Which is better: New York bar admission or Cambridge Master of Law degree?
Imagine you start and develop a great legal career, where you:
- graduate from a good law school;
- gain experience at international law firms; and
- advance your professional skills.
All of a sudden, you run into crossroads. Each way looks awesome. You have to follow only one, though.
That’s what actually happened in my legal career.
This story should help you to take the right turns on your career path.
You’ll now discover the following:
Battle of Titans
Occasionally, we have to choose between amazing opportunities.
That consideration was akin to a battle of titans.
Top LLM Degree
Back in 2004, when I worked at Baker & McKenzie, I found out that a colleague seating in his office next to my paralegal desk had two outstanding Master of Law/s (LLM) diplomas hanging on his wall: Columbia LLM and Cambridge LLM.
That was outstanding!
Do you, for instance, know anyone holding a couple of degrees from the top law schools of such highly advanced English-language countries as the US and UK?
My natural questions was: Which is better?
The colleague revealed to me that he preferred the Columbia LLM over the Cambridge LLM. That was because, in his opinion, the former was more engaging and practical. I sensed that my colleague was way happier about his American LLM.
While this comparison was subjective, it appeared to be quite fair. Who else could compare both of such top degrees impartially? Only someone who holds both of them. A person holding just one degree would highly likely favor his/her one.
Anyway, that comparison barely meant anything to me as I had no foreign LLM at that time. Below, though, you’ll find out what changed later.
Ironically, when I moved to PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2005, I met another distinguished colleague. He held the Cambridge LLM degree, too. This guy did not have a US degree to compare, though. So, I could not verify the accuracy of the first colleague’s comparison.
I was humble enough to think that, if those guys managed to get such degrees, why wouldn’t I do the same?
Cambridge Admission Offer
As a result of those interactions, I dreamed to study at a top American or British law school. I hoped to get an academic admission from one of them.
Following the path of my colleagues, I was eager to pursue the Cambridge law degree. Sure thing, it’s one of the best universities in the world. What could propel a legal career more than a degree from such a top law school?
Strongly determined, I diligently prepared and submitted my LLM application.
To my surprise, I managed to receive an LLM admission offer from the Cambridge Law Faculty on the very first try.
Are you wondering how this offer looks like?
Then, see the Cambridge LLM Admission Offer here (the last document at the bottom).
As you can see, that admission offer was conditional.
I removed all but one of those conditions. First, I received a place at the Queens’ College of the University of Cambridge. Second, I took the TOEFL and scored enough points.
The only condition that remained outstanding was money.
While that amount is coverable now, it was too high for me as a student back then.
When this Cambridge perspective arose, the second contender — the New York bar admission — was far beyond the horizon yet.
This contention may look like comparing apples and oranges. It may indeed be so.
You might ask: Why choose one if it’s possible to get both?
That’s right. I could, of course, get both of them. However, we sometimes have to save time and costs as well as avoid redundancies.
My purpose here was to compare two different perspectives as if you could choose only one of them. As a matter of fact, we occasionally lack resources to pursue two different directions, no matter how much each one deserves.
Furthermore, even realizing both perspectives, how would you practice law in both countries the US and UK? Especially if you already have an admission of yet one more country (e.g., Ukraine).
In my case, I had to choose just one of those prominent jurisdictions: US or UK. On one hand, it was the LLM degree of the University of Cambridge. On the other hand, it was the bar admission of the State of New York.
Making that choice posed a big battle.
Two US Government Grants
To understand the context of that battle, it’s important to mention the American perspectives in the first place.
In terms of academics, I realized that the greatest benefit is not an academic admission itself, but rather a financial possibility to use that admission. The key is a scholarship. Such a financial footing can make you debt-free, financially independent and confident.
For my studies, I was lucky enough to receive not just one, but two grants of the US government. My fortune was quite special because having one American government grant was a prescribed disadvantage for getting another one. Notwithstanding that, magic happens.
Namely, I received the following two grants of the US Department of State.
FSA International Exchange Program
In 2001, I received the first scholarship under the Freedom Support Act Undergraduate Exchange Program for one year of studies in international relations at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) in 2001-02.
By the way, do you know where Omaha is?
