Honestly, if you're a domestic LLM, chances are good you're mostly there to write - not to take more exam courses. Talking about how to do that (independant study options, thesis rules) would probably be extremely helpful.
I agree with you, Dude. Apart from the special topic LL.Ms (e.g. NYU's in tax, international law), academic-track LL.M programs vary widely in structure and rigorousness. I would say that Harvard is probably the most structured (all LL.Ms are required to write a thesis, and the S.J.D. program is relatively structured) while others, like Georgetown's, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Boalt Hall's are the least structured, allowing you to design your own course list and concentrate on independent writing. Most domestic LL.Ms will probably be either "research-track" or "thesis-track." And these are almost entirely unstructured programs, because the point is to not get a concentration in some subject--the point is to write.
The thing to do is actually write and avoid not-writing. While these programs are unstructured, they do have requirements and certain parameters. Most writing-track programs require academic aspirant LL.Ms to take a certain number of course units. They are about half the units required for general or special-topic LL.Ms, but they are still courses that will take time away from writing your monograph. So what to take for those courses?
Again, it probably depends on the structuredness of your program. At most schools there are no special courses just for academic-track LL.Ms and S.J.Ds. You will be choosing from the standard 2L/3L fare--and at this point, after your three-year J.D., what's there left to take? Whatever serves the monograph. At this point, you'll have most of the foundational courses taken cared of (this is why they're foundational). If you haven't taken Statutory Interpretation yet, I guess this that the do-over 4L year is as good as any to remedy that. And I'm not entirely opposed to exam courses--if they're useful for your monograph, then there's no reason not to take them. And the quick Vulcan-death-grip blow of the final frees you up for spending your writing energy on your monograph.
The thing to do is to make sure your courses serve your monograph. Depending on the program, there's lots of ways of going about this. Most schools will assign you/let you pick a faculty advisor to supervise your written work if they require a thesis/monograph. Depending on how much feedback you need/want, this can be a very interactive or completely detached relationship. Choose your advisor carefully, and don't be afraid to change advisors (but try not to change half-way--try to pick wisely and quickly in the first three weeks of school). But that faculty advisor will be the one supervising your independent study units (for which you will receive a grade upon completion of the monograph, most likely, so you'll get an "In-Progress" one semester and a final retroactive grade at the very end). Because your monograph is already graded, and you are already taking independent study units, your course units have to be efficient uses of your time.
Again, if you need some background knowledge, take those courses. For instance, since I never took it before and because I'm doing a project on the FMLA, I'm taking Employee Benefits this semester. But in general, my approach is to take courses that serve the monograph as much as possible. Depending on your school, you may be able to take courses from other departments. I'm taking a Research Methods Design course from a graduate department, and that will be useful for helping me design my management questionnaires and will give me feedback in the early stages my dissertation project design. I also plan on taking Organizations and Institutions from another department here on campus. I also take seminar courses from the law school that either 1) become a chapter of my monograph or 2) work as an independent paper in my field that I can publish while I'm working on the Big Project Monograph.
I don't mind spending 5-6 months writing a smaller article on a very particular topic in my field as I'm working on my 200 page monograph. Because I'm spending the first year of the S.J.D. doing field work, collecting data, and analyzing the data, I want to write as much as possible and workshop those articles on the conference circuit. Carefully chosen seminar topics/papers are ideal for this. Ever had a professor tell you that if you cleaned up a paper you could publish it? Well, at this stage, you definitely should. I would caution you to stick to your intended hedgehog specialization field though, so that when you do go on the market you have 2-3 articles (in addition to your dissertation) that look like a good package displaying your particular toolkit. As of now, I'm interdisciplinary but getting more focused: sociological perspectives on employment discrimination law.
I would write as much as possible, but by that I mean spend the bulk of your time writing 1-2 good articles. Try to get your coursework and writing projects to overlap and dovetail as much as possible. Make sure the things you write are good and publishable--so don't sweat it taking so many paper requirements that you end up writing 4 things badly. If you talk to the professor, most seminars will let you write research proposals in lieu of an independent paper. That's what I did last spring for one course--I wrote my dissertation proposal as I was finishing my independent study thesis, and with my third being an exam course, I got everything done. And now I have a dissertation proposal ready to go for this Fall (which I have spent the past week cleaning up for my new faculty advisor and other members of my dissertation committee, which is why I've been such a bad guest-blogger).
Try to write and avoid not-writing---so just keep writing. Of course it sucks. It always sucks. But you might be able to clean it up in the end. You might toss a lot, but at least some of what you write will be publishable. So just keep writing. If you're going to go on the market after the LL.M/VAP/Fellowship, you'd better write something publishable. If you're already on the market, then you probably have a few things under your belt. But if you are intending to go on the market very soon, you'd better be shopping your articles and getting a lot of eyes on those drafts. If you only have one year to do all of this, make it a productive year. I hate to say this, but don't sweat it trying to get too much balance. You'll fail at both--your productivity will suffer and your fun will not be all that fun if you feel guilt over not-working and are trying to cram fun into your busy schedule. Maybe you'll come back to this city as a tourist one day, but for now, work hard and play later.
I have more time to stretch now with three years to file my dissertation, but I'm still spending a fair amount of time reading and typing. As my advisor said, I have to hit the ground running with the amount of field work and data analysis I have to do--not to mention waiting for IRB approval. So the work started last year, and it's already raging right now. I know I've campaigned for balance before--but that doesn't mean I am slacking off of work or thinking of these years as party years.
"Balance" means that I am adding exercise to my regimen, but I definitely have a regimen. I get to do things that serve my mental, physical, and emotional health, but I don't get to slack off or over-commit myself to things that are inefficient uses of time. You're not a J.D. anymore. Don't join a law journal or law school organization. Don't decide that your do-over LL.M or S.J.D. years are the time to learn everything you didn't in law school. Write the monograph. And then spend whatever free time you have on things that make you happy so that you can have the energy to write when you plunk yourself down for a 8-10 hour day (and yes, you should create such a work/writing schedule on the weekdays even if you have class), as if you had a "real job").
In my personal quest for balance, I'm just trying to travel less (there was a time when I traveled almost every month for work or personal reasons), which means I get to spend weekends catching up on sleep, work, and the people in my life. Balance doesn't mean hitting the bars or being a tourist every weekend or going to every party--it means spending time more productively and healthily. I am making sure I get sleep. I get to cook, run, and have a hobby (choose your own adventure). I see a movie every couple of weeks or so, and try to find something to do one day (or both) a weekend that makes me happy and diverted. When I have such off-time, I spend it with loved ones, and that's the best balance to me. The rest of the time, yeah, I'm working. It's easy to forget this when you go back to the "student" life. Don't go to the bars every night with those crazy J.D.s! Set that alarm! You're not in college (or law school proper) anymore.
It's easy to forget your purpose as a domestic LL.M surrounded by J.D.s who are just barely out of college. Worse yet, you're surrounded by international LL.Ms who are here to get their American credential (sometimes on their firm's dime, their parents' dime, or a Fulbright dime) and lots of touring and partying before they go back to a salary bonus. You are not one of them. You are here to work. You are not 22 years old anymore (thank goodness). It sucks to be you.
But it will be awesome to be you in a few years (or so I hope), when you (and I) get that tenure track job--the best job in the world! Teaching a great subject to a new generation of law students.
Just make sure you write and avoid not-writing. It's easier said than done.