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Is a Law Degree a Master's Degree or a Professional Degree?

Several law schools offer both master's and professional degree programs. Typically, a professional law degree is conferred as a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, while the Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree generally signifies academic research, writing or independent legal studies.

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Professional Law Degree and Legal Master's Degrees

Aspiring lawyers must earn the professional J.D. degree, which qualifies them to sit for state bar examinations. Established lawyers may enroll in LL.M. programs that offer specialized training in a number of legal subjects. In addition, a few schools offer non-professional master's programs in legal studies or closely related fields.

Juris Doctor Degree

Students enrolled in a J.D. program focus on a single career goal - becoming a lawyer. This type of law program is the only kind that allows graduates to sit for a state bar exam. Many law schools allow students to attend on either a full-time or part-time basis. Full-time students may not work more than 20 hours per week, as stipulated by the American Bar Association, and the J.D. may be earned within a 3-year period. Part-time students often take evening courses, extending the time to complete the program by 1-2 years.

First-year J.D. students take a set of required general courses, such as torts, civil procedure and criminal law. Most law schools allow second- and third-year students to customize their curricula, and they can focus on a particular area of law. A few options include the following:

  • Civil rights
  • Administrative law
  • Copyright law
  • Environmental law
  • Sports law
  • Trusts and estates
  • Employment law

Master of Laws Degree

LL.M. programs are typically designed for law school graduates and experienced lawyers. These programs are often less structured than professional J.D. programs and generally consist of 12-40 credit hours of coursework. In most cases, only students who hold a J.D. or its foreign equivalent can enroll in a Master of Laws program.

Like most master's programs, LL.M. programs tend to offer part-time enrollment, evening courses and distance learning options. These legal master's programs have a considerable amount of flexibility, permitting students to either select an area of specialization or choose a range of subjects without a specific concentration. The following specializations may be available:

  • Administrative law
  • Constitutional law
  • Family law
  • Jurisprudence
  • Criminal law
  • International business
  • Contract law
  • Juvenile justice

Master of Legal Studies

Often mistaken for a law degree, a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) is not the same as an LL.M. It's a nonprofessional degree for advanced students seeking knowledge of basic law principals. Students are not required to have any prior legal training as they would with an LL.M, though many applicants have legal experience.

Dual Degree Programs

Many law schools recognize the need for successful lawyers to have advanced educations outside of law. Most universities offer secondary degree options for J.D. students. In fact, Juris Doctor and Master of Laws programs often have overlapping coursework and may be completed concurrently. Other common programs combined with a J.D. could include the following:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Science in Accounting (M.S.)
  • Master of Arts in International Law (M.A.)
  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science (Ph.D.)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
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