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Mastering the Law: A Walk Through an American LL.M. Program

Mastering the Law: A Walk Through an American LL.M. Program


A steadily increasing number of lawyers from Central and Eastern Europe travel overseas to obtain graduate degrees from prominent law schools in the United States and United Kingdom. To learn a bit about how a successful graduate program works we reached out to Polly Lawson, the Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies at the top-tier University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia.

CEELM: Can you describe the UVA LL.M. program for our readers?

P.L.: Our Graduate Studies program provides an American legal education to lawyers who have obtained their first law degree in their home countries. Virginia’s LL.M. offers both a broad introduction to American law and legal theory and advanced training in specialized areas of the law relevant to the student’s career in private practice, academia, or public service. By maintaining a small and highly selective program of about 50 students, we ensure a supportive atmosphere. Unlike most LL.M. programs, our candidates take classes alongside J.D. students, allowing participants to fully engage in the community. Because Virginia offers more than 250 courses each year in an array of topics, students in the program also have wide latitude to plan courses of study that are tailored to their individual interests and career objectives.

CEELM: In what other ways does the UVA program differ from those at other schools in the US? 

P.L.: One of the biggest ways is the small class size and supportive, collegial environment. Virginia is justly famous for its collegial environment that bonds students and faculty, and student satisfaction is consistently cited as among the highest in American law schools. Princeton Review rated UVA Law as No. 1 in quality of life and top five for best professors, classroom experience, and career prospects in 2016. LL.M. students not only get to know other LL.M. students from all over the world, but also the J.D. students and our outstanding faculty as well. The same faculty – leading scholars and acknowledged experts in all aspects of public and private law – teach LL.M. and J.D. students.

CEELM: What’s the value of an LL.M. in general? 

P.L.: There are many reasons to pursue an LL.M. degree in the U.S. First, you will be part of a global network of students, faculty, and alumni from all over the world. UVA Law has 20,000 alumni. You will strengthen your English skills, including legal terminology and writing style. You will build confidence and practice in presenting your ideas to others. Classroom discussions and debates are common in U.S. law schools, and it is no different here. LL.M. students can share their experiences with J.D. students, and bring a worldly perspective and experience to the classroom. Substantively, you will have the opportunity to focus on a particular area of the law, and improve your understanding of American law. You will face new rules, new frameworks and a new court system. Some alums have remarked to me that having this alternative lens and being able to analyze issues from a common-law perspective has allowed them to provide more creative solutions to their clients and given them opportunities to advance their careers. Graduates of our program are better able to understand complex global issues and will be more marketable to future employers. Going back to the first point about the global network, these are the colleagues that you are going to refer others to, who will refer business to you, and who will be your colleagues and friends for the rest of your professional and personal life. Each state has different criteria and procedures for admitting lawyers, but some students will take a bar exam and be licensed to practice in the U.S. following their LL.M.

CEELM: How do you help admitted students prepare for their lives at the law school? 

P.L.: In the spring we create an admitted students Facebook page (or WeChat group for students who don’t have access to Facebook). We connect incoming students and alumni early on. It is not uncommon for the outgoing students to sell cars, furniture, etc., to the incoming group! From that, students will often create a What’s App group to share information quickly and easily. I have visited alums that still maintain and use their What’s App groups!

Our Student Records Office administers a lottery process for course enrollment over the summer. We give 3Ls and LLMs priority in that process, so that they have the first chance to enroll in a particular course. If a student wants to take the NY bar after graduation, for example, we advise them of the required courses and then advise them about other courses that are suited to their academic and professional interests, or otherwise popular with JD students. I end up doing a lot of academic advising over the summer. I clear my calendar and have an hour block for each incoming student to Skype or conference. I have early morning and late night availability so that students can minimize interruption to their work day. Students sign up online and get a reminder just before the meeting time, and I don’t have to worry about the time conversion because the app does it for me! Students can (and often do) make changes to their schedule after that, but this process really helps LLMs think through their course enrollment and schedules and enroll in the courses they want and/or need. 

