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Jun 08

Americanized for your convenience

I’m going to California in August and I’m going to be a uni student again. Woot!

Earlier this year, I had some incredibly good fortune and was admitted to Stanford Law School. I’ll be doing Stanford’s Master of Laws (LLM) program which is a year long. Stanford’s in Palo Alto, a little bit outside of San Francisco. It should be heaps of fun.

I’ve always wanted to live overseas (at least for a little while), and what better way to do it than returning to the much missed lifestyle of a uni student? I’m scheduled to finish work in two weeks’ time. On the 4th of July, coincidentally! I then have two weeks to get everything ready and send off the girlfriend, who will be flying to New York, sitting the NY Bar and then starting a plum job in one of those Biglaw firms. Then I’m off for a short two week holiday in Singapore, catching up with my old flatmate (although Singapore might turn out to be quite boring since David just learned he’s going to be ferried off to the UK to deal with some potential oil spill near Libya or something bizarre like that and might not be back for a bit). A handful of days in Sydney, then it’s off to San Francisco, then the Valley and then the Farm! Not long to go.

Some miscellaneous things I am looking forward to:

  • Finding more time and opportunities to post on Hear Ye!
  • Free shipping from Amazon.
  • Bulk lollies (sorry, bulk candy).
  • Thongs (sorry, flip-flops) during business hours.
  • Two words: No tie.
  • The continuing fall of the Greenback against the Aussie.
  • Campus-wide WiFi.
  • The Valley! The land of entrepreneurialism and dot coms! I get to go back to my techie roots!

Just in case anyone was thinking of applying for overseas LLM programs, I’m going to write about my experience with the whole process. Getting into Australian unis is an administrative cakewalk, in comparison. US and UK schools generally impose a long and somewhat painful process. Hopefully this post will be a useful resource if you’re a lawyer wondering if an LLM is a good idea.

The first step in the process is, of course, figuring out why you want to do an LLM in the first place. Speaking from the perspective of a commercial lawyer, I can unequivocally say that doing an LLM solely in order to progress your career is Not A Good Move. One year of practical work experience is in most cases going to be more beneficial. The opportunity cost of taking one year out for studies is considerable – there is the significant financial aspect, and there’s also the consideration that you will lose one year of seniority as compared with your cohort (which is important since law is quite structured in terms of promotions and progression -– you really have to “do the time”). Australian lawyers from certain local firms are well regarded in the main legal markets around the world and you absolutely do not need an LLM if you want to work in London, New York, Dubai or Hong Kong (although you will probably need language skills for the latter if you are fairly junior). You really only need an LLM if you are lawyer from a civil law jurisdiction (continental Europe, South America and many Asian countries) and want to practise in a common law jurisdiction.

I had several reasons for wanting to do a Masters overseas. The first was that I’ve always wanted to live overseas for a while, which would be a much more pleasant experience without all my time being occupied by soul-crushing 200-300 billable hour months. The second is that I wanted the international exposure. I figured I’d get more time to meet new and interesting people from around the world. I get the feeling that Masters programs overseas tend to be more diverse than what we get in Australia. The third was that I’ve always enjoyed studying -– when you learn at uni, it’s because you choose to learn, not because a client has asked you something –- everything you do is done on your own terms and you can spend extra time thinking or exploring certain issues which you can’t do when there’s a deal to be done. The fourth reason was that it would provide useful legal experience. Not as good as real work experience of course, but it does have its advantages. For example, some LLMs have very practically oriented courses, covering things that were never offered in my uni (contract drafting and commercial negotiation, for instance). I think that doing these practical courses with real world experience will allow me to get a lot more out of things than learning about them in the abstract and not being able to relate it back to practice. It will also hopefully give me the opportunity to experiment -– if you stuff something up, at least you haven’t compromised a real client’s position.

The second step is to figure out where you want to study. I have always wanted to experience what studying in a “world class” institution was like. It’s probably something that was ingrained into me by my parents expressing their aspirations for me as a kid rather than something I developed on my own. Still, I think life is about experiencing as much as you can, and this is certainly a unique experience. So my mindset was to shoot for the law schools at the top of the tree, find out who would take me and then figure out which one would fit me the best.

If you’re interested in a particular type of law though, you might want to be more focused in your search. If you’re interested in international law, for instance, some unis are better than others despite how they are ranked overall. One partner at work advised me that for finance law the UK was the place to be. East-coast America was perhaps better for M&A studies (the total market cap of the NYSE speaks for itself). You also have to adjust your expectations according to your level of experience. Without any work experience you can still get into an Australian LLM without many problems, but for some overseas unis it’s a tough ask. If your grades at uni weren’t great, you can make up for this with strong work experience.

