Law Schools, LLMs, Student Loans

What Is the Value of an LLM Degree?

Earlier this week, the legal blogosphere took a look at the “value” of an LL.M degree. I put “value” in scare quotes because the main point of the pieces in the National Law Journal and the WSJ Law Blog was that we don’t really know how valuable these degree programs are.

Now, in most markets, not knowing whether or not something has value would kind of be a big deal. But when it comes to legal education, the inability to determine the value of the degree isn’t a problem.

Faced with a lack of information about how much the LL.M credential is worth, law schools are quite happy to charge as much as possible for it anyway….

The National Law Journal’s Karen Sloan has a line that would shock the conscience if we weren’t all so used to swallowing the crap law schools dish out. She writes in her NLJ article: “Even individual schools have difficulty quantifying the employment benefits of their own [LL.M] programs.”

I wonder if the law schools have difficulty quantifying how much money they are making off of students who may or may not be getting any benefit from the extra year of school?

That was a rhetorical question. It’s obvious that law schools enjoy huge profit margins off of LL.M programs:

Administrators point out that per-student costs tend to be lower for advanced law degree programs because the curriculum largely consists of classes already offered to J.D. students — meaning there is little need to hire additional faculty.

“Are these programs a cash cow? Yes and no,” said Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington professor Carole Silver. “The school gets a year of tuition and the LL.M. students fill in the seats in classes that would otherwise be empty.”

Go back and read the quote again if it makes you feel better, but you didn’t miss anything. In response to the question about LL.M programs being “cash cows,” Professor Silver said “yes and no,” and then listed reasons why the programs are cash cows — without ever getting to the “no” part of the answer. What’s the net-profit downside of having an LL.M program? When you have that much cash just lying around your school, it increases the chances that Ben Affleck is going to show up and rob you?

Whatever, it’s too early in the morning to get worked up about the fact that law schools (once again) have shown themselves to be far more concerned with raking in tuition dollars than educating new lawyers. Just because law schools are selling something that they’ve made no attempt to appraise doesn’t mean the thing is worthless.

Hell, the LL.M could be undervalued for all the law school administrators know. From the WSJ Law Blog:

For some, the programs, typically conferred after a fourth year of law school, can be a good way a good way for foreign attorneys to get a foot in the door at U.S firms or as a way for U.S. attorneys to break into highly specialized practices such as tax law.

We only have anecdotal evidence to go on. The NLJ points out that the ABA doesn’t track employment or salary data for LL.M. graduates — because, you know, why would the only organization in charge of regulating law schools spend any time collecting data that could form the basis of regulation it has no stomach to enforce? But, as anecdotal evidence goes, lots of people say getting an LL.M. is worth it if you are going into tax or something similarly specialized.

And for what it’s worth, during the Great Recession, lots of people from the Lost Generation felt that doing an LL.M. for a year was preferable to sitting on a couch and waiting for the phone to ring. Even if getting an LL.M. doesn’t directly help a person get a job, it can’t look worse on a resume than flipping burgers for a year while you waited for the economy to turn around. So while there’s no hard evidence that most LL.M. degrees actually help a person get a job, there’s little evidence that the credential hurts anybody. The only thing you really lose is the opportunity cost of one year of your life and whatever the school charged you for a year’s tuition.

Which is, of course, where a law school’s otherwise benign capitalism becomes something more problematic. Let’s view this from the law school’s point of view.

You (as the law school) are taking kids who are three years into debt and clearly have no opportunity to earn money, and you’re giving them the potentially false hope that by debt-financing a fourth year, things will get better. You’ve done nearly no research about the employment opportunities your LL.M. confers, but the kids don’t know that you’re talking out of your ass. Still, the kids trust you because they’re stupid, because they’re desperate, because if I tell a homeless person that I’ll give him my change only after he sings me a song, he has no choice but to believe me. The prospective LL.M. students think: “There’s no way they’d even be offering this to me if it was completely worthless; I’m dealing with a respected institution of higher learning here, not a used car salesman.”

Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult used car salesmen. They at least have to adhere to certain minimal standards that guard against consumer fraud. A used car salesman couldn’t sell you a car without first verifying that it had an engine. If certain models kept exploding and disfiguring consumers, the government would step in.

Law schools don’t have to worry about any of that. There are no law school Lemon laws. Law schools can keep passing out degrees that may or may not do what their purchasers expect them to do.

So we may never know the answer to the question, “What is the value of an LL.M degree?” Law schools have no incentive to figure it out, the ABA is totally AWOL, and the LL.M. graduates aren’t going to be any more effective at holding their law schools accountable than their J.D. cousins.

‘Cash cow’ or valuable credential? [National Law Journal]
The LL.M.: A Valuable Degree or a Wasted (and Expensive) Year? [WSJ Law Blog]

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