In this edition of the Admission Interviews, I get to speak with Miki Pike Hamstra who is the Director of Graduate Programs at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
I first came across McKinney while attending an online “fair” held in November last year. The fair allowed me to reach out to reps from more than a dozen US law schools, including Miki, and we have kept in touch since then.
In this interview, I get Miki to share her thoughts about the benefits of an LLM from a US law school, drafting a good personal statement, the US job market for international law graduates, and a whole lot more.
Why should international students opt for an LLM?
It is pretty clear that the legal practice is a global one; students around the world are continuing to find international LLM degrees to be useful in their careers. On the practical side, I know that a lot of students are interested in knowing what is the return on investment [on an LLM].
I think the answer has three parts.
One, you learn American law. [At McKinney] you are going to be in advanced JD courses with experts from around the world. And I do believe that our law professors are some of the best in the nation. We have a core group of “expert adjuncts” as we call them – they are working and also teaching.
Two, the work experiences that you are just not going to get while studying in your home country. We have a lot of MNCs here in Indianapolis so, it is not about just working in Indy but working in an American legal setting.
Three, the network. You build your network here at McKinney from your first semester. Students can do their internships or externships, and we also pair them with JD mentors.
How should one go about choosing a law school?
I think every student would benefit from putting together a spreadsheet, a kind of an old school “pros and cons” list.
I think sometimes students make the mistake of asking questions that they think the [law] schools want to hear. I would say, flip that. Be honest about what you want. If you want a large law school with top ranking, then you are going to want to apply to schools like that.
Really think about how you prefer to learn, not just what that [degree] is going to say at the end of the year. [Maybe] you don’t prefer to learn in a large environment and you prefer practical experiences. You prefer knowing your professors on a first-name basis, and knowing your supervisors, having a small cohort.
You need to be honest with yourself about what you are looking for.
As for the rankings you may find on say US News, that relates only to the JD program, [they have] nothing to do with how LLM students feel.
That is a pretty common mistake.
Yes. [Applicants] might see that some school has amazing rankings, high student satisfaction, job placements etc but that actually does not include LLM data. If you look at those large schools, often LLM students cannot compete for the externships which means that they have a tougher time finding a job.
However, I am also a realist. I know that employers globally recognize certain names. So, if the student’s end goal is to simply get the degree with the name, that is fine. And I am not discouraging that.
But I also feel badly for students who really want something more [but] go to schools because of the rankings and the name. And they leave feeling kind of like they spent a lot of money, a year of their life, and did not get what they wanted in the end.
“But I also feel badly for students who really want something more [but] go to schools because of the rankings and the name. And they leave feeling kind of like they spent a lot of money, a year of their life, and did not get what they wanted in the end.”
How early should one start with the research?
I think students would benefit from doing some research in advance but before even doing that, be honest about what they are looking for. There is a lot of good research out there, where they can read about what they should be considering.
And I am always happy to speak with students even if they don’t end up joining my program. Like I said, I hope that they do. I believe firmly in my program and I am definitely biased towards it but I am happy to answer questions, look at their personal statement etc.
You mentioned the personal statement. That is one of the bigger challenges in the admissions process.
I think culturally, for my students around the world it is a very strange thing to sell yourself. In America, you should know we are trained at a very young age on how to sell ourselves. We are very loud, we are very confident. This is bred into us at a very young age.
I think a lot of my students from India in particular think, “I am top of the class, I don’t need to sell myself” Oh no. You still need to do that.
Pretend that you are in a competition with a lot of other people – what makes you different? What makes you unique? Your [grades], and your letters of recommendation will obviously be part of your file but the personal statement – I should be able to close my eyes and know you.
I should be able to know what is interesting to you. Why did you start the study of law, what do you want to do with the legal degree? How does my degree at my particular university help you accomplish those goals?
I would say that the number one mistake that I see is that they just reiterate their CV or their resume without really inspiring me to think why my school is a good fit for them. What are they going to bring to my school, and in return what is my school going to do for them?
“The number one mistake that I see is that they just reiterate their CV or their resume without really inspiring me to think why my school is a good fit for them. What are they going to bring to my school, and in return what is my school going to do for them?”
I have also seen students who write one personal statement and then they mass produce it. I do not recommend that. What I would say is that if you are applying to multiple schools, you can develop a common template. But make sure you have two or three paragraphs that are specific to that particular school.
You can talk about what kind of program you are interested in, what professor you are interested in, what they can give to you and what you bring to the table. And make sure you carefully edit.
I get personal statements all the time that are supposed to go to other law schools. I know people are busy, and I am quite friendly about it. I usually write back saying, “Oh I think you may have sent me the wrong draft.”
A lot of students join the LLM to sit for the US Bar.
You can do Bar planning even before you even apply for an LLM. For instance, New York offers a credentialing service for free that allows students to get their transcripts reviewed to make sure that they would be eligible to sit for the NY Bar.
Do you see a lot of students making the switch to a JD after they complete the LLM?
I do see some of my students take that course, particularly those who have not gotten jobs after graduation. They want to maximize their job prospects. In such cases I would highly recommend a JD because a JD degree allows them to sit for the Bar exam in any US state.
Choose an LLM at an institution that can also offer you the JD, like we have here. You can earn a maximum of 30 credits for the JD so that would be practically be a whole year off your JD program. So instead of a 3-year program you have now reduced it to two years.
In addition, you don’t have to submit an LSAT score. So, the barrier to entry for the JD program is much lower if you have an LLM from a US institution.
One of the big factors in LLM applications is employment. But the US market is saturated.
That is exactly what I tell students. The legal market in the US as a whole, is saturated. So, you want to look for pockets in the country where you have opportunities, and in my opinion, you should study in those areas because you can build your network when you are there.
There are a lot of students who come in thinking, “All I have to do to get a job is just get an LLM.” That is completely false. That is not even true for the JD degree. Just studying is not good enough and has never been.
“There are a lot of students who come in thinking, “All I have to do to get a job is just get an LLM.” That is completely false. That is not even true for the JD degree. Just studying is not good enough and has never been.”
From the first day that students come here I say, “Please make time for internships or clinics because your mind may change. After you have been here for two semesters, you might want to work in the US for a while.”
Does asking for aid affect the chances of getting admission?
In my opinion, [asking for aid] is never a bad thing. But I am also a school that has a lot of funding for international students. I can’t speak for all universities but [financial aid] is something you would want to know from the very beginning. If you don’t ask the questions, then you won’t know and then your whole plan can fall apart.
Some students may want to pursue a doctorate degree after the LLM. Any advice?
Look for an LLM program that has a thesis option. At my law school we have started limiting enrolment to our SJD program to people who have written a thesis before. We [also] give preferential treatment to our LLM students thesis. And I am going to tell you why.
When you work with a faculty member as an LLM student, you are probably working on an idea that is going to turn into your dissertation. You have developed a work relationship with a faculty member, you have learnt how to research. So, when you apply for the SJD program, you already have someone in your court.
A lot of times, the student will have the advisor write the letter of recommendation for the SJD program. In my program you have to submit a writing sample – that is already ready. And you already have an advisor, so for the admissions committee it is very easy.
I think the SJD market is also starting to get a little saturated. So again, be honest. When you write to the LLM admissions office, ask if there is a pathway to the SJD program, and what should one do to prepare for that.
Ask all the questions that are important to you, and you will find the right LLM program.