Types of Law Degrees and Legal Studies Degrees

A law degree is required for individuals who wish to practice law in the United States. Three types of law degrees prepare individuals for work as a lawyer. These programs include Juris Doctor, Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science.

Essential Information

Three main types of law degrees are available in the United States. The first degree students can enroll in is a Juris Doctor degree program and can complete it after three years of full-time study. 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.

  • Program Levels: Juris Doctor, Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science.
  • Prerequisites: J.D. programs require a bachelor's degree, LSAT scores, recommendation letters and a current resume. Master's programs are reserved for those who already practice law outside the U.S. or have their J.D. within the U.S. To qualify for a Doctor of Juridical Science program one must have a J.D. or LL.M. and professional law experience. A dissertation proposal is also generally required.
  • Program Specializations: Include human rights law, environmental law, technology law or taxation
  • Program Length: One year to three years.
  • Other Requirements: Dissertation.

Juris Doctor

Applicants must have bachelor's degrees, at minimum to enter this standard law degree. 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.

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:

  • Torts
  • Constitutional law and patent law
  • Legal writing
  • Federal litigation
  • Environmental law and public interest law
  • Law and ethics

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.

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:

  • 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. Many applicants to a Doctor of Juridical Science program are established law professionals with many years of experience. In addition, 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.

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:

  • Legal research
  • Business law
  • Legal advocacy
  • Family law
  • Migration 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 10% from 2012 to 2022 ( 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 2014 was $133,470.

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 19% between 2012 and 2022. Postsecondary law teachers were listed as making a mean annual salary of $126,270 in May 2014.

Continuing Education 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.

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