Like myself initially, almost no one knows that. Even fewer people know that Omaha is the home of highly regarded value-investment guru, billionaire, and philanthropist Warren Buffett. He is also the third-richest person in the US.
Notably, in the result of my first academic year in the US, I received an honorary citizenship of the Great State of Nebraska.
Wouldn’t this motivate you to pursue an American perspective further on?
Muskie Graduate Law Program
In 2006, I received the second scholarship under the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program for one year of Master of Laws (LLM) at the Saint Louis University School of Law (SLU) in Missouri, US, in 2006-07.
While the Muskie program did not allow us to choose a US law school, the SLU exceeded my expectations. Albeit the SLU might be hardly as reputable as Cambridge, my law professors had their law degrees from Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, and other top US law schools.
Along with the Muskie fellowship, the SLU granted me its tuition scholarship as well. So, I was lucky to get the US study grants several times.
The stories of obtaining American government grants, completing academic programs, and getting a diploma/degree can be subject of separate posts.
Cambridge Trusts Scholarship
In October 2005, I applied for the Cambridge LLM program, Cambridge Trusts scholarship, and Muskie program.
Ironically, I was admitted to both the Cambridge LLM and Muskie programs. So, I had to choose one over the other. This dilemma gave rise to the mentioned battle later on.
As a result, I reached the final round along with just one more person — a Ukrainian lady pursuing a degree in education.
I expected that both of us might get scholarships since around five people received such scholarships per year in the previous years. Even if not myself, I was completely sure that the lady would get a scholarship.
Unfortunately, none of us — apparently, no one from Ukraine at all — received such a scholarship that year.
What a bad luck, I thought.
In view of my admission to Cambridge, I seriously prepared to experience it. I, for example:
- planned my travel, accommodation, and study;
- explored the academic syllabus and campus map;
- selected courses to take and places to visit; and
- imagined myself walking by magnificent buildings at the Queens’ College.
Shortly speaking, I was virtually there already.
That imagination could give a start to virtual/augmented reality. I simply sticked myself to Cambridge on the web.
The hope of getting the grant and starting my study at Cambridge occupied my head for very long. That hope also travelled with me to the US. It even sticked long into the first few academic months at the SLU. Staying in St. Louis, I still imagined myself in Cambridge.
Until the very beginning of the Cambridge LLM program (i.e., around October 2006), I was ready to move from the SLU to Cambridge in no time had a British grant become available. To make no mistake about the SLU’s role, nonetheless, keep reading to the end.
So, my waiting lasted forever…
At the same time, I was happy to receive the second grant from the US government. I thought, maybe, the destiny wanted me to do not just one but two foreign LLMs, additionally to the Ukrainian Master of Law degree. Thus, I even joked that I would be able to indicate my degree as a triple LLM, something like this: LLM3.
Wouldn’t that look more like a tech, rather than law, degree?
In view of this perspective, I asked the Cambridge Law Faculty to defer my LLM seat to the next year. The faculty replied that it normally did not do that and required applicants to reapply.
In my case, however, the Faculty decided to make an exception. Namely, the Faculty itself resubmitted my application for the next year. It succeeded again. Differently put, the Cambridge Law Faculty readmitted me for 2007. That essentially deferred my Cambridge LLM seat to the next year.
At the bottom line, I received two Cambridge LLM admissions. I thought that the next year I would more likely receive a Cambridge study grant.
Top Bar Admission
Given the Cambridge grant saga, I was puzzled. Therefore, I needed to consult with someone highly experienced in legal careers.
For this purpose, I shared my story with my academic advisor and Corporate Finance course professor Henry M. Ordower at the SLU. He holds a JD from the University of Chicago Law School (one of the best US law schools) and extensive background in European languages. Additionally, prof. Ordower was a co-director of the Center for International and Comparative Law as well as the director of the Berlin Summer Program. So, I expected him to resonate with my big dream.
Prof. Ordower listened enthusiastically. I presumed he would support my top law school degree aspirations. Surprisingly, that was not the case. The professor actually dissuaded me from pursuing the second (Cambridge) LLM. Instead, he encouraged me to consider a different path. In particular, prof. Ordower said that I would benefit way more if I prepare and sit for the New York bar exam.
