A Breakdown of Types of Law Degrees in the U.S.

May 20, 2021

For prospective students planning to study law or obtain an advanced degree in law in the United States, get ready to do some research.

Some foreign-educated attorneys come to the United States to earn an advanced degree and return to their home country after completing the program. Others already live and work in the U.S. or plan to come here and practice law. Keep this in mind: Not all degrees in law will provide you with the opportunity to practice law in the United States.

law degrees in the united states

States have different degree requirements for licensure. Some states allow you to sit for the Bar and practice with a foreign law degree and the Master’s of Law or Master of Laws (more generally known as the LL.M.).  However, most states will require the Juris Doctor (J.D.) from an institution approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). The best place to find out what each jurisdiction requires is the ABA or National Conference of Bar Examiners.

There are also a growing number of post-J.D. and non-J.D. programs other than the LL.M. that you may want to research based on your professional plans.

Sifting through the Alphabet Soup

The ABA website has a comprehensive list of all post-J.D. and non-J.D. degrees available offered by all ABA-Approved law schools (do not settle for an unaccredited institution). The list of degrees is what we refer to as Alphabet Soup: MSL, MJ, JM, LLM, MCL, SJD, JD and so on…

Breaking it Down

For students who already have either an international law degree or a U.S. law degree and wish for advanced learning, there are two tracks: practice and research/academic.

If you desire to break into or advance in your academic career, consider the LL.M., followed by a legal doctorate, which is available in many different specialties.  These degrees include the Doctor of Judicial Science (S.J.D.), Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.S.D.) or the Doctor of Comparative Law (D.C.L.). Currently, according to the ABA, there are 55 institutions across the ranking spectrum that offer one of these three post-J.D. doctorate level degrees. The S.J.D. is the most commonly offered and there is a great article on this very topic in the ABA Journal, which warns that not all employers-academic or otherwise- are familiar with the value of these advanced degrees.  

For attorneys looking to enhance their legal knowledge in a specialty area, such as elder law, international law, or advocacy, for example, or perhaps wish to teach at a law school or university, there are two main degree options: the LL.M. and the Master of Comparative Law (M.C.L.). While the ABA site only shows eight schools with the M.C.L., the LL.M. is so commonly offered it would be nearly impossible to find a program of interest. Many of the programs are now offered online, such as Stetson’s LL.M. in Advocacy and Elder Law.

Legal-related degrees for nonlawyers exist, too.

While a degree such as a Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.) will not make you a lawyer, it is a good way to enhance your current credentials (even for current attorneys looking to specialize), earn a graduate-level degree in a field you may just love, or test the water to see if law school is right for you.

Dozens of schools offer these degrees which include the Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.), Master of Legal Studies (M.L.S.), the Juris Master (J.M.), the Master of Science or Master of Studies (M.S.) and the Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.). Like LL.M. programs, many of these degrees are available both live and online.

All of these legal-related degrees will help you develop and enhance your critical reading and analysis skills, understand legal concepts, and enhance your credentials without the need to obtain a J.D.

If you are already an attorney, the LL.M. is probably the most widely accepted and appreciated of the post-J.D. degrees available today in the U.S. It can be done in one year for full-time students and two or more years for part-time students. The areas of emphasis are far too numerous to count, from Intellectual Property to Gaming Law. There is bound to be a program that is right for you and your professional goals.

Topics: Law School Insider Tips, International Law