While I never doubt Jim's faith in me or his solid support of ambitions, I must admit that his omission of L.L.M's and J.S.D's from his taxonomy is a classic oversight. We are sometimes lumped in with VAP's (Visiting Assitant Professors) and Fellows, as a certain type--those who make up for their sub Top-5 schooling with extra time in a more elite law school program to hone their scholarly skills and get some writing done (and published). And that's where the similarity ends.
For one thing, I, as an L.L.M., am paying Liberal College Law an awful lot to assemble a "tool kit" or "package," and VAPs and Fellows are paid by their school to do so. While L.L.M's and J.S.D.s are similar to VAPs and Fellows in their supplicant ways, we tend to be closer to Raw Rookies than VAPs as we are begging harder to get jobs. When we go on the market we have no fancy title (say, Climinko Fellow), but we do have an alphabet soup after our names. (I will have four post-secondary degrees by 2010, but console yourself with your much better padded 401(K).)
Then again, we are not so rookie as say, someone with just a J.D. and a nice clerkship under the belt--by the time you finish your J.S.D. you've written (and hopefully published) at least 2-3 articles and a dissertation that could in theory become a book. So L.L.M's and J.S.D's have a good amount of scholarly training by comparison to the Raw Rookie. Post-Grads probably have more than even your average Fellow.
So what are the benefits to pursuing post-graduate law degrees? Why on earth would someone who hated law school want to go back for more?
Because VAPs and Fellowships are generally reserved for lawyers/aspiring law professors who wish to enter academia after clerking or practicing for a while. Thus, post-graduate law degrees allow what would be Raw Rookies from sub-Top-5 schools to polish themselves a bit before going on the market. It's a huge investment of time and resources, but those entering academia are rarely in it for just the pecuniary gain. Post-graduate law degrees also have a huge benefit: institutional support, however weak, and faculty supervision, however variable depending on who is your advisor.
If you are trying to game the system, as I am, on what is probably one of the most unlevel playing fields possible, it helps to learn how to work within institutions and make them work for you. This is probably a big reason why I can't with good conscience call myself a critical deconstructionist anymore. Having graduated from a a Top-20 law school, I knew full well that wasn't enough to get me through the meat market--I needed more publications under my belt, I needed a more elite institutional affiliation, and I needed a lot of big names behind me, people willing to make a phone call or go to bat for me on a hiring committee. Enter, the L.L.M. degree, exeunt all that cognitive dissonant baggage over trying to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools.
My L.L.M. degree will be from a Top 10 school, and it could almost be Top 5 if the Top 5 slots didn't appear so permanently fixed. It helps to be affiliated with Liberal College Law. I can't deny that it gives me some credibility when I submit proposals to conferences or in making faculty contacts. It opens doors that being only a J.D. didn't. I can't deny that it doesn't make my sparse resume look far better, as if I was in some Linnean (or Lamarckian) taxonomy and slowly moving up the ladder. So, while I am working for a glorified J.D. taking classes with 2Ls and 3Ls, I am also writing two substantial articles to be published by next fall. And they will be written under the supervision of faculty advisors. And this is a good thing.
No one will hold your hand in the legal profession. Even my friends, who are only first or second year associates, don't get much guidance from their partners. Hazing is what our profession does best. Can you remember the first semester of your 1L year? Yet legal academia is, and should be, different from all this. It should be like any other division of academia, where the ideal is that students and professors alike are in the collective pursuit of truth and knowledge. I am still young enough an academic to make such a statement without sarcasm. Ideally, there is no hand-holding, but there is guidance, there is mentoring, there is a spirit of collaboration. I know I must sound naive, but this is what I am hoping academia is like.
In theory academia should be more cordial, and the word "collegiate" comes to mind. Networking in academia is not just about getting a job, but doing the job right---read any law review article and see the paragraph long "thank you" to all the people who have read or given valuable commentary on drafts of this article. It helps to have friends in high places, and if you are coming from a school below Top-5, you need them all the more. You need to produce quality work, and it helps to have quality people reading your work. You will be judged on your work alone, and there will be no one guiding your hand as you write. But at least you have an editor.
Post-graduate degrees give institutional support to those who don't have a ready roster of heavy-hitting academic figures behind them. It allows us to have access to faculty advisors, some of whom are experts in their field. It allows us to use our institutional affiliation to garner more support and notice at academic institutions elsewhere, which helpful when we finally go on the market. While there is no hand-holding, there are at least formal structures in which one may obtain guidance.
I think of it as the difference between the two Caravaggios, the first (and his first attempt) picturing St. Matthew as an old man, struggling to write the first gospel while the youthful angel guides his hand. Don't go into academia if you think this is how things are going to be. Even with the benefit of being associated with Liberal College Law, I have to do a lot of work on the side to create and maintain faculty contacts, keep abreast of current developments in my chosen fields, and turn in regular drafts of work to make sure that Preeminent Federalism Scholar likes me. I am writing more than most L.L.M's in my program, and I can't say it doesn't exhaust me. But imagine how much harder it would be to write my two articles, to make faculty contacts here and elsewhere, to submit to conferences, or have someone who regularly reads drafts of my articles without the benefit of the L.L.M. program. Actually, I don't have to imagine. That was last year.
While I aesthetically prefer the first painting, the image of the second is what is most comparable to academia: the long, hard slog through the night, but with the comforting knowledge that the angel is above, reading over the shoulder. Hopefully, what you write will have readers, and while you write you'll have a few people looking over your shoulder. Just be sure to thank them in footnote 1.