I first took that advice for granted. Little did I value that kind suggestion. I thought: What else would a patriotic American law professor say? Would he ever encourage me to study at another country?
Notwithstanding that initial perception, I recalled the professor’s advice from time to time. I also shared it with my friends and colleagues, like with you here.
At that time, the Cambridge LLM idea flooded all cells of my brain. That LLM appealed to me way more than even thinking about the NY bar exam. I believed that the British LLM would be much easier to pursue than preparing for and taking the US bar exam. This was especially true since I had never even considered taking the New York State bar exam at all.
That way, I essentially overlooked the professor’s advice. I rather strongly leaned towards the Cambridge LLM dream. Concurrently, even a thought of a New York or California bar exam frightened. It could loom only far away in my long-distant future. Passing the bar, particularly its MBE part, seemed impossible, even with the best bar prep courses. Back then, nothing would make me sit for bar exam.
Thus, the Cambridge LLM degree confidently won the first battle.
Cambridge Study Finance
At the same time, neither I nor my family had money to cover the financial burden.
To give me a chance to go to Cambridge, my parents suggested to sell their house. I firmly refused that kind offer.
Consequently, I hoped to receive the UK study grant. The British bad luck, however, followed me to the next academic year.
To remind about my Cambridge scholarship application, I relentlessly wrote numerous letters to the Cambridge Trusts. Pursuing various Cambridge scholarships was akin to spinning my wheels for who knows how long. Regardless of my efforts, the finance quest lasted for well over a year and seemed to be never-ending…
By then, I had already received my American LLM degree and returned to law practice in Kyiv, Ukraine.
In the result, I withdrew and discarded the Cambridge LLM admission offer.
I could, of course, subsequently pursue a Cambridge qualification. This might, for example, be not only the LLM but also an MBA degree. My time, finance, and patience were limited, however. I had only a bit available to switch to another path.
Hence, I thought, if not the Cambridge LLM, why not its alternative — the New York bar admission?
Cambridge LLM vs. New York Bar
From the outset, I compared these credentials in terms of their benefits, time, and costs.
Both the Cambridge LLM diploma and NY bar license are amazing credentials. Without any doubt, each would shine stunningly on your wall.
I looked deeper, though.
In essence, the Cambridge LLM leads you to the door to your law practice. The New York bar admission, at the same time, opens that door.
Importantly, the bar qualification allows you to practice law and earn for living right away. It’s obviously illegal to practice American law without a US attorney license. All New York attorneys, for example, have an NY bar license. You can easily check an attorney license online.
Studying for the New York bar exam takes much less time than studying for the Cambridge LLM. That’s an impressive fight of three months versus nine months. In other words, the NY bar exam prep is around three times faster than the Cambridge LLM study.
To make a reservation, the NY bar exam prep timeline can be rather individual and customized. If done less intensively, such prep may take much longer. This was, for example, so in my case.
Preparing for and taking the New York bar exam costs much less than studying for the Cambridge LLM. In particular, my Cambridge LLM financial commitment would amount to £17,359, which was equivalent to ca $32,732 as of May 16, 2006. By the way, my Cambridge LLM offer was much cheaper than the current price of £27,525 (equivalent to ca $33,839).
In contrast, my New York bar prep course bundle and Albany hotel cost me merely around $3,644. Out of this amount, I could easily save over $1,000 on my stay in Marriott hotel (which cost $2,112 for 17 nights), new iPad with cover, Apple EarPods etc. I was willing to pay for those extra comforts just to compensate for my struggles and make my endeavor more enjoyable (if “joy” is an appropriate word to describe that New York bar prep experience).
As you can see, that’s another crucial fight where the NY bar exam costs nearly nine times cheaper than the Cambridge LLM.
To summarize, the NY bar exam benefits you incomparably more — as well as is 3x faster and 9x cheaper — than the Cambridge LLM study.
So, the choice looks to be clear. Doesn’t it?
New York Bar Admission
Eventually, I realized that the main purpose of any US law student is to get admitted to the bar. That is to become a US attorney at law. Without such a qualification, it’s simply impossible to practice law.
To get admitted, in turn, it’s necessary to pass a bar exam. In other words, the ultimate goal is not the exam but rather the bar admission.
