In this section you will find a definition and information on the three main types of law degrees: the Juris Doctor (J.D.), the Master of Laws (LL.M.), with the highest degree being the Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.).
A law degree is an academic degree conferred for studies in law. Such degrees are generally preparation for legal careers; but while their curricula may be reviewed by legal authority, they do not themselves confer a license. A legal license is granted (typically by examination) and exercised locally; while the law degree can have local, international, and world-wide aspects- e.g., in Britain the Legal Practice Course is required to become a British solicitor or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) to become a barrister.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), becoming a lawyer requires a minimum of two degrees over the course of 7 years of full-time study – 4 years for an undergraduate degree, followed by a 3 year law degree earned from a law school accredited by the ABA.
Types of Law Degrees
Applicants must have at least a bachelor's degree 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:
- 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
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, an 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
The type of law degree conferred differs according to the jurisdiction:
- Bacharel em Direito (Bachelor of Laws) or Bacharel em Ciencias Juridicas e Sociais (Bachelor of Laws and Social Sciences), in Brazil, is an undergraduate degree. The abbreviation for Bachelor is Bel.. To be a Lawyer and be admitted at the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Brazilian Bar Association), the Bachelor must be approved at the Brazilian Bar Exam, if the Selection and Registration Committee accept the new member he/she will be consider an Advogado (Attorney at Law/Advocate).
- Bachelor of Laws also referred to as a B.A. in Law (B.L.) or an LL.B. (Hons) in the United Kingdom and various current or former Commonwealth countries. It is an undergraduate degree. A Bachelor of Civil Law (B.C.L.) degree is similar in nature, historically distinguished from canon law.
- Master of Laws in the United Kingdom and various current or former Commonwealth countries. Also referred to as an LL.M. from its Latin name, Legum Magister. It is an advanced academic degree pursued by those holding a professional law degree or a degree in a relevant field.
- Laurea di Dottore in Giurisprudenza for graduates before the Bologna Process reforms, or Laurea Magistrale in Giurisprudenza after the Bologna Process reforms, in Italy. It is a masters level degree, however all graduates of Italian universities, even of the undergraduate degree, are authorized to use the title of "dottore" (Italian for doctor).
- Erstes Juristisches Staatsexamen is the equivalent to the law degree, since the second part (Zweites Juristisches Staatsexamen) is the German equivalent to the Bar exam in the U.S. At some universities you either become a "Lizentiat des Rechts (Licentiatus iuris)", a Magister iuris or a Diplom-Jurist. It is a master's-level degree.
- Juris Doctor (J.D.) in the United States and Japan (also offered at some schools in Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong). It is a professional doctorate degree.
- Legum Doctor (known as the LL.D., or in some jurisdictions Doctor of Laws) is in some jurisdictions the highest academic degree in law and is equivalent to a Ph.D., and in others is an honorary degree only.
- Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) is a research doctorate in law awarded mostly in the United States and Canada.
- Licenciado en Derecho ("Licentiate in Law") in Spain.
- Licenciatura en Derecho ("Bachelor in Law") in Mexico.
- Lizentiat der Rechtswissenschaften (German) / Licence en droit (French) until 2004 and Master of Law (MLaw) since 2004 (as a result of the Bologna Process) in Switzerland. It is a masters level degree.
- Magister iuris (Mag. iur.) ("Master of Law") in Austria and Croatia. It is a masters level degree and the first academic title within both systems. After three years of practice you can take the "Anwaltsprufung" (in Austria) or "Pravosudni ispit" (in Croatia), an equivalent of the bar exam.
- Specialist in law or Jurist in Ukraine and Russia. It is a graduate degree which allows doing a PhD research after admission to the PhD department (aspirantura), though formally it is not at the masters level.
- The Finnish title of varatuomari is the basic qualification for the legal profession. It is obtained by an one-year externship at a district court after completing a Master's degree in law in an university.
