Law Degrees - JD, LLM, LLB, JSD
With many choices, what should I do?

With law degrees these days, you face too many choices these days -- an alphabet soup of degrees: JD, LLM, LLB, JSD, SJD, MSL, JSP, etc.!

It can be a little confusing. If you are interested in law school, or already know it all, it really helps to know all of your options and which degrees might be right for you. (And, separately, you might want to know how long is law schoolbefore going.)

The short answer is: if you have never studied law before, and you live in the U.S., and you want to be a lawyer, you most likely need to get a J.D. Easy, right?

But there are many other options you might want to consider. For instance, in many cases, you can be eligible to practice law in the U.S. with an LLB (a foreign equivalent of the JD) plus and LLM (a one-year masters of law program).

There are many kinds of degrees worth knowing about -- even if you've already done a J.D.!

Below I cover (1) law degrees needed to practice law; (2) graduate law school degrees; (3) joint degrees (combined with another graduate degree); (4) degrees for non-lawyers; (and (5) different formats or venues for law school degrees (such as traditional brick-and-mortar, distance learning, online, etc.).

If you don't learn something you didn't know already, I'll buy you a beer. A root beer if you don't drink or are too young. Or maybe a lemonade if you . .. but I digress.

1. First degrees: what you need to practice law

  • Juris Doctor (J.D.). This is the first law degree to take in the U.S. and Canada. This is what most people think of when they think "law degree." You MUST get a J.D. to practice law in the U.S. There are a few exceptions, but this is a strong rule. Of course, the J.D. (at an accredited school) is not enough; you still have to sit and pass the bar exam. But after that, and some other formalities, you're a lawyer! Congrats! Now about paying off those massive loans . . . sorry, getting ahead of you, here.

  • If this is what you want to get, then skip the rest of this section, down to "Format of Law Degrees." Or if you're curious about graduatelaw degrees, ones after the J.D., and non-lawyer law degrees (they exist), keep on a' reading.

  • Bachelor's of Law (LLB). This is what a J.D. was called for many years until the late 1960s, when most U.S. law schools switched to offering J.D. degrees. A first law degree in most other countries that follow the English common law tradition (such as, um, England, India, Singapore, Trinidad, etc., etc.). My understanding--just a rumor that I am still trying to verify (ha! You don't know everything, Wikipedia!)--is that many lawyers working for the federal government began to complain because they were paid less than people with real doctorates (PhDs). To accommodate these lawyers, law schools began to change the name of the degrees to juris doctors so that they could be paid like PhDs. (I guess a lawyer did her job and convinced someone to fork over money?).

  • The existence of LLB degrees in English-speaking countries outside of the U.S. may be of interest to you if you can't afford law school in the U.S. or don't get in somewhere you like. You might get a first law degree outside of the U.S. and then come back to the U.S. to do an LLM and then you can take the bar and practice. Not an easy road, but it has been done.

2. Second degrees: graduate programs

  • Masters of Law (LLM). This is a second law degree in the U.S. and most countries. That means, for the most part, you must have a J.D. or its non-U.S. equivalent to be eligible to get an LLM. Usually, the LLM is a one-year degree that allows attorneys to specialize in a particular area of law. A couple of other notes here:

  • The most common LLM degrees to pursue are a tax law LLM and an international law LLM. Also common is some sort of LLM to become a law teacher. Note that in most cases, an LLM is not necessary. You can practice tax law, and international law, and teach lawwithout getting an LLM. But many people do nonetheless or get an LLM in case they want to switch the focus of their legal practice.

  • Other than tax law students, LLMs at U.S. law schools are usually foreign attorneys, especially at large programs like Harvard or NYU. Generally they come to the US to make connection urnish their credentials, and party like the word "party" does not exist in their home countries. Most LLMs studied law as undergraduates (that's how it's done everywhere but the U.S. and Canada), and have significant work experience before starting. They want to burn of some steam and relax before returning home; others want to stay in the U.S. and work incredibly hard. And some of them are just incredibly, incredibly good looking. Really.

  • U.S. lawyers sometimes go to another country for an LLM generally do so because they want to teach law and/or specialize in some kind of international law. This isn't common, but you do every so often see an American take an LLM at Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics (yes, they have a law school...), University of Paris (I, II or X), Leiden University, etc. Such a credential is often helpful to, but not necessary for, a career in international law.

  • JSD/SJD (Doctor of Juridical Studies). - This is a second OR third law degree that is the equivalent of a PhD and does require a lengthy dissertation, one or two years of classes, and three to five years overall to complete. (A good friend of mine made me line-edit her JSD dissertation. As fun as swallowing a Dorito, which I did once when I was young.)Some programs will admit you directly from your first law degree, while some others require an LLM first. U.S. lawyers who want to become law professors do not need a JSD/SJD although it can help. This is usually a degree that non-U.S. lawyers come to the U.S. to get because in their home countries, a second law degree or PhD equivalent is necessary, or particularly prestigious from the U.S.