I initially planned on applying for both UK and US unis, but I soon realised that I didn’t want to study in the UK. Not terribly enthused about the weather. Too many Aussies. So (to the chagrin of my parents) I ruled out Oxford, Cambridge and other reputables like LSE. Take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve been told by former LLMs that it’s typically easier and cheaper for Australians to study at Oxbridge than the “equivalent” unis in the US. I think a large part of this is that we share quite a bit of case law with the Poms, not having declared our colonial independence quite as zealously as the Yanks! Anecdotally, there are more people from my firm that have gone to those two UK unis than their counterparts across the Atlantic. It’s also easier to get financial assistance and scholarships for British unis. Apparently, a whopping 30% of the Cambridge LLM crowd is composed of Aussies and Kiwis. So this will be a factor to consider when deciding where to focus your efforts.

Having settled on the US, it was time to do a bit of research. It’s best to talk to people who have done an LLM to find out their experiences. For figuring out the lie of the land, the forums at www.llm-guide.com are undisputedly the best resource I came across.

The first thing I figured out is that the US seems big on “prestige”. I was taken aback by how much this was the case, especially coming from Australia where tall poppy syndrome is all too common. It’s a rather contentious factor that unfortunately tends to overshadow many online discussions about the relative merits of different law schools. Egos and bias rule the day and you really have to be careful about what you choose to believe. Things get really bad on the Autoadmit board (which has the tongue-in-cheek tagline of “the most prestigious college discussion board in the world”). But nonetheless, the “prestige factor” is a real and arguably significant factor when it comes to life after uni.

Prestige is of course driven a great deal by brand name recognition, hype and annual law school rankings. The most well known rankings seem to be the US News rankings. There is often a lot of controversy about whether these rankings actually reflect anything real or useful. Whether the ranking methodology works or not, they do tend to reflect and/or affect people’s perceptions of prestige. See here, here, here and here.

The US seems to love tiering things. They’ve nicknamed top tier organisations in each industry -– the US is the home of the “bulge bracket” i-banks, “White Shoe/Biglaw” law firms, “Big 4” accounting firms and “MBB” management consultancies. (Not to say that this doesn’t happen elsewhere -– the UK has their “Magic Circle”, for instance.)

I think it’s interesting how different it is in Australia. “Top tier” only refers to the size of a firm, not necessarily its quality. There are plenty of top notch mid-tiers. We also haven’t given our top tiers a collective nickname.

The forums have developed their own vocabulary related to the obsession on tiering. “Prestige whores” are people who care only about how prestigious schools are to the exclusion of all other factors. These people tend to grossly generalise and I’d wager they’re unhealthily arrogant. The boards are full of people wondering whether they should give up a full scholarship in exchange for a place at a marginally higher ranked uni. “T-14” stands for the top 14 law schools, which happen to be the only 14 schools that have ever placed in the top 10 of the US News rankings. There are about 200 ABA-approved law schools in the US and, as you’d expect, the quality varies significantly. The unofficial rule of thumb is that it’s far more difficult getting into a highly regarded commercial law firm if you went to a non-T-14 school. Again, grain of salt. “TTT” stands for Third Tier Toilet. It’s used as a derogatory term covering all the schools which US News ranks as third or fourth tier. Amusingly, the prestige whores will take it to mean “any school ranked lower than theirs”. There are many other factors to consider other than prestige.

If you’re interested in studying a specific area of law, you should research what unis are good in that area.

Another consideration is the area of the US you want to be in. It’s a diverse country. I’ve been told that the West Coast and East Coast are quite different in terms of culture, but even individual cities have their unique characteristics. For example, New York is like no other place in the world but it’s more expensive. Boston has some of the best unis in the world there, but it gets bitterly cold in winter. Palo Alto has great weather, but it’s out in the ‘burbs.

Some people also are interested in certain unis because of specific famous professors. I wouldn’t recommend dwelling too much on this. Each uni has its star academics. They don’t necessarily make good lecturers. They may be on leave. You might not get into their class if it’s full. A small class size with a competent lecturer will be more useful than taking a class with 100 other students taught by a prominent academic who’s only in the classroom because he or she has to be.

Personal factors may come into play too -– for example, if you are bringing your family, is the city family-friendly?

