The Admission Interviews, are meant to provide insights into LLM admissions right from the law school itself. The primary idea behind this series is to provide that little bit of extra information that may not be available on the law school’s website.

Assistant Dean Stephen Barnes heads Penn State Law School’s Graduate and International Programs team. A frequent visitor to India, Dean Barnes also oversees exchange programs at PennState. In fact, I caught up with him during a recent visit he had made to the Institute of Law at Nirma University, where he is a frequent visitor. In this interview, he describes what law schools seek from LL.M. applicants, some of the more common mistakes made, and what a US LL.M. holds for the international law graduate.

I ask this of everyone I can get a hold of – what do you think are some of the inherent benefits of an international legal education? 

Our Penn State Law LL.M. graduates report many advantages, depending on their individual objectives. For new BB.A./LL.B. graduates, many tell us that more course selections and the ability to specialize in an area (e.g., arbitration, intellectual property) made them more competitive for placement in top law firms, ones that might have been formerly out of reach.

Experienced practitioners inform, especially, those who qualified and passed the New York Bar after graduating from Penn State Law’s LL.M. Program, that they benefitted from advanced placement in their home law firms.

Those LL.M. students seeking an academic career were able to further specialize, also partnering with a scholar in residence as a research assistant, to help narrow their future research interests for a more compelling dissertation proposal.

All students report the benefits of not only learning from top international scholars, but also from their classmates in a most diverse international academy (Penn State Law has enrolled students from 75 countries in the past four years).  The globalized perspective of law not only helped them learn the laws of other jurisdictions (including the U.S.), but also helped them comparatively better understand the laws in their home countries.  In addition, all students experience the personal challenges and benefits of greater independence—committing to a true academic adventure abroad.

“In addition, all students experience the personal challenges and benefits of greater independence—committing to a true academic adventure abroad.”

What do law school administrators think of law school rankings, particularly those like US News which have quite the following. When looking at these rankings, what should prospective applicants be aware of (apart from the fact that the rankings are for the JD course)?

Our Penn State Law professors have a range of practical and academic experience, and many were educated at the USNWR “top-10 ranked schools” (and top institutions abroad), and chose academic careers at Penn State Law based on its excellent academic reputation, and the top-25 research ranking of Penn State University (all colleges and disciplines).

So, professors are essentially making the same career choices as students, based on the academic reputation of the law school and the greater university.

Prospective applicants exploring LL.M. options should take into account the overall academic reputation of the university (and not just the law school), and also be mindful of the significant benefits of the alumni networks available.

“Prospective applicants exploring LL.M. options should take into account the overall academic reputation of the university (and not just the law school), and also be mindful of the significant benefits of the alumni networks available. “

Penn State University boasts the largest active alumni network in the world (750,000+), providing incredible international career networking opportunities that, say, a smaller or regional law school or university is unable to offer.

On the application front, what do law schools like Penn State Law look for in a) the personal statement, and b) the recommendation letters? Also, what are some of the more common errors that applicants tend to make?

From first inquiry (e.g., email) to final document drafts (CV, Personal Statement, and letters of recommendation), the applicant should be mindful that Admissions Committee members are evaluating the total application.

Every document, every communication reflects on the LL.M. candidate, as they speak to the seriousness, professionalism, and preparation of the applicant. A well-composed Personal Statement, using proper writing conventions is a difference-maker.  A CV with poor writing mechanics can be fatal.

“Every document, every communication reflects on the LL.M. candidate, as they speak to the seriousness, professionalism, and preparation of the applicant. A CV with poor writing mechanics can be fatal.”

Strong, personalized letters of recommendation from a referee who really knows the applicant can be decisive in scholarship decisions.  Applicants frequently save the letters of recommendation as a “last step,” as many assume that the stature of the referee is more persuasive than a personalized letter from a professor or supervisor who can advocate for the applicant.

We encourage applicants to seek referees who can be advocates, and not simply “endorsements” by professional stature.

In a similar theme, and don’t mean to put you in a spot here, but do you prefer candidates with some work experience? Or, to rephrase, what are the advantages that someone with work experience brings to the application that a fresh law graduate may not? 

This depends on the applicant. Some just-graduated law students know exactly what they want; others use the LL.M. residency to explore options they might not have enjoyed in their home country or university.  But, they have the independence and maturity to let their curiosity and objectives guide them.

So, we wouldn’t discourage the just-graduated law student from exploring the LL.M. Program.  Those students with significant internship and externship experiences in their home jurisdiction; and especially those with at least one year of work experience come to Penn State Law with a clearer career objective and can better integrate what they are learning in the classroom and clinics with their professional goals.

When it comes to aid, could you disclose a rough range of aid that is usually offered to international LLM candidates? 

Penn State Law offers tuition scholarships ranging from $10,000 to very limited almost-full tuition scholarships based on four criteria:

  • Academic performance,
  • Professional experience,
  • Financial need, and
  • Other personal credentials not otherwise reflected in academics or professional experience.

Once a candidate has submitted a complete application, the applicant is invited for an on-site or Skype interview—which also becomes a conversation about financial need.  Scholarships are then decided by the Admissions Committee, following the interview.

If there was anything that you wished more prospective candidates knew about the LLM programme, what would it be? 

Applicants should consider the totality of the university reputation and the quality of life during residency. There are tremendous benefits, for example, of residing in a true university community and campus:  to be involved in other colleges and academic forums available outside the law school curriculum; access to professors; the range of artistic and athletic activities; safety; cost-of living; and the hard to describe, but always experienced “campus spirit” that is inherent in a campus setting.

Penn State University, for example, is always ranked among the top 5 campuses in the U.S.—ranked by students, not by commercial-driven rankings guides. This is largely driven by the tremendous international environment:  this is a place where we equally honor celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, Nowruz, and all other holidays and cultures.

“Penn State University, for example, is always ranked among the top 5 campuses in the U.S.—ranked by students, not by commercial-driven rankings guides.”

Lastly, how do you think international law graduates can make the most of the relatively short LLM programme? 

Be engaged from Day 1! Every graduate at commencement relates how “This year went by so fast!”

Engaged students take every opportunity to introduce themselves to their classmates—wherever they might come from. They take the initiative and develop personal relationships with their professors—they are always available:  all you need to do is make an appointment.

They take courses in subjects they might have been before unfamiliar with—and now they find a new discipline they are passionate about, that will reset their professional and academic objectives. And, they become involved in all the many communities on and off-campus, and not just their peer classmates from their home countries.

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