Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree
Law is often considered to be one of the most prestigious professions around the world. In a job where accuracy, logic, critical thinking, and analytical skills are king, it is no surprise that law school is generally regarded as one of the most rigorous academic disciplines. Committing to this field requires dedication, focus, and determination.
To be able to practice law, students need to first earn a juris doctor (J.D.)— sometimes referred to as a doctor of law or doctor of jurisprudence— before sitting and passing the bar exam. Note: although some states allow students to take the bar exam without a J.D., this adds an extra challenge because J.D. programs typically incorporate content to prepare students for the bar exam.
How long is a J.D. degree program?
Earning a juris doctor usually requires 3 years of full-time study. Accelerated programs are also available and can reduce this to 2 years. Part-time students usually complete their J.D. in 4 years.
For students without the prerequisite bachelor’s degree necessary to enter into J.D. programs, there exists dual bachelor of arts (B.A.) and J.D. programs. These programs are structured with 3 years of bachelor’s level study followed by the standard 3 years of J.D. coursework. This allows students to cut a year off the time it takes to complete a traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree.
J.D. programs often include experiential, hands-on work observing and assisting practicing lawyers. These courses can be an excellent approach to gain experience in the field or practice that interests you. The most common ways to build this experience is practicums.
Practicums can be project- or fieldwork-based. Projects usually involve assisting a professor and attending a weekly seminar about the project. Fieldwork can be completed at an external organization, and similarly includes a weekly seminar on the topics involved in the assignment. Most programs also have a public service requirement that consists of a specific number of supervised, uncompensated law-related public service work hours.
Going to law school is a considerable investment. These prestigious institutions are often chosen based on the additional services and opportunities they provide to students: meeting these expectations increases the cost of J.D. programs.
Another factor affecting the high costs of law school is the distribution of scholarships. While the standard array of grants and loans are available to law students, the scholarship offering is skewed. Rather than basing scholarships on need, these schools give most of their scholarships to students with the highest academic performance or LSAT scores.
The average yearly cost of tuition for the 2020 to 2021 school year was $56,596, not including living expenses. With this cost rising an average of $5,326 per year, attending law school continues to be an expensive endeavor. To check your eligibility for federal student aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Scholarships for law students are also available for those individuals interested in pursing a law degree, and are interested in additional financial support.
J.D. joint degree programs
Just as law students can simultaneously earn a B.A. and J.D., they can also study 2 subjects in joint degree programs. The main difference between dual and joint degrees is that the former awards 2 distinct degrees while the latter confers a single degree split between 2 disciplines.
The joint degree option is common for students who want to specialize in a specific field of law and typically combines a J.D. with a master’s degree in law (LLM). Traditionally completed after a J.D., an LLM usually includes a year of study dedicated to a particular area of law with a focus on research. If your career goals also include business, earning a joint J.D. and master of business administration (MBA) may appeal.
Most joint J.D. programs include 3 years of J.D. study followed by 1 year of subject-specific master’s work. J.D./Ph.D. programs are possible to complete in as few as 6 years. Listed below are some of the most common joint degrees combined with the J.D.
- J.D./LLM in international law
- J.D./LLM in taxation
- J.D./MPP (master of public policy)
- J.D./MPH (master of public health)
An attorney is a practicing lawyer. A lawyer is anyone with a J.D., practicing or not.
Most schools require a bachelor’s degree to enter into a J.D. program. For those that do not, applicants are still required to complete a certain number of prerequisite undergraduate credit hours. While some students choose to major in subjects traditionally considered preparatory for the J.D. such as history, philosophy, economics, or political science, your undergraduate degree can be in any field. If you plan on going into a particular area of specialization, for example international law, an undergraduate degree in international relations could be of particular benefit.
While some students choose to major in subjects traditionally considered preparatory for the J.D. such as history, philosophy, economics, or political science, your undergraduate degree can be in any field.
Law schools are very competitive. To successfully complete this degree, you need certain skills, experience, and personal characteristics. These include critical reading, research, organization, relationship-building, and public service.
Most law schools require several basic prerequisites for their applicants, including the following:
- bachelor’s degree
- minimum GPA: 3.8 for top schools, 3.4 average
- passing scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
- personal statement
- letters of recommendation
Your LSAT scores determine which schools you are eligible for, with prestigious schools requiring higher scores. If you already know your field of interest, try to find a school that is known for that field. Apply well before the deadline because law schools use rolling acceptance and early acceptance policies.
Part-time and online learning options
The ABA currently does not accredit any fully-online J.D. programs, although blended learning is an option. Some programs include asynchronous online components in addition to in-person classes.
Is it possible to work with this degree?
Law school is famously demanding. Highlighting this fact, the ABA once restricted full-time J.D. students from working more than 20 hours a week. Though this rule was overturned in 2014, some schools still enforce similar restrictions to ensure students stay fully focused on their degree program.
Some firms and companies hire second and third-year law school interns, externs, or fellows. You can also do project work or remote work for online legal service companies. Lawyer Exchange, an online legal staffing and recruitment organization, posts specific projects from law firms. Third-year students looking for work can submit proposals to work on lower- level projects found in these listings.
Can I transfer credits?
