Types of Law Degrees and Legal Studies Degrees

Read about graduate programs leading to a law degree. Learn about requirements, courses, specialization areas, licensure, career options and salary trends.

Essential Information

Students who want to practice law in the United States can enroll in a Juris Doctor degree program and complete it after three years of full-time study.

Three main types of law degrees are available in the United States. The first law degree is the Juris Doctor (J.D.), and it qualifies graduates to practice law in the U.S. The second law degree is the Master of Laws (LL.M.), and the third degree is the Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.).

Some J.D. programs may be combined with other master's degree programs in specific facets of law, business or public policy, and these programs might last longer than three years. The first year of study focuses on basic topics, like international law, criminal law and civil procedure. Second- and third-year students may customize their education to reflect their interests, taking electives in such areas as tax and business.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants must have bachelor's degrees, at minimum. Prospective students don't need to take any undergraduate law courses or have prior experience with the judicial system. For the application, law schools will request scores for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), recommendation letters and, in some cases, a current resume.

Course Topics

The first year of the curriculum covers core courses. Students may then choose a concentration and complete a required number of elective classes. Some possible classes include the following:

  • Torts
  • Constitutional law
  • Legal writing
  • Federal litigation
  • Patent law
  • Environmental law
  • Law and ethics
  • Public interest law

Job Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of lawyers was expected to increase by 13% from 2008 to 2018 ( Law firms, corporations and government agencies often hire lawyers. Fierce competition was predicted due to the large number of law school graduates. The annual average salary of a lawyer in May 2010 was $129,440.

Continuing Education and Licensure Information

Graduates of a Juris Doctor (J.D.) program need to pass the bar exam before they can begin practicing law. Each state administers its own bar exam, but most require candidates to have graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Lawyers must pursue licensure through the state in which they wish to practice law.

Master of Laws

Unlike most master's degree programs, which are considered to be the first level of graduate degrees, the Master of Laws is the second professional law degree after the Juris Doctor. An LL.M. program takes one year to complete with full-time study, and students may specialize in their interests, such as human rights law, environmental law, technology law or taxation. Because there are many different concentrations within LL.M. programs, curricula will differ. For example, a student enrolled in a tax law LL.M. program will gain a strong understanding of U.S. tax law. An LL.M. program mainly benefits international lawyers who wish to become familiar with and legally practice American law, but American lawyers who want to focus their studies on specific areas of law or prepare for an S.J.D. program may be accepted.

Educational Prerequisites

A Master of Laws degree program is typically reserved for lawyers who've earned their law degrees outside the United States. Some programs accept practicing lawyers who've earned a J.D. in the U.S. Other programs may accept individuals who have an equivalent degree.

Course Topics

Classes depend largely on the type of Master of Laws degree program students pursue. Core courses in a particular area of the law must be completed, and then students choose electives of interest to them. Potential courses may include these:

  • Estate planning
  • Corporate tax problems
  • Local and state taxation
  • Intellectual property law
  • Bankruptcy

Doctor of Juridical Science

The most advanced law degree in the United States, the Doctor of Juridical Science program can be completed on a full-time basis in three years. A S.J.D. program qualifies students to work in academic settings as law professors. The program, which is research-intensive, requires students to know their research interests before beginning the application process. Most of a student's time will be spent on the completion and defense of a dissertation. The course requirements are typically dealt with during the first year of enrollment and determined by students in conjunction with their advisors.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants typically need to have either a J.D. or an LL.M. to qualify for S.J.D. programs. Schools may prefer one type of degree to the other, and they usually expect individuals to submit a dissertation proposal. Many applicants to a Doctor of Juridical Science program are established law professionals with many years of experience.

Course Topics

A majority of the S.J.D. curriculum gets spent researching and writing a dissertation. However, a small number of courses must be completed before students begin their projects. Classes appeal to an individual's interests, and they may include these:

  • Legal research
  • Business law
  • Legal advocacy
  • Family law
  • Migration law

Employment and Salary Information

Doctoral graduates may work in academia, teaching and writing papers while employed by a major law school. The BLS reported that the employment of professors would increase by 15% between 2008 and 2018. Postsecondary law teachers were listed as making a mean annual salary of $107,990 in May 2010.

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