Pre-Law Advising

Law Degrees

There are several types of academic programs that lead to careers in law and several different types of law degrees. Awareness of the degrees you could pursue will enable you to make an informed choice before deciding on a particular path to legal practice.

The Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school is the credential you need if you wish to practice as an attorney in (almost every state) in the US.

Law school comprises three years. The first year typically includes legal writing and research instruction and courses on the most fundamental aspects of law; civil procedure, torts, contracts, property and criminal law or procedure, and American constitutional law are common first year subjects. The second and third years offer students the opportunity to customize their course work.

In order to practice law, graduates must pass a state Bar exam, which, in most states, includes a state specific portion, a multi-state multiple choice exam, and an exam covering professional ethics. State bar associations have local Bar Associations, but the great majority of law schools are certified with the American Bar Association (A.B.A.). You should take the bar exam in the state (or states) in which you expect to practice, as passing in one state does not necessarily admit you to practice in others.

The Master of Laws degree requires one year of full-time study beyond the Juris Doctor. The degree is designed to strengthen J.D. graduates' knowledge of a particular area of law; program curricula vary according to specialty. Foreign-born lawyers complete the L.L.M. to familiarize themselves with the U.S. legal system.

Some J.D. programs offer a direct path into an L.L.M. after the completion of the Doctoral program, and may offer a shorter timeline for graduation with a joint degree.

The S.J.D. is the highest US academic credential in the legal field. This research-intensive degree typically requires a J.D., substantial legal practice, and sometimes an L.L.M. The S.J.D. is usually a three-year course of study that involves the completion and defense of a dissertation based on a proposal submitted during the program application process.

The S.J.D. may be of greatest value to law professionals interested in academic employment as law professors. There are a small number of programs that offer this degree and a similarly small number of applicants.

Paralegals assist lawyers with case preparation and court documentation and may interact with potential and retained clients to gather information essential for a case to be presented by a supervising lawyer. Although there are paralegal education programs – some quite sophisticated – no specific training or licensure is required to be a paralegal in most states.

A few states are now permitting non-lawyers with specific training and degrees to provide some basic legal services under the supervision of licensed attorneys, similar to physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners in medicine.  

Many universities offer combination degree programs that allow students to pursue a law degree alongside another professional degree, such as business, medicine, public health, or public policy. Joint degree programs allow students to complete both degrees in a shorter period of time than if they pursued the degrees sequentially. Application procedures for join programs vary by institution.

Before you commit to a joint degree program, critically assess the value that it will bring to your career development and the associated costs of time, energy, and finances. Joint degrees are becoming more common for law professors.