As to when they are required to be here in Charlottesville, we have a four-day mandatory orientation program prior to JD orientation and 1L classes beginning. We start with a catered breakfast Monday morning in Caplin Pavilion, so students can meet each other and start getting to know each other.  We give tours of the law school and the law library, and sometimes Central Grounds (the law school is located on the northern part of campus, which we refer to as “North Grounds”). We try to balance administrative “how to” type information with substantive instruction with social opportunities. We invite all of the student services offices for introductions, so students can start thinking about how to pay their bill or how to find a job during OPT or how to connect to the secure wifi at the law school. This year, we added lectures about common law and case study and a lecture on the American legal system and the structure of our court systems. We invited professors to lunch with the LL.M. students, and the dean hosted the students for breakfast. We have a welcome picnic for students and their families, and a lot of faculty and staff and their families joined. One of the unique features of our orientation week is that Professor Verdier, Chair of the Graduate Program, meets with all students individually to discuss their course plans for the year, and answer any questions they may have about classes. This all takes place prior to the add/drop period, so students can make any necessary adjustments to their schedules. 

CEELM: What connection does UVA’s LL.M. program have to Central and Eastern Europe? 

P.L.: We are excited about attracting more students from Central and Eastern Europe, and increasing the recognition of the University of Virginia and the Law School abroad. Each of our admitted students has compiled an exceptional academic record in earning the first degree in law and, more importantly, has demonstrated compelling reasons to pursue graduate legal studies at the University of Virginia. We provide these students with a firm grounding in U.S. legal principles and methods as applied in international settings with the ultimate goal of propagating the rule of law in the students’ home countries.  Many of our graduates have gone on to achieve great distinction in government, academics, and private practice in their home countries.

We are especially interested in students whose countries’ economies and political systems are in transition. We believe that graduates from Virginia and other leading American law schools will be uniquely positioned to foster closer trade and political ties between the United States and these emerging markets.

CEELM: Do you enjoy working in the LL.M. program, personally? Why is that?

P.L.: I absolutely love it!  The students are inspiring, and I love getting to know them and learn more about their cultures and experiences. I think of how brave they must be to come to another country, considering that most of them are not native English speakers, and that some bring their families for a year (or more). I remember how challenging law school was for me, as an American citizen growing up in the U.S., and then how challenging it must be for them – to face a totally different legal system and structure, and yet how grateful I am that they are willing to do so. Our students and faculty learn so much from them and I really enjoy working with them. They get to know the wonderful city of Charlottesville and take advantage of all that our beautiful area offers, and have a wonderful time doing so.

CEELM: When was your first visit to CEE, and where was it? What in particular do you remember from that visit?

P.L.: My first visit was to Zagreb, last year as a matter of fact. It is a beautiful city. Unfortunately, I was not there long enough to explore much more than the city market and the Museum of Broken Relationships, which was both compelling and poignant.  I look forward to returning soon to Central and Eastern Europe and exploring more countries – we have some terrific alumni that I can’t wait to visit!  

CEELM: Do you have any trips to the region scheduled for 2017-2018 which would allow interested lawyers to speak to you in person?

P.L.: I will be in Prague and Zagreb this fall in November as part of the EducationUSA LLM European Fair. The event in Prague will be held on Saturday, November 11, from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. local time. In Zagreb, the EducationUSA LLM Fair will take place on Monday, November 13 at the Sheraton Hotel, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The EducationUSA LLM European Fair in Vienna is on Wednesday, November 15 from 4-6 p.m. at the Amerika Haus. I hope to return to the area in the spring of 2018, and hopefully visit a few more countries at that time.

CEELM: Finally, what one thing about Charlottesville stands out in your mind as something the LL.M.’s consistently enjoy?

P.L.: Students take full advantage of the beauty of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Bodo’s Bagels is a local favorite, along with shops and restaurants on the Corner and the Downtown pedestrian mall. Students enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains, having a picnic in Shenandoah National Park, running or biking around Grounds, visiting wineries, attending Foxfield (the local steeplechase race), visiting the historic homes of Monticello or Montpelier, kayaking on the reservoir, and skiing at Wintergreen or Masanutten in the winter. It really depends on what the students enjoy doing in their free time, but there is no shortage of things to do outside of class!

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.9 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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