Staying in the US after an LL.M. : unattainable dream or realistic ambition?
LL.M.s in the U.S. are often presented like doorways to prestigious careers both at home and internationally. But what about graduates who wish to stay in the United-States? If you have done your research on international internship opportunities and work permits, you are aware that the legal sector is limited in comparison with other fields (like marketing or finance).
However, undertaking an LL.M. gives students an edge to gain professional experience in the U.S.
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1. During the school year : clinics and research assistant positions
If you are unfamiliar with the term clinic, don’t worry, I had no idea what it meant either at first. Law school clinics are programs, run by universities, for students to gain practical experience in dealing with real cases under the discretion of professors. Participating in clinics not only gives you practical experience, but you can also earn university credits. On top of that, they are often specialised (tax, immigration, intellectual property, etc.) which allows you to develop expertise in your field. If you’re lucky enough, your professor may offer you a position which will give you more chances to get the very sought-after work permit H1B.
If you prefer theory to practice, you can apply to become a research assistant. Do not hesitate to send your application to professors spontaneously. Taking initiative is very appreciated in the USA.
2. After an LL.M. : the OPT, a golden opportunity
The OPT (Optional Practical Training) is a work permit, delivered for a maximum duration of 12 months (for law students) for all students that have completed two full-time consecutive terms. The student is only allowed 90 days of non-activity, during those 12 months, but the status can be extended by completing 20 hours of community service a week. All professional activity, paid or unpaid, has to be completed in the same field the student graduated in.
Career centers advise students to work for a company likely to sponsor them for a work visa. The application fees to OPTs are about $380. The procedure can last several months: about a month for the university to give you the necessary paperwork and up to 3 months for the USCIS (US immigration service) to send you your work permit.
3. Finding a job: the importance of networking
The OPT does not guarantee a job. Networking is your best chance to find work as an international student. Do not overlook it! If an unpaid position will be easy for you to find with a little networking (or by crawling Craigslist) when you are looking for paid work experience, building a network becomes a full-time job.
You must keep in mind that the less renown your university is, the harder it will be for you to secure a job, because positions are limited in big law firms and businesses.
- Join a student society! Apply to be Mr. Representative in the Student Bar Society. Passionate about sports law? Join the Sports Law society. There are many societies to choose from and they all organise networking events with professionals.
- Join professional societies! The different Bar Associations, local or national (like the American Bar Association), are free for students. Make the most of these to build your own network! I personally thought my city’s Bar Association was highly open, active and easy to join. I did 50% of my networking there; since I was hoping to stay (I actually ended up having to move to NYC to find work).
- Don’t forget about your professors. Professors are happy to help students by giving advice or even contacts. One of my professors became a very good source of contacts and it was refreshing to feel supported by the community.
- Take advantage of your university’s career services: sign up to its job board, have someone go through your CV with you, take mock interviews.
- Be sure to regularly attend Job Fairs, like the one in New York dedicated to LL.M.s in January. There are job fairs for all fields: intellectual property, tax law, public interest law.
My own experience: I know of many international students who had to go home because they were unable to secure a paid position, even though they applied to hundreds of job offers and had more experience than me. For my part, I managed to join a local activity where I met a professional, whom I contacted later on specifying what I was looking for. I was very straightforward. In case of emergency: You can always apply to personal injury law firms (the ones with the cheesy
ads on TV). Their business models rely on making claims for damages caused by road or work injuries. I know it may not seem like an attractive place to start working, but it is a sector which is looking to hire as they have very little candidates. A professional experience in the United States can be a serious plus on your CV.
New York, the city of opportunities: NYC is a serious platform for legal professionals. The city is harsh but overflows with opportunities. The New York bar is one of the only ones that you can take and if you pass it, you can apply to lawyer positions there.
4. Following an OPT : the mirage of the H1B
The H1B is THE work visa that OPT students hope for. Unfortunately, the system has more to do with luck than merit. There are only 85,000 visas available each year and only files selected during the lottery are examined. This year, lawyers believe that only 20% of candidates will receive the precious H1B. Not only are there numerical restrictions but administrative limitations exist too; like the fact that candidates must apply for a H1B in their field of expertise (you cannot go from in-house counsel to accountant for example), you must also have at least a Bachelor’s degree (impossible for paralegals), and not to mention that the lottery opens on the 1st of April of each year and that the
visa begins on the 1st of October (you may get an extension of your OPT if it ends on the 1st of April to remain in the country).
My advice: the numerical restriction does not apply to candidates who are sponsored by an institution of higher education or law clinics. So think about this possibility of going through a non-profit organisation or a government research organisation. You can find a great database on the website HERC for jobs in higher education. Be careful however, many universities refuse to sponsor students for purely administrative positions.
5. A limited amount of visas for legal professions
The legal profession is limited when it comes to other available visas. If you do not get the H1B and that your employer won’t sponsor you for a green card (which costs an estimated £10,000), it will be extremely difficult to stay in the United States.
The IT and medical sectors are in need of talents and have their own visa categories. If you are a young professional, you cannot apply to extraordinary ability visas. In-house counsels are not generally in management positions. Have a look at immigration laws and the different types of visas if you are eligible. Other possibilities
1) The L-1 : a long-term project
The L-1 is an intra-business transfer visa, open to employees seeking management, executive or specialised knowledge positions, having worked for the business, outside the USA, for 12 consecutive months in the past 36 months.
2) The E-1/E-2: a particular niche
The E-1 treaty trader and the E-2 treaty investor are open to businesses (and their employees in the position of executives, managers or specialists/essential skilled workers), which trade in great quantity with the USA or have significant investments in the USA.
Best of luck!