I have the following brief notes about some of the schools I looked into. Berkeley has the West Coast vibe and reportedly the best IP program in the country. It also has the third lowest acceptance rate out of all law schools. Chicago is an academic powerhouse and its law school is no different in that respect. Out of its JD program, it has an unusually high number of people who go on to clerk for Supreme Court judges. Columbia has a great location in New York and the ivy league halo. It takes about 200 people in and provides terrific job prospects if you’re looking to work in a Biglaw firm afterwards in corporate or finance. Harvard is of course the best known university in the world and its elite alumni base is unparalleled. Its brand name recognition is a big drawcard (“even people in third world countries who never completed primary school have heard of Harvard”, someone said to me once). It takes about 120 people in. NYU has an even better location in New York than Columbia (it’s more central) and a large, diverse class of about 400 LLMs. It has a highly regarded tax program. Although Yale Law School is generally regarded as the premier law school in America (it has a tiny, exclusive class size and an absurdly low acceptance rate which dips below 7%), the LLM program is open only to those interested in teaching, not private practice. It takes less than 30 people in its LLM class. As for Stanford, here are a few good forum posts on it: one, two, three.

Once you’ve made yourself a short list of places to apply, the third step is sitting down and putting together the applications. Generally you’ll be required to fill out an application form, write a personal statement, gather letters of recommendation (usually one academic and one professional), send in academic transcripts and submit a resume. I’ll write about each of these components in the context of the Stanford process. The process for other schools is for the most part the same.

Most applications are due near the end of the year, in early to mid November, for an August intake the following year.

Get started early, especially with hitting people up for letters of recommendation. You can control how quickly you get your stuff done, but with these letters you are at the mercy of each of your recommenders (who are likely to be very busy individuals). The Stanford LLM is a degree aimed at practising lawyers so virtually all of its admits are coming in from private practice or in-house positions. This makes figuring out who should write your professional recommendation easy – ask your supervising partner (I’ve seen it written that Stanford occasionally gets partners applying… I have no idea who a partner would ask to be a recommender… maybe a more senior partner?). Getting an academic recommendation is a trickier prospect, especially if you have been out of uni for a long time. One interesting piece of advice I took onboard from a friend was that US unis may not have a good understanding of other countries’ academic systems. In Australia, our academic ranks begin with Lecturers and progress up through the Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and Professor titles. In the US, most academics are professors of some description – that is, our Lecturers are broadly equivalent to their “Assistant Professors”. I was told that to avoid any potential misunderstanding, I should get an academic recommendation from, at the least, an Associate Professor. Luckily I was able to cold email my former Restitution lecturer (who had been promoted to a professorial position in the time I had left uni!) and she was graciously willing to help me out.

Each uni has its own fiddly administrative requirements when it comes to submitting recommendations. Most of the time a hard copy letter, sealed in an envelope with the recommender’s signature signed across the seal is required (how anachronistic! Ahh, the conservativism of the legal field…). To make their lives easier, I wrote a briefing letter to my recommenders explaining why I was applying, what each university was looking for and the exact administrative process they had to follow (including due dates, which I pre-dated two weeks’ ahead of the real date in case of slippage). Then I sat down and talked them through it. I gave them about 3 months’ notice. Follow-up periodically -… last minute recommendations are incredibly stressful.

The next thing you should probably organize is sending your academic transcript. I submitted mine through the LSAC service, which is a bit of a ripoff, but it does save a lot of hassle. Normally you’ll need to instruct your old uni how to send the transcript to the US (if you’re using LSAC, that means the uni has to send the transcript directly to them in a sealed envelope – I recommend couriering it).

The application form and resume are pretty straight-forward.

You’ll spend the most time on your personal statement. Stanford is kind of annoying. It asks you to write about your background and asks two questions -– why an LLM and why Stanford. But, it sets out nothing about what sorts of traits it is looking for in its applicants other than at least 2 years’ work experience. I tried to infer things from profiles of its alumni. In doing so, I didn’t get much additional insight and almost psyched myself out of applying. Stanford runs two different specialist LLM streams, taking in about a dozen for each stream. I imagine it would be difficult to apply for both streams and have a credible shot at both, so essentially with only 10-15 spots available per stream, the numbers really don’t look very good. The alumni profiles, on the other hand, do look very good. Intimidatingly so.

From the forums I learned that the standard class profile is fairly senior -– most people are about 30 years old and are at about the early senior associate level in world class firms. Many have a Master’s degree already! At least three people I know of in my stream have PhDs. Given this, I am genuinely amazed that I got through. At the time I applied, I did not yet have 2 years’ legal work experience and I think I am the youngest person in my stream. I’m chalking it down to having a non-legal degree in a related field. Thank goodness for most Aussie unis making law a graduate degree. (In many other countries, including England, law can be studied by itself as an undergrad degree.)

