academic-track L.L.M. program from a highly regarded "Top-10" (again, by both U.S. News and Leiter Report standards) law school. My thesis concerns the recent changes in commerce clause doctrine and its implications for federalism, a hot, "sexy" topic that has not been written on too much, or if it has, by not too important scholars (read: sarcasm). But it is a topic I feel a passionate interest for, and so I write my passion. I also write in the area of employment discrimination law, another passion of mine, and my future projects will analyze federalism issues in employment and labor law.

The L.L.M. degree, or "Masters of Laws," is an advanced legal degree that is best explained to other grad students, lay people, and your immigrant parents as a "post doctoral." Of course, it isn't really. But it helps to explain to the non-aspiring law profs (indeed, my lawyer friends asked what the heck I was doing) why you are going back to school. I get a lot of "I thought you already graduated?" questions and looks. In a way, it is a post doctoral, if you translate the "Juris Doctor" of the J.D. degree literally from the Latin. So if I have a "doctor of laws," why then am I now pursuing a "master of laws"? And why, after the masters of law, am I going to pursue this thing called a "doctor of juridical science" (J.S.D.)?! How is that more doctoral than a juris doctor? How is it even different?

The research-track, or "academic-track" L.L.M. is basically law school "plus." That is, at most schools it is like your third year of law school plus a year long thesis. You take the same courses as the J.D.'s, and there is no actual set program of required courses. You just take courses that dovetail with your research, and you, well, research (with the help of a faculty advisor). The J.S.D. program, at most schools, is basically "L.L.M. plus." That is, you do what you did the previous year, either with the same advisor or a different one, on a slightly different (lengthier) project--you take the same courses as J.D's, there is no set curricula, and you write a dissertation over the course of 2-3 years (one year in residence). So why is the J.S.D. the "highest degree one can obtain in legal studies"? Isn't it just more law school, plus a long independent research project amounting to 100-200 pages? In theory, do graduate law students need to take more classes or seminars in various topics of law? Wouldn't graduate law students, and indeed, the legal academic profession, be better served by training these aspiring professors with a certain set of methodological tools, and how to come up with "interesting, novel, useful" questions and answers?

When you think of other graduate programs that take 5-6 years to complete from masters to doctoral advancement to candidacy (and some take much longer than 5-6 years) you sort of envy the structure of those programs. You envy the other grad students all that they are "forced" to learn before they start their independent projects. You wish, perversely, that you too were forced to learn, at an "advanced" level, a set of methodological and doctrinal tools. You wish this because you wish that there was something to being a law professor that is more than academic pedigree or well-connectedness--that there is something different that you do, because of something different you have learned, as a legal academic. At least, something different than what you would have done or known had you stayed "merely" a lawyer. You wish you were treated differently from J.D.'s, the way graduate students in other disciplines are treated different from undergraduates (an inapt comparison, but...), and the way doctoral candidates who have advanced to candidacy are treated differently than first year masters' students. If there is to be this hierarchy of degrees and concomitant presumed expertise, then let the distinctions truly matter, and mean something.

I don't know how else to explain what I'm doing to my family, who are all science-types, what it is exactly I'm doing now that is any different than what I did for three years as a J.D. So I just leave it to this simple explanation: "I want to be a law professor, so I have to go to more school, and get an 'advanced degree.'" This is not exactly true, but it is easy to say, even in my native language.

Part of what is great about having immigrant parents and science-type siblings is that they don't really know the process of becoming a law professor works. I'm not sure I know myself, other than that it's hard. In terms of playing MoneyLaw, I'm the least under-handed player out there--but I am learning to play the game. So even though it is not necessary to get an L.L.M., J.S.D., or Ph.D. to become a law professor (indeed, the surest route is "Top 5 + law review + order of the coif + prestigious clerkship"), it is sometimes easier to explain to my 70 year old parents who wanted me to be a doctor to begin with that it is a quasi necessity to obtain an advanced legal degree. And to some extent, it is necessary, so I'm not fudging the truth too much in the service of expediency. Because I haven't graduated from a Top-5 law school, I am well aware of the fact that the extra credentials well help me in my quest, as does the fact that I am moving "up" the "rankings ladder."

My individual blog tracked my "Chronicles of Academia," and my personal reflections and progress as an "aspiring law professor." In this particular space, I hope to write more critically and objectively about the "game" of becoming a law professor, and how even those with the fewest (or comparatively lower ranked) credentials, tools, connections, and advantages can learn (and try to excel) at that "game."

Future posts will address the numbers game that prospective students play (and do not realize they play) when they apply to law school; Larry Solum's very interesting thoughts on interdisciplinary ignorance and the legal academy; Jeff Harrison's profound thoughts on class bias in the hiring process for legal academics; and a book review-cum-discussion of the politics of affirmative action, class, race, and identity politics in Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble With Diversity--from a legal academic perspective, of course.

I promise to try to keep my posts under 1000 words, but I was voted "Most Likely To Be Verbose" way back in high school. But if my posts runneth over, I will split them into series.

I am excited to be a part of the Jurisdynanics team, and to be a MoneyLaw player. I look forward to your comments, suggestions and response pieces, in that great blogospheric tradition of (civilized, collegial) verbal sparring and debate.

I throw my glove at your left foot. I might throw the gauntlet too.

Let the games begin!


The incomparable Larry Solum has these comments on what the heck is up with L.L.M. and S.J.D. programs over at Legal Theory Blog.


Anonymous Loyd Braun said...

Hi Belle,

First let me say welcome. May serenity come now and later for your endevors. I enjoyed yours and Larry's post about LLM's and SJD's. I recently received the academic version of the LLM from a school perenially tetering in and out of the top ten. It was by far the best experience of my legal career!!! However, in the process, I realized what Larry alluded to, and that was an S.J.D. simply did not get me anything more than I already had with the LLM -- except it looks better and costs more.

The biggest difference I have found on the job market has been publications and that is the virtue of the LLM. The LLM gave me time to write the things I had wanted to write and publish.

Serenely yours,

10/05/2006 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Ineluctable Moe said...

Belle, thanks for this informative post! Speaking of publications: Loyd, Belle, and other knowledgeable lurkers, d'you think entering academia is even possible with a combo like Top 10 + law review + publications, but just-okay grades and no clerkship? I always got the impression that without a clerkship, a (halfway-respectable) professorship was a well-nigh impossible dream.

10/06/2006 5:39 PM  

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