Despite worries about the economy, the job market remains relatively healthy. US payrolls gained 372,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate remained at 3.6%—comparable to pre-Covid-19 levels in February 2020.
Over the past month, job growth was strong in the legal and accounting fields—and that’s not expected to change. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, law jobs are projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations, while jobs for accountants and auditors will grow 7%.
Even with the number of available jobs, candidates are looking for the extras that will make them stand out. So what does that look like? In some cases, the difference maker might be school or work performance—while other notables include languages, internships, and life experience.
Over the years, I’ve fielded questions from aspiring accountants and lawyers about career choices. One that comes up quite often is whether earning a tax LL.M. will give you an edge or make it easier to get a job. As with many things in the tax world, it depends.
What is a Tax LL.M.?
A tax LL.M., or more formally, an LL.M. taxation, is a Master of Laws degree in taxation offered through a law school.
A tax LL.M. isn’t the equivalent of a general LL.M. or international LL.M. degree. Not all law schools offer a tax LL.M.—some provide a general LL.M. degree with a concentration in tax or a certificate in a tax-related program such as estate planning.
It’s also not the same degree as a master’s in tax—typically a Master of Science or Master of Business Taxation—earned through a college or university.
A typical tax LL.M. program is about 24 credits. That works out to a year of full-time study or several semesters of part-time study.
Many, but not all, law school programs require you to complete your law degree—called a J.D. in the US—before you can apply for a tax LL.M. Some schools, such as New York University School of Law, allow tax professionals without law degrees to earn a similar degree, such as a Master of Studies in Law or MSL, in taxation.
The cost of additional education isn’t insignificant. In most cases, you must be prepared to pay for an additional year of law school tuition, plus expenses. According to U.S. News and World Report, the average cost of law school for one year ranges from $29,074 for in-state public schools to $51,268 for private schools. Remember those are averages—costs for top schools easily can top $100,000 for one year.
If you know from the start that you want to earn an LL.M., you may be able to save by enrolling in a joint J.D./LL.M. program. That will allow you to apply some credits toward both degrees, saving time and money.
Additionally, some schools now offer online programs, which can help defray costs since in-person courses are often in potentially pricey cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Miami.
Some students—like me—found it more economical to attend part time while working. For the first semester, I attended night classes while working at a law firm during the day. An additional perk? I could apply what I was learning in school to my job.
Tax LL.M. programs often are filled with tax nerds—I was one of them. I really loved my tax law classes and simply kept taking more. As we grew close to graduation, the dean asked if I had considered a tax LL.M. As a first-generation law student, I didn’t even know what it was. But I relished the idea of learning more tax. It wasn’t about a job for me; I was already working, and I simply wanted to be a better tax attorney.
Other candidates might be lawyers hoping to switch practice areas. One of my colleagues who wanted out of general corporate law work viewed the degree as her ticket to the firm’s state and local tax practice—which she considered a more straightforward path to partner.
And, of course, a degree doesn’t always have to be about landing a new job. A fellow attorney sought a tax LL.M. to make her a better manager at a nonprofit organization.
Boosting Career Odds
Students often ask whether a tax LL.M. can help land a job at a top law or accounting firm. The answer is maybe. An LL.M. can make you more competitive if you’re otherwise a good candidate. It also might help you shine when your grades are just OK or you lack specific job experience—but it won’t guarantee a job. If you don’t have the other qualifications a particular employer seeks, it won’t make up the difference.
It’s also the case that not all firms value the specific degree even if they want the associated skills or education. Sometimes, another credential—such as a CPA license—may be a better fit.
Other candidates might be looking for a government job. While a tax LL.M. isn’t always required in those instances, it can be helpful. For example, some positions with the IRS Office of Chief Counsel will allow you to substitute a tax LL.M. for some general legal experience. And, when I interned with the IRS, my supervising attorney was clear her department highly valued the degree, especially in a competitive market.
Keep in mind that a tax LL.M. signals you’re knowledgeable in tax law, not other areas of the law. A tax LL.M. won’t necessarily help you get a job, for example, in insurance defense or family law. While I like to say there’s always a tax angle, there might not be enough of a tax angle to make you a viable candidate for a non-tax-focused position. My advice: Make sure you need the degree for the job you want and not simply a job.
And let’s be honest. Not everyone who signs up for a tax LL.M. does so because they love tax or want to work in the field. A fellow student enrolled in our program because once she had her law degree, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She thought some additional courses might help her decide—and they did, sort of. It turns out she preferred administrative law and is now a judge. She’s never worked in a tax-related field.
A Client Magnet?
Some firms have suggested a tax LL.M. may attract more clients. There may be some extra credibility associated with further education. However, I earned my tax LL.M. early in my career and found that only a handful of clients knew what it meant—even after partners at my firm touted the credentials.
Attorneys at small to midsize firms may find value in additional tax courses because, as I know firsthand, you’re often asked to tackle sophisticated tax issues without the benefit of a deep bench. And yes, that eventually means that you may gain more clients. But when looking at return on investment, I don’t think you can always make a direct connection from a tax LL.M. to a more successful tax practice.
We’ve been fortunate to work with many professionals who earned their law degrees in foreign countries, including interns at our law firm. I learned that it can be challenging to translate a foreign degree into a US legal career since some states require a degree from a US law school approved by the American Bar Association to sit for the bar exam.
There are some exceptions to this rule. For example, New York allows foreign-trained lawyers to sit for the bar if their degree reflects enough hours in US-equivalent law courses—if there’s a gap or deficiency, candidates may be able to qualify by attending an LL.M. program at an ABA-approved law school in the US. California and Wisconsin are among states that have similar rules.
But be careful; some states may require specific areas of study in an LL.M. program to sit for the bar. A tax-focused program may not qualify.
You can find specific requirements by state on the National Conference of Bar Examiners website.
No One-Size-Fits-All Answer
As with many things, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to career decisions. There is a lot to consider. But as a start, I suggest asking yourself two questions:
- What is it that you really want, long term?
- Is another degree the best and most cost-efficient way to get there?
This is a regular column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.
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