The only advice I can really offer is to let your own voice and passion show through. Justify things with interesting examples and hard numbers where possible. Keep in mind that you’re writing for a US audience who may not be familiar with the connotations of your achievements, so spell it out for them. (The forums do mention that Stanford gets its LLM students to fill out surveys about their home countries that ask about the reputations of the local universities and law firms. If true, then the staff there at least will have a greater awareness of things when assessing applications. For example, I am pretty sure that practically no one outside of Asia and the UK has heard of my firm.)

After you’ve drafted and redrafted it, let other people read your statement and take on board their feedback. Get fresh eyes to proofread it. Here’s how I started off my statement – this gives a pretty good indication of how I positioned myself:

I have always had a passion for science and technology. I taught myself how to program in several computer languages in primary and high school. I currently maintain a weblog (www.hearye.org) which is almost ten years old and started an online magazine focused on current affairs.

There is also the TOEFL requirement, which is the test for English language proficiency. It won’t be an issue for Aussies and US unis will waive the requirement if you studied law at an English speaking uni or if it’s your native tongue. Somewhat ridiculously, Stanford demanded that I submit a “formal written request” for a waiver (complete with an attached published writing sample) before they would grant one. Despite the fact that I was born in Australia, clearly studied at Australian schools and have been practising law at an Australian firm!

There is one more bonus part to the Stanford application process that no other uni seems to have. It’s sneaky and unpleasant, especially if you’re unprepared for it. I don’t know of any other uni which interviews its LLM applicants, but I can confirm that Stanford does. There is absolutely no place on the website or in any official documentation which even hints at the fact that there will be an interview. Not the slightest indication. It’s only when you visit the forums that you start to get suspicious when you find a few scattered references about impromptu telephone interviews.

Stanford has an interview round and they conduct it by ambush. Their modus operandi is to call you, normally while you’re at work, out of the blue. One moment you’re focusing on drafting a licensing agreement and the next minute there’s an American voice on the other end of the line. And it’s not your client.

Despite being aware of this, I was still caught by surprise. There is pretty much zero communication from Stanford after they confirm receiving your application. They shortlist applicants, interview them, and accept/reject everyone at roughly the same time. Apparently about 50% progress beyond the interview stage. In early March, I began reading reports on the forums of people getting ambush calls (one interviewee happened to be in court at the time!). In hopeful anticipation, I brought an interview cheat sheet to work. Then the calls stopped going out for about a week. Naturally I thought that I had missed out and was expecting the rejection email to arrive imminently. Soon after, people started reporting acceptances, so that was the nail in the coffin in my mind.

Another week passed and then suddenly there was an American voice on the phone at 11.00am on a Friday. I was totally unprepared. The interview was short and, on my part, plain crap. One rambling answer I gave was followed by an awkward silence on the other end of the line followed by an, “O… kay… um… yeah. My next question is…” Mortifying. To my shock, I got the acceptance email half a week later.

I’m not sure if it’s proper to do this, but I have listed below some of the questions I was asked to give you an idea of what this “hidden bonus” involves:

  • What kind of work do you do at your firm?
  • What are some cases that you’ve worked on recently? What role did you take?
  • You wrote an article on X. Why did you do that?
  • Why do you want to take an LLM in your stream?
  • What do you want to do after you finish your LLM?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

There were minimal follow-up questions.

There is a silver lining to all this, but it’s only a theory: the telephone interview is conducted solely to figure out if you can actually speak English (and aren’t a raving lunatic, even though I may or may not have bordered upon that in my interview). Very few students come from countries in the Anglosphere and I am probably the only monolingual LLM student this year. There’s no warning about the call probably because they don’t want you preparing for it, but to be fair, it’s pretty much like a chat rather than a grilling.

In hindsight I think what they did was interview and accept the corporate stream before starting to process my stream. The application process was wrapped up by the time April arrived.

A little bit of trivia: The writer of the book, Legally Blonde (upon which the movie starring Reese Witherspoon was based), was writing about her experiences in Stanford Law School. It was switched to Harvard Law School in the movie because more people have heard of it -– a testament to the power of the Harvard brand.

That’s it. Any questions? Leave ‘em in the comments or email me.

This post has 2 comments

1.  Pete


Pretty fascinating Stu. Cheers

2.  Ros

Terrific article Stu. Duly passed to relevant friends!

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