That was no easy feat, however. It required:
- considering the best bar review courses;
- selecting the best bar exam prep course;
- identifying the best bar exam study materials;
- running sound bar reviews; and
- studying for the bar exam to the maximum.
NY Bar Exam Approach
As a foreigner, I could choose taking a US bar exam in New York, California, and some other states.
Getting barred in the US sounded way more attractive than getting another law degree. Besides, at that point in time, my academic credentials made me well overqualified for many interesting job openings going forward. This held true even for some career opportunities at large international law and consulting firms. That could lead to a point of diminishing (if not detrimental) returns.
Only then did I realize that my professor’s advice was really wise.
Eventually, I cultivated a strong desire to realize my American LLM. That’s to get NY bar admission. As such, I committed to sit for the NY bar exam. The determination powered my further professional development. I plunged into the New York bar exam preparation. That endeavor was fully self-motivated. I set the goal without even realizing the difficulties ahead.
Not only did I not know where I was heading to, but I also had no idea how to approach that journey. Envisioning the purpose, I had to figure out any means to accomplish it. What best explains that is the following wisdom:
He who has a WHY can endure any HOW.Friedrich Nietzsche
My “why” became insufficient any longer for the Cambridge LLM but more than enough for the New York bar.
Although the NY bar project was way harder, I thought that I would better try and fail than fail to try. Even a potential bar exam prep burnout did not thwart me.
NY Bar Exam Success
To this end, I zealously started exploring the perspective to qualify for taking the NY bar exam as a foreign-educated candidate. Having been qualified, I undertook a tedious process of bar exam preparation…
Long story short, I managed to pass the New York bar exam on the very first attempt. By the way, the same was true with the Cambridge LLM admission.
The New York bar exam turned into the NY bar admission. The latter, in turn, allowed me to practice the US law as a New York attorney.
Thus, the New York bar admission won the second battle.
This may look like a tie between the two perspectives given the initial victory of the Cambridge LLM.
Had I initially received a grant for my Cambridge LLM admission, I would likely prefer it over the SLU LLM. This, nevertheless, should not diminish the major role of the SLU LLM in my legal career. It was, most likely, even greater than the Cambridge LLM might play.
Moreover, for my purposes, the SLU might even be on par with — if not more advantageous than — the top US law schools, such as Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Penn, Chicago, NYU etc.
As you can see above, the New York bar admission — along with American academic perspectives altogether — scored way more. Had I not received the SLU LLM, for instance, I would miss the grounds to qualify for my NY bar exam.
I’m highly grateful to the SLU not only for granting me its scholarship and advancing my legal qualification but also for allowing to take and pass the NY bar exam. I thus strongly recommend you to check out the SLU LLM in American law for foreign lawyers.
This recommendation comes along with the mentioned remark by my colleague at Baker & McKenzie that, compared with the US law schools, Cambridge lacked practical orientation.
If I were to choose either path now, I would opt for the US law school and New York bar admission again.
By the way, which one would you prefer?
Just vote and discover the poll result here:
This result may surprise you.
As you can see, our academic and professional perspectives are unpredictable and sometimes conflicting.
I hope this post does not discourage you to apply for the Cambridge LLM degree. My historic academic dilemma should not dismay you from fulfilling your high ambition. In fact, I do wish you to experience the excitement of getting an offer of admission from such a prominent university as Cambridge.
At the same time, I would encourage you to look beyond your aspirations for such top British universities as Cambridge and Oxford or American schools as Yale, Harvard, Stanford etc. As a matter of fact, any decent US law school (such as the SLU) and even non-law school (such as the UNO) may do just as well.
On one hand, I might favor the state of my honorary citizenship due to numerous academic, professional, and personal achievements. On the other hand, I shared real benefits for you to judge for yourself.
Furthermore, you will soon find out how the NY bar admission may further advance you.
To make this post way more beneficial for you, simply answer this question in the comments below:
What are you struggling with in your legal study or bar exam preparation?
Ensuing from my experience, here’s a personal advice for you. If you’d ever like to pass the NY bar exam, take care of it right now! The sooner you start, the higher chances you have to succeed.
To boost your inspiration, check out my NY bar exam prep story.
Finally, discover my NY bar exam prep course, community, and passing tips here: