Individuals who are pursuing a three-year Juris Doctor degree study civil liabilities and constitutional principles in programs that generally last three years. Students may also complete pro bono work. Successful completion means that students can sit for the bar examination. The Master of Laws program supplements the Juris Doctor and emphasizes advanced legal topics, and allows students to specialize in a specific area of law, such as criminal, environmental, or family. A J.D. program will need students to complete a bachelor's degree before enrolling, while an LL.M. stipulates that students need to be J.D. holders.
Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Legal counseling is one of the jobs lawyers do. In this capacity, they interpret the law for their clients, whether the client is a government division, a university, or an individual. Legal counselors advise their clients about their legal obligations and rights and suggest specific plans of action.
In the United States, the J.D. degree is the basic degree required to become a licensed attorney. Whether students plan to give legal counsel in a particular field or whether they plan to generalize, first-year courses are much the same. Courses may include the following topics:
- Civil liabilities for personal, property, economic and intangible harm
- Constitutional principles that constrain legal decisions
- Laws pertaining to private and public property, its exchange and its use
- Legal resources, research and writing in the U.S.
- Rules for drafting and negotiating contracts
- The what and why of criminal law
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Master of Laws (LL.M.)
An LL.M. degree builds up the knowledge and skills of individuals who have a first degree in law. In the U.S., the first degree in law is the J.D.; for other countries, an equivalent to the J.D. or LL.B. is the first law degree. The LL.M. does not allow graduates to sit for a bar exam. For U.S. graduates, the LL.M. is focused on advanced learning in specific studies, such as business law, labor law or taxation. For graduates from foreign schools, it is primarily to introduce them to U.S. law and then to offer courses in specific topics.
Coursework is quite varied because of the variety of specializations offered. Often, the program is completely individualized. A small segment of possible specializations includes:
- Commercial law
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law
- Domestic taxation
- Environmental law
- Family law
Legal counsel careers are always just that - interpreting the law for an employer; however, the variety of groups and businesses to which they may give counsel is vast. Entities that hire or contract legal counsel include:
- State and federal governments
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates an employment growth of 6% for lawyers in the decade 2014-2024 (www.bls.gov). The BLS reported in 2015 that lawyers earned a median annual salary of $115,820.
To practice law, attorneys must be licensed. Each state has its own laws; sometimes several states will allow licensed lawyers to practice in one another's jurisdictions. Law schools and the American Bar Association can help students learn where to get information for taking a state bar exam and what continuing education is needed to maintain the license. If a law student did not specialize while earning a J.D. degree or wishes to study further in the chosen specialization or learn a new one, he or she can earn a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree.
Attorneys may find online courses or webinars that give further training in their specialty. Additional graduate coursework is also an option. Professional associations, such as the American Bar Association, have lists of approved Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs.
Through J.D. and LL.M. programs, aspiring lawyers can gain the skills necessary for upholding the law and fighting for their clients' rights. Graduates will need to earn licensure to practice and can take advantage of many forms of continuing education to stay current with their knowledge.