It is possible to transfer from one law school to another, especially after your first year. This option is sometimes used by students who were not accepted to their first-choice school. After performing well in their first year at school, it is easier gain acceptance into one of the top 14 (T14) law schools. As most schools do not require transcripts to make this move, this strategy is relatively popular among students looking for a prestigious degree.
Most schools do not accept second or third year transfers. For those that do, students usually have to complete an additional year at their new school. J.D. credits are not usually transferrable to a non-law M.A. degree program.
Coursework in a J.D. program
The J.D. curriculum at most law schools follows a similar format, organized by year. The first year includes foundational coursework and the second and third years allow students to choose from coursework that best meets their areas of interest and future specialization.
First year (1L)
The curriculum for the first year can be rigid, and many students say this year is also the most difficult. One of the reasons for this relates to the teaching methods used in law school classrooms. To best prepare future lawyers to engage critically, professors use case and Socratic teaching methods. These methods require students to learn all required material ahead of class and are expected to engage in active discussions during lectures. Common courses in this year include the following:
Students in this course learn about the basic elements of the civil litigation process, including the phases of lawsuits, the jury’s role, and the impact of previous adjudication.
This course includes all of the basic elements of contracts including their formation, interpretation, and enforcement.
The major elements of the constitution are covered in this course along with the process of judicial review and various methods of interpretation and enforcement.
Second and third years (2L and 3L)
Students in their second and third years have more freedom to choose their courses. As this is the period where students are expected to select an area of specialization, most students opt for subjects based on their future career goals. Some choices may be:
Students in this course explore the architecture of the federal administrative system, including the powers held and their limitations.
This course explores the protocols and practical issues involved in federal class action lawsuits, multi-district litigation, parallel state and federal lawsuits.
In addition to choosing specific coursework, students have several ways of narrowing their focus. Practicums, elective courses, and joint degree programs all offer opportunities to build skills in a particular area and demonstrate a specific interest. Some schools are known for particular fields. Two examples are: Boston University which offers a concentration on banking and finance law, and the child and family law concentration at Loyola University in Chicago.
From a broader perspective, there are 4 main fields of law students can choose for their specialization.
- Criminal law – concerned with punishing individuals who have committed crimes
- Administrative law – focuses on governmental administrative agencies
- Business and financial law – concerns the laws governing businesses
- Civil and human rights law – based on the inherent and given rights of people as individuals and citizens within a society
Attending a law school accredited by the American Bar Association is recommended. Most states do not allow you to take their bar exam if you went to a non-accredited school. California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington are exceptions to this rule, and it is in these state that the majority of non- accredited law schools are located. The coursework at non-accredited schools is not as rigorous as accredited schools, which can result in students being less prepared for the bar exam. In California, for example, the pass rate is notoriously low, with only 37% of test takers passing in 2021.
There are some benefits of non-accredited schools. They are usually cost less, have considerably easier admissions requirements, have less demanding and more flexible programs, and can be fully online. If you want to practice law in a state that requires accreditation to take their bar exam and practice, however, it is wise to choose an accredited program.
What you can do with a J.D.
The most common reason people choose to pursue a J.D. is to become an attorney at law, representing clients in active litigation before a court. There are several areas outside of this traditional role where this degree can serve graduates as well. Professionals like chief operating officers, mediators, and directors of human resources, can use the knowledge and skills gained from a J.D. to build a successful career. Listed below are 2 of the most common careers held by J.D. program graduates.
Law professorMedian salary: $81K
Professors of law teach at colleges and universities. Their responsibilities can include preparing syllabi, administering examinations, and evaluating student assignments. Professors may also be involved in research and need to stay abreast of current events and developments in their field.
The most common advanced degree earned by lawyers is an LLM. This degree focuses heavily on legal theory as opposed to the more practical training provided by a J.D. Lawyers who choose to earn this degree are planning on specializing in a particular field to advance their career.
Professionals wanting to practice internationally benefit from an LLM, because it is recognized globally. This degree is also preferred in highly regulated and complex areas of law such as environmental law, and for positions in policymaking, academia, and consulting.
For students interesting in studying law but who do not want to become attorneys, a master of legal studies (MLS) can be a good choice. Sometimes referred to as a master of science of law or master of studies in law, this degree helps professionals navigate laws and regulations in areas like nonprofits and government sectors. This degree appeals to those already in the workforce and is often earned part time.
If you want to practice law, earning a J.D. should be at the top of your list.
The terminal degree in law is the doctor of juridical science (SJD). Sometimes referred to as a doctor of science law, this degree is designed for students who want to conduct advanced research. Most SJD degree holders go on to teaching and scholarly roles.
If you want to practice law, earning a J.D. should be at the top of your list. With this degree, you get the foundational and practical skills you need to pass your state bar exam and successfully enter the professional sphere.
In addition to advocating for the profession and its members, the ABA works to reduce bias and support diversity within the legal professions. Members benefit from regular online events on current topics as well as several publications.
Members of the FBA have opportunities for leadership and networking as part of an organization that has the power to impact policy on a large scale. The FBA also offers conferences, webinars, and an online legal career center to support professional growth.
This organization of predominantly African-American lawyers and judges gives members access to networking events, educational opportunities, and opportunities to join task forces. It is also open to students, educators, paralegals, and related professionals.