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Maximizing the LL.M. / JD Experience: Insights for Foreign Lawyers Pursuing Masters of Law in the U.S.


by Johana Mantilla Gomez A 20


s conventional wisdom rightly states, “hindsight is 20-20.” After close to five years since graduating from North- western Law School, there are many


things I wish I had known earlier in the process of getting my JD.


Looking back, I realize how unprepared I was for many of the challenges law school had in store. And although NU did a fine job of introducing the program, I now know that I personally could have made an effort to be better prepared for the years ahead. Particularly, given that I was a foreign-educated attorney from a Civil Law country, who happened to be a bit optimistic and, perhaps, somewhat overconfident of her previous training and experience.


As a result, my first semester at Northwestern can be summed up as a constant state of “legal culture shock.” I realized I needed a “system” but wasn’t sure where to start looking and was forced to improvise (and calibrate) constantly… wasting valuable time (and sleep) in the pro- cess.


After a lot of trial and error, I eventually figured it out and was able to make the most out of the experience. But it took me (as it takes most of the foreign law students I have interviewed over the years at LL.M. Studio) a full semester to “get it.”


I came away from my law school days convinced that foreign law students “spin their wheels” too much and risk failing to maximize their time in the U.S. trying to get to that point. And for programs that last only nine months to a year,


one semester is way too much time to spend just trying to “get by.”


And it’s not due to a lack of effort or smarts. It’s because the law school experience truly is different for foreigners, many of whom speak English as a second language and happen to be trained to think about the law in a completely different way.


For me, it was almost like learning to be a lawyer all over again. No, wait - it was exactly like learn- ing to be a lawyer all over again.


More recently, I have dedicated myself to re- searching this topic and to do so, I’ve gone right to the experts: LL.M and foreign JD alumni, as well as professors who deal with international law students on a daily basis. From those con- versations, coupled with my own experience, I have been able to gather a great deal of insight on how uniquely challenging the experience is for foreigners.


So, if you are one of the lucky students who are about to embark on this exciting journey, these few words of advice are for you. I hope that with the benefit of your peers’ collective hindsight and knowledge, you will be able to maximize your experience from the outset by working smarter, not harder.


Let’s start with the basics:


Don’t wait until you arrive at the airport to start think- ing, reading and speaking in English.


It’s not uncommon for students to focus on get- ting high TOEFL scores to get into the programs of their choice, and then forgetting about their


ILSA Quarterly » volume 18 » issue 3 » February 2010


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