    Sometimes U.S. lawyers get a JSD/SJD to teach law because their first law degrees were not at a top-ranked law school. The need for this sort of "credential laundering" is stupid and snobbish on the part of the lawschools that seem to require them -- I mean these are smart, smart people if they are admitted to a JSD program -- but no one said law schools were not stupid and snobbish.

3. Law degrees for non-lawyers.

Is it strange that there are law school degrees out for non-lawyers? I guess so.

Some people love pain.

To me it seems an expensive degree to get for someone who does not intend to practice or teac law. But if you can afford it, and it helps you with your other career (journalism and university teaching, mainly), great. Here they are:

  • Master of Studies in Law (MSL). - This is typically a one-year degree that you cannot use to practice law. Generally such degrees are taken by doctoral students and journalists. I do know of one person (a partner I used to work for) who got an MSL and then decided to get a J.D. after that.

  • Master of Laws (LLM). This is the same degree except a couple of schools seem to allow non-lawyers to get a one-year masters. Again, just because you get an LLM, if you don't have a J.D. or LLB, you can't practice law. I know for a fact that one lawschool -- Thomas Jefferson School of Law based in San Diego -- offers this degree to non-lawyers, but only online.

  • Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) - This is a PhD equivalent course that requires a previous undergraduate degree but not a previous law degree. Usually someone who gets a JSP (offered mainly at Berkeley and NYU) wants to teach law or another subject that touches on law (sociology, etc.). But I have never heard of someone getting a JSP who did not teach law. Sometimes the JSP is taken jointly with a J.D. or after a J.D. (I know of two people who got their J.D.s and got JSP degrees after that), and sometimes you are allowed to pursue a joint degree (I know at least one person who started doing that but eventually abandoned the JSP. Not recommended unless you want to be a law professor, and even then I am not sure I would do it.

4. Joint law degrees

I may write more about this in the future, but here is what you need to know:

There several different kinds of joint J.D. degrees that combined with other graduate degrees. Usually, the joint degree programs knocks one year off of what would otherwise be the total combined time to study. For instance, a J.D. is usually three years, and a masters of arts is two, so a real joint degree would just take four years.

I may add more later, but this is what I have joint law degrees:

  • JD/MBA - Juris Doctor/Master of Business Administration.Perhaps the most common joint law + [something] degree, it makes sense. Most highly paid lawyers practice business law, and many business people need to understand the law well. But in the end, business tends to dominate as the career choice of those who graduate with this degree. There just more money in investment banking or finance than in the law in the longer term, which is I guess why most people I know who did the JD/MBA did not become lawyers.

  • JD/MPA or MIA or MPP- Juris Doctor/Master of Public Affairs or Master of International Affairs or Master of Public Policy.Another common degree that combines a law degree with a masters in some sort of study in domestic or international policy. Most people I met who did this joint degree actually did become lawyers, partly because they felt they could do more in policy circles as lawyers.

  • JD/PhD - Juris Doctor/Doctor of Philosophy Like going to school? For a really really really long time? Get a JD/PhD! It does take forever. Almost everyone who does this eventually becomes a law professor. While a PhD is not a requirement to become a law professor, it is an important credential at many prestigious law schools.

  • JD/MD - Juris Doctor/Medical Doctor Are you kidding? There is no formal joint degree programs because these are nearly incompatible professions in terms of sheer time and space. The only person I knew with both a JD and MD was a long practicing doctor who decided to get a law degree. He was already in his late forties with children, a kind an absolutely impressive guy. I really don't recommend doing this. You won't practice both medicine and law.

5. Format of law degrees

There aren't that many different formats for law degrees, but the options have expanded over time.

  • Traditional Brick-and-Mortar Residential Program. Not much to say here. This is the "normal" way to go to law school. You move to the campus and you live at or near school. You go to class in front of live professors and you work with other real live students. This will probably still be the dominant format for law school for some time to come. No real drawbacks unless you hate the city your law school is in or you are in a long-distance relationship...

  • Distance Learning or Correspondence Law Degrees. This is the second oldest method format for law school degrees that I know of, and is slowly being strangled to death by online law schools. But this is the fate of correspondence degrees generally. The idea was that you would receive and complete lessons by mail. No one really seems to offer this now given the much greater convenience of the online law school.

  • Online Law Schools. A newer model, you see these ads everywhere for Concord Law School. Elsewhere, I have some more comments on online law degrees, but this is new. You watch lectures online and you participate from your own home.

  • Hybrid Programs (mixed online/offline). This is growing more popular and is particularly prevalent for LLM degrees. I suspect that over time this will become more and more popular amongst established and highly-ranked law schools. For instance, NYU Law School now offers anonline tax LLM program that you can take in your spare time. Oxford University offers a human rights law LLM that is largely online but requires you to be in England on campus during the summer.

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