First Person Accounts: Jose Faina on NYU Law’s Tax LLM

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of law graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

In this FPA, we get Jose Faina Rodriguez-Vila to talk about the reasons he opted for the LLM in Taxation at NYU Law, his first Tax LLM at IE Law School, preparing for the NY Bar, and a whole lot more.

The NYU LLM was your second master’s in Tax Law. What were the factors that made you consider a second Tax LLM, and once this was decided how did you go about selecting just where to apply?

Tax Law is probably one of the most complex and technical areas within the Law and although the majority of jurisdictions share the same principles, the rules and details vary significantly from European countries to the United States.

I gained my first Tax LLM at a major Spanish university and thus it was focused mostly on Spanish and EU Tax Law. It helped me land my first job as an associate at Baker McKenzie in Spain.

However, my ultimate goal was to become a qualified tax lawyer in the United States specialized in international taxation and structuring of cross-border deals, where I could leverage on both my European and U.S. experience. Consequently, NYU Law was the most interesting route.

For students interested in specializing in U.S. federal Tax Law, there are three – maybe four – major schools well-known for providing first class education. Those are Northwestern University, University of Florida, Georgetown and, of course, New York University.

I applied to the last three schools and fortunately was admitted to all of them. My decision focused then on the overall prestige, tuition, scholarships and location. In this regard, NYU is known for being the top LLM program for Tax Law in the U.S. and it is located at the heart of the financial center of the world.

I received a higher scholarship for Georgetown but finally opted to attend the NYU program because of the multiple networking possibilities that New York offers as a city.

Given the specialised nature of your study, were there any other schools that you shortlisted?

As mentioned above, I applied to University of Florida and Georgetown apart from NYU. In addition, I also applied to Columbia University because even though their Tax LLM is not within the top programs, their overall reputation in law is still likely to be a good investment.

However, by April 2020 Columbia emailed me saying that they would need more time to consider my application. Because I had already been admitted to NYU and received a decent scholarship, I finally withdrew my Columbia application.

Sticking with the application process, any advice on how to approach the application itself? How much time do you think one should devote to the application?

Each candidate should take the application process very seriously. These schools are highly selective and in general the student needs to show good grades, relevant work experience and good command of the English language. The cover letter is also very important because it helps the Admissions Committee to differentiate among candidates and ascertain the reasons why the candidate is applying to their program.

It is advisable to get familiar with the faculty and read some of their publications in order to show that you are interested in the work they do and willing to learn from them. It is also recommended to review the cover letter several times and gather opinions from multiple sources (e.g. friends, family, professors).

Although admissions are highly competitive, weak points can be offset by other aspects of the overall candidacy. For example, having lower-than-average grades should not be a problem if the candidate can prove that he/she has experience working with top firms, has done relevant pro bono work for the community or has other relevant skills.

Looking back, what were some of the bigger differences between the LLM at NYU and the LLM at IE Law School?

The approach was similar because IE Law School is a Spanish school that follows the U.S. teaching approach – socratic method and case study. IE is mostly known for their MBA and their Master’s degrees in Finance and International Business, however it has built a niche reputation for being the top Tax LLM in Spain.

IE also partners with NYU in multiple fields and they have arrangements to send their students for a couple of months to study at the other one. However, although IE has a very diverse class when it comes to its MBA, it is not the case with regards to their LLMs.

NYU is different in the sense that it is one of the top schools for Law and Business, and thus there are students from all around the globe. NYU is also located in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis as New York City. Their faculty is excellent in all fields and it has a great career services office to help students in their job search.

Again, with the benefit of hindsight, what were some of the most rewarding aspects of the NYU LLM?

Being able to study at one of the world’s best institutions for legal education is definitely one of the most important aspects to consider. In addition, NYU has such an academic community feeling that I have not seen anywhere else. They offer a lot of flexibility as compared to other top law schools in the U.S.

For instance, during the pandemic, all other major schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc.) were not willing to allow their students to defer their enrolment date even if those students were not able to get student visas on time.

On the contrary, NYU heard its students’ demands and arranged a whole new academic year for us, starting in January 2021 and graduating in December 2021. In addition, it is also very rewarding being able to sit the New York Bar Exam after having successfully graduated from a New York school.

When did you start preparing for the NY Bar exam? And any advice for those considering the NY Bar exam in the future?

As people often say, the NY Bar exam is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Generally bar students start their NY Bar preparation in May after graduating from their LLM / JD. As an LLM, we lack the three years of law school study that JDs have, but do not let that scare you.

Passing the NY Bar is absolutely possible if you are willing to make the effort and commitment to full-time studying for 8-10 weeks. Organization is key to success in taking the bar exam. Students should allocate between 8 to 10 hours a day of study, including weekends and festivities. Memorizing the outlines sooner than later may prove to be a huge advantage.

Also, choosing the right bar preparation course is important. There are some differences among the various programs that the market offers. Barbri is generally considered the best one but there are others such as Themis or Kaplan which also have very high passing rates. It all comes down to what your budget is, to whether you prefer studying remotely, whether you need customized service, and things like that.

Finally, it is all about practicing, practicing and more practicing. After doing around 1,500-2,000 MBE questions the learning curve gets more efficient because the patterns we see at the actual exam are very similar to the ones you get during your practice sessions. It is also very important to practice MPTs primarily because of the time constraints.

As long as you are able to manage the timings, you should get 20% of your score with relatively no effort because there is nothing to memorize for that part. When studying for the MEE, it is important to focus on the highly tested topics like Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Miranda warnings, Mortgages or Negligence. You will probably not be able to answer all the questions and problems, but, guess what, you don’t need a perfect score, you just need to pass!

Lastly, any advice for lawyers who are looking to pursue a foreign LLM?

Do not be afraid of failure. We all know doing an LLM in a foreign country is a huge investment but believe me, that with the right dose of effort and commitment it will eventually pay out. Build a strategy for and after the LLM, have a plan B, a plan C and even a plan D; network as much as you can and, most importantly, enjoy the LLM year because you will not have a similar experience ever in your life!

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