Types of Law Degrees and Law Related Job Titles
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Professor Greipp’s about Types of Law Degrees and Law Terminology
Professor Greipp’s fascinating post on Lois Kuenzli Collins, an early female graduate of Marquette Law School, made reference to Ms. Collins’ law degree being upgraded to a J.D. in the late 1960s. That was actually a fairly common occurrence at that time, as thousands of American lawyers in the 1960s found themselves the possessors of a newly styled doctoral law degree. Between 1964 and 1969, at the encouraging of the American Bar Association, most American law schools (including Marquette) upgraded their basic law degree from the traditional “LL.B.” to “J.D.,” to reflect the by then almost universal postgraduate status of the degree. For good measure, most also made the change retroactive, subject to the graduate returning his or her old degree for a new one.
An American Bar Association committee had recommended that the law degree be called the juris doctor as early as 1906, and a small number of law schools, most notably the University of Chicago, had long called the basic law degree the J.D. However, until the late 1960s the vast majority of schools used the designation of LL.B. or B.L. which suggested that the law degree was an undergraduate degree (as it still is in most places in the world).
What is much less well known is that in an earlier era, some law schools simultaneously offered both the LL.B. and J.D. degrees. While the original law degree awarded by Marquette was the LL.B., between 1926 and 1943, Marquette offered its students the option of earning either an LL.B. degree or a J.D. degree. This innovation apparently originated with Dean Max Schoetz, but was continued after his untimely death in 1927.
Both of the two law degrees were normally earned in three years. However, to earn the J.D., a student had to (1) have already earned an undergraduate degree in a field other than law–admission to Marquette required only two years of college between 1926 and 1934 and only three after that year—(2) compile an average grade of 88 (out of 100) in all law courses (compared to 77 for LL.B. candidates); and (3) prepare an acceptable thesis on a law-related topic in his (or her) third year. (The student was also required to assign the copyright in the thesis to the law school dean.)
There was no formal advantage to the J.D. degree, at least in regard to bar admission. One did not need to have a law degree of any sort to take the Wisconsin bar examination until 1940—three years of study in or outside of a law school was all that was required. Moreover, after 1933, either degree qualified its holder for automatic admission to the Wisconsin bar under the diploma privilege, which was extended to Marquette that year. The University of Wisconsin, which had had the diploma privilege since 1870, had never awarded a J.D. degree, so there was no basis on which to distinguish between the two degrees. There was also no evidence that law firms placed any special premium on hiring graduates with the J.D. degree.
Given this lack of immediate advantage, few Marquette students appear to have even attempted the J.D. degree. In any given year, only a handful of students met the full set of qualifications, and less than 40 such degrees were awarded in the decade and a half that the option existed. The last of the original J.D.’s at Marquette were awarded in 1939, although the option remained on the books until 1943 (or perhaps a year or two longer as records for the law school for 1944 and 1945 are almost non-existent).
Our colleague Jim Ghiardi, who attended Marquette Law School from 1939 to 1942, recalls that the J.D. degree fell out of favor as students began to realize that the extra work necessary to earn the degree provided them with no real additional benefit, particularly during a Great Depression with a world war looming on the horizon.
Lois Kuenzli Collins was enrolled at the law school when the J.D. option was created, and like most of her classmates she did not qualify for the “higher” degree. However, her recollection of the distinction between the two degrees probably explains her excitement forty years later when her degree was “upgraded” from an LL.B. to a J.D.
As it turns out, there was nothing unique about Marquette’s awarding both J.D. and LL.B. degrees in the 1920s and 1930s. The practice was particularly widespread, it appears, in the Midwest.
As late as 1961, there were still 15 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States which awarded both LL.B. and J.D. degrees. The fifteen included George Washington University, Chicago-Kent, DePaul, John Marshall, Loyola of Chicago, Northwestern, Indiana, Drake, Iowa, Washburn, Michigan, Detroit College of Law, Wayne State, Ohio State, and Willamette. At least by a broad definition, all of the 15 were located in the Midwest except for George Washington (D.C.) and Willamette (Ore.).
