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 (an LLM or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

Sandra Mathew opted for a J.D. at the USC Gould School of Law, a course she opted for after working for a years as a corporate lawyer in India. In this FPA, she shares the reasons behind opting for the JD as opposed to the more popular LL.M., the J.D. experience itself, and what it takes to find employment in the US as a foreign trained lawyer.

Alright, let’s get the most obvious question out of the way – why a J.D. as opposed to the more popular LL.M? Were you deterred by the fact that the J.D. would require substantially more investment in terms of time and finances?

I had initially decided to do an LL.M., but when I started talking to people about job prospects, specifically in the U.S., the responses were not encouraging. For personal reasons, I had to stay in the U.S., and popular post-LL.M. job destinations like the U.K. and Singapore were not viable.

By researching, I realized that only a handful of U.S. firms hire L.L.Ms, and even then, the choice of practice areas offered was extremely limited. Job prospects with a traditional J.D. track are excellent because, like the day zero’s placements in India, most schools will help you with recruitment through On-Campus Interviews (OCI).

LL.M.s are not usually given an option to participate in OCIs. So, for an LL.M. student, the job hunt is their responsibility, with minimal support from the school.

Also, since 3L J.D. recruiting is extremely rare unless you are interested in public defense or some public interest organizations, most J.D.’s will have two years to figure out a full-time position compared to a nine-month LL.M.

I also understand that lateraling with an LL.M. is much more difficult than when you have a J.D. So, the repercussions of limiting yourself to an LL.M. will follow you through your career.

Time and money were huge considerations in deciding between the J.D. and the LL.M. However, scholarships are available for a J.D. if you have a good LSAT score. With my merit scholarship from USC, my J.D. for three years is only marginally more expensive than an LL.M.

Of course, the loss of three years and earning potential during that time was a harder sell. I had to think hard about whether I was ready to sacrifice two extra years for the certainty of a job and a solid career in my practice of choice versus whether I should graduate early, but possibly with the uncertainty and potential issues throughout my career.

The choice was clear for me; I was ready to invest two extra years of my life for the next thirty years of my career.

And once you had decided that it was going to be the JD, how did you go about shortlisting schools? What were some of the important factors for you in the shortlisting process?

For me, the most crucial factor was the availability of scholarships. I mostly shortlisted schools where my LSAT score was above the 75th percentile to have the best chance at good scholarships. The other considerations were location, past employment rates in Big Law, and law school ranking.

How did you balance the law school admission process along with work? How early did the preparation begin, and what would you say is a good amount of time to prep for the LSAT?

LSAT is a very learnable test. But it requires quite a bit of studying and testing. I took the LSAT 3 times, out of which I had the same score twice! It was imperative for me to get an excellent score to maximize my chances for scholarships. You can do all the basic studying in about two months, but practice is critical.

So, even if you know the base material, you need to practice to keep on increasing your score constantly. J.D. applications also place a lot of value on your personal statements and diversity statements. Schools are looking for holistic candidates who would succeed in their educational environment. All in all, studying, testing, and the application process took about six months.

How has the JD experience been thus far? If you could compare this to your undergraduate law degree, what would some of the differences in the learning experience be?

My JD experience has been gratifying, but it has been more rigorous than my LL.B experience. The difference would be that you are expected to be prepared for all the classes because cold calling is rampant, and class participation is usually a sizeable component of the grades.

Coursework is also heavier because it is usually thirty to seventy pages of readings for each class, and this adds up to a lot. Indian international students will have an advantage in pursuing the JD because the curriculum is rooted in the same case law method we are familiar with.

What have been some of the most challenging aspects of the JD experience?

One of the marked challenges was that a lot more importance is placed on first-year law school grades if you are a Big Law aspirant. So, before you are acclimatized to the system, there is constant pressure to be competitive and do well.

Recruitment for Big Law internships happens during the summer after your first year and is focused on first-year grades. You need to try your absolute best in your first year.  However, since you will have your internship that will convert to a job offer right after your first year, the other years become quite manageable.

This is unlike in India, where you had to consistently perform at least till the fourth year to get a job during Day Zero.

Given your position, what is your reading of the employment opportunities available to foreign-trained lawyers in the US? Do you think that it is getting more difficult (or easier) to break into the US legal market?

I don’t have enough experience to answer this question because, as a JD student, my target market was equivalent to domestic students. However, U.S. employers loved that I had transactional law experience in India. I could network meaningfully, relying on my work experience in India. I didn’t even have to participate in OCI because networking and good grades helped me get a Big Law internship before my first year was over.

In my experience, there are always plenty of options for a J.D. candidate. It is extremely competitive, but you can always make it. 

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering pursuing higher education abroad?

Knowing why you want to study abroad and choosing a course according to your goal is important. If you want to work in the U.S., a J.D. is a much better option than an LL.M. However, if you are amenable to working in other countries, an LL.M. may be a better fit. I also want to stress the importance of researching your options and networking once you have started your course here.