You may be thinking, “Why even ask this question? My firm/company is willing to pay for me to spend a year abroad not working and getting US/UK qualified—why wouldn’t I take this opportunity?!” It’s true that, historically, it has been axiomatic that bengoshi enter their firms, work incredibly hard for 4–6 years, then go to an LLM program in the US followed, if possible, by a year of training at a US firm. All of the partners you work with have done the same. Why not follow in their footsteps? Isn’t the promise of an LLM intended to motivate you during those difficult junior and mid-level years?
But career paths, even within the conservative Japanese legal community, are changing. They are becoming less linear, and options have multiplied. It is no longer a given, or even common, that you will (or will want to) make partner at your first law firm. You may switch firms or go in-house. If you are in-house, you may switch jobs in part to accelerate your career advancement, and you may even decide to enter private practice if you are legally qualified. Moreover, sending bengoshi abroad to get LLMs was traditionally seen as a way to collect information about foreign legal systems in order to improve Japan’s. As Japan’s legal system is now more mature and sophisticated, however, and Japan has introduced US-style JD programs, among other sweeping reforms to the legal system over the past 20 years, this benefit is likely obsolete. And in practice, very few bengoshi who return to Japan as US-qualified lawyers actually practice anything other than Japanese law—and even fewer can obtain jobs in the US.
So, it makes sense to at least question the conventional wisdom. And in true lawyerly fashion, the answer depends.
If your goal is to make partner at your current firm, then it makes sense to pursue an LLM. There is no downside (if your firm sponsors you). In addition to learning the basics of a common law system, you will improve your English and make friends from all over the world who will become your business contacts. The same is true if you work for one of the few large Japanese firms that will sponsor your LLM without requiring a fixed time commitment back at the firm once you finish. The only downside is if you think that year would be more productively spent getting additional work experience and you already have experience studying and/or living abroad and strong English skills, for example.
If you are strongly considering switching firms, then it really does depend, and timing is everything. Most firms sponsor their bengoshi associates’ LLMs in return for a two- to three-year commitment back at the firm when they return to Japan. If you add in the year spent preparing to apply and a year of post-LLM “training” abroad, you are effectively locking yourself into your current position for a five- to six-year period. Your feelings about your firm and career path may change during this time, but you won’t be able to move without incurring a massive tuition repayment fee. In addition, most firms are looking to recruit lateral bengoshi in their second to sixth years of practice. If you are an eighth, ninth or tenth year associate by the time you’ve completed your post-LLM commitment, it may be too late for you to lateral to another firm.
This doesn’t mean that you should give up on getting LLM, but you should plan carefully. If you are set on both moving firms and studying abroad, consider lateraling before your LLM. Your new firm may be willing to sponsor your LLM. This is particularly worth considering if you work at a Japanese firm that does not sponsor LLMs, as you would be paying tuition and living costs completely out of pocket. If you lateral to an international firm, there is also a good chance that you will have the option of spending at least a year working in a foreign office. This may prove more attractive than an LLM, as you will get more substantive international work experience than a year of post-LLM “training” and make connections within your own firm. And if you wish to lateral after your LLM, there are some firms that are willing to pay off your LLM fees if you join directly after you complete the program.
If you are interested in going in-house, again, it depends. Companies will not pay off your LLM fees, but they are also more flexible as to the seniority of lateral hires. This means that fulfilling your post-LLM commitment to your firm will not render you too senior to move in-house. Some companies will value dual-qualified attorneys and be more likely to put them on management track, while some will be totally indifferent. Another option is taking the NY bar without incurring the cost of attending an LLM program.
The practical utility of an LLM for in-house counsel largely depends on three factors: (1) the level of the position for which you are applying, (2) the degree of specialization required of your role, and (3) whether the company is international or domestic. As a general rule, the more senior the position you are targeting, the more likely you are to be involved with regional or global projects that may benefit from your having spent time abroad. Most general counsel roles will combine domestic and global elements, along with greater exposure to global colleagues. This can be true at a more junior level as well, depending on the scope of the particular role. LLMs are more likely to be seen as a benefit at foreign multinational companies due to the global nature of their business. In this situation, resumes that reflect time abroad can signal more advanced English skills and greater global cultural awareness. Meanwhile, an LLM may be less impactful at a Japanese company, where the culture, language and job scope are more domestic, and advancement primarily depends on seniority.
If you have already spent your career in-house, particularly if you are not already a qualified bengoshi, then getting your LLM and becoming US-qualified will likely open doors to you. A number of senior in-house roles are only open to qualified lawyers, and NY qualification alone is sufficient. The only caveat is that many companies require a five-year commitment in return for sponsoring the LLM, so you will need to be prepared to wait if you are interested in switching jobs. And although California, New York, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin permit LLM graduates to take the bar, all have significant caveats for graduates who are not admitted as attorneys in their home jurisdiction, so you will want to make sure that you can actually take the US bar exam before committing to an LLM.
The greatest professional value of an LLM tends to be the opportunity to improve your English and prepare to become locally qualified (generally in the US or UK). In this sense, programs in the US still arguably hold the most cache, followed by those in the UK— depending on which region more closely aligns with the type of cross-border work you seek to undertake. Given the long post-LLM work commitments most firms require, the benefit of less traditional programs in other countries is that they will be cheaper and thus easier to pay off yourself should you elect to change jobs after graduation. But it is still worth questioning whether that year abroad is worth the opportunity cost of missing out on a year of experience and career advancement, either at your current employer or a new employer.
Because there are so many factors to consider that will impact your long-term career plans, take your time to carefully consider your career goals before deciding whether an LLM is truly the right step in your career.