In all of the listed schools except Northwestern and Iowa, the largest number of graduates received the LL.B. degree. (At Northwestern and Iowa, the J.D. degree was the more commonly awarded.) The practice was not exactly dying out either, as the following year both the University of North Dakota and the University of Oregon joined the list of schools awarding both degrees. Duke adopted the J.D./LL.B. distinction after 1961, and the two options were listed in the Duke Law School catalog as late as 2007, although the school apparently had not awarded an LL.B. degree since the 1960s.
As the number of law students who entered law schools with college degrees increased in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of institutions apparently used the J.D./LL.B. distinction to encourage would-be law students to complete their undergraduate degrees before beginning their legal studies. (If they failed to do so, they got the bachelor’s degree, not the doctorate.)
Presumably, the practice of awarding two different degrees was originally related to the argument that it did not make sense to award a second bachelor’s degree to someone who already had one. (A previous undergraduate degree appears to have always been a prerequisite for the pre-1960s J.D.) Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an easily accessible source that identifies when individual schools began to award the two law degrees. The practice started at Marquette in 1926 and at Chicago-Kent in 1933, but it could well predate the 1920s at other schools.
The concentration of the “two types of law degree” schools in the Midwest (and particularly in Chicago) seems likely related to the presence of the highly prestigious University of Chicago which from its founding always required its students to have college degrees, and, beginning in 1902, it always awarded it graduates the J.D. degree.
In contrast, Harvard Law School, which was the first law school to insist on a prior undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for admission, considered the possibility of awarding some sort of doctorate in law in the early 1900s but decided to stay with the LL.B. Harvard also invested heavily in the early 20th century in graduate law programs that resulted in the award of LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees. Given that this graduate degree terminology did not really fit if the first law degree was called a doctorate, Harvard retained the undergraduate designation for its law degree. Given its great prestige, whatever was done at Harvard Law School was likely to imitated at law schools across the country.
It is not clear why a few schools like Marquette and the University of Washington once awarded both LL.B. and J.D. degrees but decided to stop doing so long before the 1960s. Washington eliminated the J.D. degree in 1938 and, as mentioned above, Marquette followed in the mid-1940s. The Marquette experience suggests that the decision may have been related to a lack of student interest in the more demanding degree, as well as to a general revamping of the law school that occurred immediately after World War II under the leadership of Dean Francis Swietlik.
There were a few other variations on the J.D. degree as well. At Georgetown in the 1930s, one could earn a J.D. degree, but only after earning an LL.B. degree, which made it more in the nature of an LL.M. or an S.J.D. degree. Another variation occurred at William & Mary where, for much of the 20th century, graduates received a B.C.L. degree rather than either the LL.B. or the J.D.
By the end of the 1960s, the variations in terminology had been eliminated and the letters “JD” are now synonymous with the words “law degree”. However, we live in a time when many of the assumptions of contemporary legal education are being reexamined, and the legitimacy of much of what has been long taken for granted is being reconsidered.
Perhaps one result of the current anxiety will be a movement away from the one-size-fits-all J.D. degree of the late 1960s to something more akin to the multiple-degree model embraced by Marquette in the 1920s and 1930s.
 Types of Law Degrees - California Western School of Law https://www.cwsl.edu/academics
 Law Degree Programs | Harvard Law School http://hls.harvard.edu/dept/academics/degree-programs/
 Degrees & Specializations for the Juris Doctor https://law.ucla.edu/academics/degrees-and-specializations/
 WHY THE LAW DEGREE IS CALLED A J.D. AND NOT AN LL.B. https://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2012/01/11/why-the-law-degree-is-called-a-j-d-and-not-an-ll-b/
 What Can You Do With a Law Degree? https://law.olemiss.edu/career-services/student-resources/what-can-you-do-with-a-law-degree/
 Law, Degrees & Courses, La Trobe University http://www.latrobe.edu/courses/law