Comparison of J.D. and LL.M. degrees in the U.S.
The J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree is the standard law degree in the U.S. For the vast majority of U.S. citizens, the J.D. degree and then the bar exam is the expected way to become a lawyer. However, the LL.M. degree also provides a way to become a qualified lawyer in the U.S. The LL.M. degree is traditionally for foreign students, often qualified lawyers in another jurisdiction, who wish to enter the job market in the U.S., either as attorneys, as support staff, or in business roles. That's the nice thing about law, there are always angles to be exploited in your career.
There is an exception to this rule about LL.M., which is the many tax programs. Tax law is so complicated and so important that some percentage of lawyers want to specialize on the area. However by and large the LL.M. is for foreign lawyers or law students.
Qualified (meaning ABA-approved programs) LL.M. degrees will make one eligible to take either the New York Bar Exam and/or the California Bar Exam. These two states are much more international that others, and due to this international characteristic, they both compromise on the requirements to sit for the bar; the other states uniformly require a J.D. degree to sit for their state bar (with a few exceptions). In order to manage this, both California and New York make other aspects of the bar much more stringent. In California, the exam is perhaps the hardest in the entire U.S., while in New York, the documentation required and document-review process is extremely thorough.
The U.S. economy is so powerful due to its openness and ability to create wealth and value with foreigners. In the 80s, everyone said the Japanese were "buying America", but years later we can see that wave of investment was just one of many over time. Still, due to the overall reliability of its legal systems, the U.S. provides the best environment for investment in the world. Therefore, providing chances for foreign lawyers to engage and join the U.S. workforce is an integral part of economic growth.
The LL.M. degree is typically one year (nine months of study), while the J.D. is three years, so the J.D. tends to be more expensive. However, LL.M. tuition is usually substantially higher on a yearly basis. Often a rough way of thinking about it is that the J.D. is double the cost of an LL.M., not taking opportunity costs into account. Living costs are related to the time difference, so for example a J.D. in NYC will be significantly higher for costs than in Indiana, while for the LL.M. this cost difference is much less substantial. We may use this rule of double to apply here as well, that on a monthly basis NYC will be about double the cost of a small city (it would even be higher in some cases).
The schools of course provide a guideline, and that can be trusted to be right in the middle of what a person might need. Its not living too rich, but its not cutting corners either. They need to give a reasonable and objective number so students can plan properly.
Currently, with law applicants down, the schools have had to rely on scholarships, and there are deals to be had for both degrees.
There is no doubt that the J.D. has more value than the LL.M., but it also has a steeper price and a longer learning curve.
J.D. students are considered as nearly blank pages, ready to be impressed with the knowledge of law. The process is just getting started and goes on for a very long time, that's why we say to 'practice' law. The J.D. opens up new worlds to explore and consider, before finally taking one path. While it is true that some J.D. students have valuable background knowledge or special skills, for many of them their backgrounds are in areas that are helpful for their law study but not directly related to their career focus (history or literature majors for example). It is certainly true that having special skills like language skills or law skills in foreign countries are attractive to J.D. programs, but at the same time not that many applicants do have such skills.
LL.M. students are considered to already have their career focus and are moving along that path. They need some background in U.S. law, and they need some help with career focus, but they are already focused on where they fit in the job market. That might be back in their home country or it might be in the U.S., it might be a corporate job or in a firm, but the developing career focus is expected.
The final decision about value is very personal. What are the options? What is the value of doing something exciting and challenging? What is the potential? The LL.M. can help a student who wishes to have more job opportunities back home, and there are some chances for LL.M. students to remain in the U.S. and develop their career. For the J.D., there may be more expectation of working in the U.S., but there are many legal markets in the world where a U.S. J.D. has tremendous value in the domestic job market.
So, the final decision must be made by the individual, and should be made after getting abundant information about the career options available.