Michael Simkovic (Seton Hall; moving to USC), U.S. LLM Programs Probably Benefit International Students:
Part 1: Students Who Stay in the U.S.:
At a conference I recently attended, some law professors and administrators seemed willing to assume the worst about LLM and international JD programs.[fn 1] They seemed to think that LLM programs provide revenue to law schools but do little to help students. This stoked my curiosity about international law programs. It seems likely, as conference attendees suggested, that LLM admissions are less exclusive than JD admissions at comparable institutions. But lower selectivity does not imply that LLM programs fail to help their students.
Immigrants are generally at a disadvantage relative to those born in the United States because of language, culture, and legal issues. But comparing immigrants to U.S.-born individuals tells us nothing about the benefits of U.S. education for immigrants. Instead, we can either compare immigrants to those from their countries who stay home, or compare immigrants to each other by education level.
Decades of peer reviewed labor economics research indicates that additional education boosts earnings. Moreover, Immigration to the United States can often dramatically boost earnings for immigrants over the long term. Are foreign LLM programs or international JDs exceptions to widely observed trends regarding benefits of education and immigration?
While data is limited, the unsurprising answer appears to be: Probably not.
Using U.S. Census data (ACS), I found (in a very preliminarily, quick analysis intended primarily to satisfy my own curiosity) that an LLM might boost long term annual earnings by as much as $25,000 on average compared to a bachelor’s degree (depending on unobserved selection effects, the causal boost could be lower since these are cross-tabbed means by race sex and education level). The earnings boost from a JD for immigrants might be around two or two and a half times as high as the boost from an LLM.
[Fn. 1]: At the conference, attendees saw data on international student market share and growth. The data suggested that a relatively small number of law schools attract the lion’s share of international LLMs and JDs. Attendees were also informed that U.S. News does not rank LLM programs, that the ABA does not collect much data about LLM programs, and that the ABA requires that LLM programs not adversely affect JD programs. Based on little more than ostensibly lighter regulation, some attendees enthusiastically speculated about competitor law schools’ nefarious activities. Some went further than speculation. One senior law school administrator compared LLMs and other non-JD programs to “Trump University”—a for-profit institution that critics allege used high-pressure sales tactics and unqualified faculty. A senior faculty member lambasted a local competitor for accepting many international students, while mentioning that his own institution had not “lowered its standards” in accepting international students.
Part 2: Students Who Return Home:
In part 1 of this 2 part post, I noted that U.S. LLM programs may provide substantial financial benefits to students who remain in the United States, even if they do not necessarily pass a U.S. bar exam. But what about the LLM graduates who return to their countries of origin?
While good data is hard to come by, it is easy to imagine how studying U.S. law might benefit lawyers working outside of the United States and hard to imagine how international programs could continue to attract applicants if returning lawyers did not speak favorably of their studies abroad. Indeed, some countries explicitly encourage students to study abroad and return home. U.S. higher educational institutions often have far better resources than those available in international students’ countries of origin. ...
Derek Muller recently noted evidence suggesting lower first-time bar passage rates for international students taking the bar exam compared to graduates of ABA approved 3-year JD programs [Muller: The Coming Reckoning For Non-JD Legal Education, As Enrollments Soar And Bar Passage Rates Hover At 30% For Foreign LLMs]. Although his headline is provocative, Muller is careful to avoid overstating the significance of this finding. Lower bar passage rates are expected, considering that for many LLMs, English is a second language, while for most ABA-approved-JD graduates, English is a first language. On the bar exam, LLMs compete without accommodation on a timed exam with a large essay component with students who either speak English as a first language or have had many more years to immerse themselves in the English language. It can take years for immigrants to become roughly substitutable for U.S.-born workers. ...
If educational programs that benefit foreign students genuinely cost those students more than the lifetime benefits the programs provide, then regulatory intervention may be in order. Even then, regulators would need to be mindful of the non-pecuniary benefits of study abroad and the wealth and sophistication of typical LLM students—generally, highly educated foreign elites from prosperous families. It seems unlikely that these sophisticates with a world of options would be easily fooled in a competitive global higher education market. Indeed, the Financial Times notes that, in the international legal education market, the New York Bar Exam “is seen as one of the toughest law exams in the world.”
Nevertheless, the FT reports that “We are seeing really savvy, internationally-minded students, for some of whom English is their second or third language, who want to take the [New York] bar exam” . . . “The globalisation of legal services and the number of European transatlantic mergers means if you want to work for a big commercial firm you have to compete in the global jobs market.”
Considering the labor economics literature on the benefits of education, concerns about fraud seem overblown. Any reputable scholar advancing such unorthodox views will be careful to first provide rigorous econometric evidence that can withstand peer review by professional labor economists.