Upon graduating from law school, I started my first job as a staff attorney with the U.S. Senate and promptly enrolled in the night program at Georgetown University Law Center’s International and Comparative Law program. I attended the night program for one year — a grueling experience coupled with my day job — and eventually left the Senate to complete my LL.M. (Master of Laws) degree as, once again, a full-time student.
Later, while in private practice in D.C., I noted that a significant number of D.C. attorneys had LL.M. degrees in numerous areas. For example, my alma mater offers a wide range of LL.M. degrees in addition to the one I received, including Global Health Law, International Business and Economic Law, Securities and Financial Regulation, and Taxation.
Upon relocating to Seattle in 1993, I discovered that a surprising number of attorneys are either completely unfamiliar with an LL.M. degree or assume that this degree only involves taxation. Since taxation can be a difficult area to master within the limitations of a J.D. program, an LL.M. in taxation is indeed the most widely known of the Master of Laws programs, tending to be particularly common among attorneys performing sophisticated estate planning and business transactional work. Although other LL.M. programs are less well-recognized in the legal community, these programs can prove to be invaluable in gaining needed knowledge, contacts, experience and focus in your career.
The University of Washington School of Law offers a unique LL.M. — Asian and Comparative Law. Admission requirements include two years of professional work experience and language proficiency. Since the program enrolls a mix of approximately 15 to 25 U.S. and foreign students, language proficiency means that students must be proficient in both English and an Asian language. Specifically, U.S. students must master an Asian language at a third-year university level.
U.W.’s Asian and Comparative Law Program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and is “one of the oldest LL.M. programs of its kind in the U.S.,” according to Shari Ireton, public information and outreach officer for the Law School. Last year, more than half of the students were law graduates from outside the U.S., predominantly from Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
“The two sides (U.S. and foreign students) are mixed into one class, and we aim for interaction between those students,” said Mie Murazumi, Asian Law Graduate Program coordinator. Murazumi added that the program has now become more internationally diversified and includes some students from Europe and Latin America.
Sara Ayoubi, a 2007 graduate of the program and currently a public defender with Snohomish County, enjoyed developing an understanding of how attorneys in other countries learn the law and why various legal systems differ, noting, “For me, the most beneficial aspect of the program is learning how lawyers in other countries tailor their education.”
To graduate, the students, who attend on a full-time basis, must complete 36 credits, including a Comparative Law Seminar and a major research paper. According to Murazumi, all students present their papers orally to their classmates. “Interaction with the other students is important; it’s not just what the teacher teaches,” she said.
Sample courses include: Japanese Law, Chinese Law, International Civil Litigation, Comparative Corporate Governance, Islamic Law and Law Reform in Transition Economies. The program has expanded from primarily focusing on corporate law into other areas of international study, including environmental and criminal law.
“Students can set up their own course studies; it is extremely flexible,” Murazumi explained. “Students can choose from among law school courses and even some non-law school courses.” Ayoubi agreed. “There’s great flexibility to create your own course outline,” she said. “You can tailor your classes to fit what you want.”
Eugene Lee graduated from the LL.M. program in 1968, the first year the program was offered. Lee explained that the program offered tremendous resources, due to its sponsorship by the Ford Foundation. Three of the six initial graduates were Americans; the other three were Japanese.
Lee used his degree as a stepping stone for a fascinating and unique career. After attending the University of Tokyo on a Fulbright Scholarship, he then spent 10 years teaching international law and business at Sophia University in Japan. He also ran a consulting business to assist U.S. and European companies doing business in Japan. Siemens AG, a consulting client, hired Lee to head its operations in Japan for 19 years, and then he moved to Singapore to head Siemens’ Medical Group’s business throughout the Asian Pacific area.
Although Lee is now “retired” and living on Bainbridge Island, he serves on three corporate boards in Japan and flies there monthly for board meetings. He also serves on the board of the Blakemore Foundation in Seattle, which provides funds for intensive study of Asian languages. “Getting this degree was the segue to my career,” Lee said. “Fabulous opportunities exist to work in Asia. I encourage young people to pursue these careers.”
Jerry Zhu, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, served as an adjunct professor for the program for nine years, teaching Chinese Law. When he was teaching, the University of Washington and Harvard offered the most extensive programs in Asian Law and “U.W. was up to the competition.” When the Tiananmen Square protests occurred in 1989, Zhu’s class enrollment decreased from its usual level of approximately 25 students to two. The program continued on despite this setback. “Now, I would assume, it would be a hot topic,” he added.
Zhu, who was recently honored as one of the law school’s distinguished alumni, stated that his students, including both those from the U.S. and mainland China, have tended to either go back to China or work for large U.S. corporations or law firms doing business there. After teaching, Zhu led Davis Wright Tremaine’s opening of its office in Shanghai, the first U.S. law firm to establish a base there. After working in Shanghai for seven years, Zhu returned to Seattle and now represents U.S. companies doing business in China.
“The program,” said Zhu, “makes a huge impact on the Chinese economy,” based upon the positioning of its graduates as counsel for large U.S. corporations, partners in international law firms, executives in Chinese companies and professors in both the U.S. and in China. The career possibilities created by an LL.M. are “not well publicized,” according to Ayoubi. “Attorneys here are not familiar with the benefits of an LL.M. program.”
The distinguished careers of the program’s graduates fully demonstrate a wide range of available opportunities, which can be accessed through one additional year of legal study. If you feel ready for the challenge, please see http://www.law.washington.edu/AsianLaw/teach/LLM.html for further details and your application.
Stacey L. Romberg, Attorney at Law, focuses on business law, estate planning and probate. www.staceyromberg.com.
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Reprinted from September 2008, King County Bar Association Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg