For those who are interested in pursuing a career in law, choosing which degree you are going to earn can be confusing. The law profession requires attending law school, as it is traditionally called, but it can be difficult to discern what degree is actually required to practice law. Depending on your career goals, you may want to earn a master's degree in law or a Juris Doctor degree.

What Is a J.D.?

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between a Juris Master vs. a Juris Doctor. A J.D. is the degree that people refer to when they say that they graduated from law school. The letters "J.D." stand for "Juris Doctor" and reflect the degree of education that a student has after completing a law school program. These programs typically last between two and four years. The Juris Doctor program covers a variety of topics pertaining to the legal profession. These degree programs are available to students on campus and online.

The content of a J.D. program varies from school to school. Some J.D. programs allow students to take electives and earn certificates in specific areas and offer the option for concentrations. Other J.D. programs allow students to earn a dual degree, such as a J.D./MBA, which allows the graduate to pursue the field of law in a business context or perhaps become in-house legal counsel for a corporation or another business entity. This also allows a graduate to practice exclusively corporate law and may make him more desirable to hire in that context.

Regardless of what path a law student ultimately chooses, the first year of law school at most schools is spent taking courses that get students focused on and familiar with the American legal system, the history of the legal system, legal practices and procedures and critical cases in the history of American law that have set important precedents in the field. Upon graduating, graduates are eligible to practice law or bring their training to bear on any other related field.

What Is an LL.M.?

An LL.M. is an often-misunderstood degree. Because the program is shorter than a Juris Doctor program, most people assume that the degree is a lesser degree. This is also because the degree's official name is "Master of Laws," while a J.D. is called a "Juris Doctor." Typically, the doctorate degree is understood to be the terminal degree or the highest level of education in a subject that a graduate can earn. However, in the case of the LL.M. vs. the J.D., the situation is somewhat reversed.

An LL.M. or Master of Laws degree is a short program, typically requiring about one year of full-time study. Rather than preceding the Juris Doctor degree the way master's programs traditionally precede doctorate degrees, the LL.M. is completed by choice after completing the Juris Doctor degree program. It is a specialized degree program that is focused on deepening a student's legal knowledge. As such, students very often need to complete an extensive specialized writing project to complete the program, tantamount to a thesis.

Because the LL.M. is a specialized degree, the courses will focus on an area pertinent to the student's career interests. These may be as varied as labor law, gaming law, entertainment law or work related to judgeships or the government. Aside from this focus, students will need to take courses and complete a rigorous curriculum of reading and writing. In almost every case, a student applying to an LL.M. program must already hold a J.D.

What Is the Difference Between a J.D. and LL.M.?

The key difference between the two degrees is their level in the field. A Juris Doctor must be earned before pursuing a Master of Laws degree. In every case, the J.D. is the first step. Once a student has graduated from law school, earned her J.D. and in most cases passed the bar exam, she is eligible to practice law in that state. Most students who finish a J.D. go on to practice law or work as legal counsel in some field.

However, some students choose to pursue an advanced degree after several years of practical life experience in the field. The LL.M. is specialized in a particular area and can make the holder of the degree a more desirable hire. This is true particularly if you intend to go into government, want to pursue a judgeship or feel that you may be interested in pursuing a career as a law professor or an administrator at a law school.

By all accounts, pursuing an LL.M. is commendable and a wise choice for the J.D. holder who is interested in moving forward and pursuing an advanced degree in order to get a coveted job. That being said, many law professors and government lawyers caution that real-world experience practicing law is more valuable than an LL.M. For some government jobs, the advanced degree may be necessary, but in many cases, it should only be earned after several years of professional experience.

If You Have a J.D., Should You Get an LL.M.?

For most lawyers who plan to practice law, an LL.M. will not be necessary. For many lawyers, it is their years of professional and practical experience that make them strong lawyers and desirable hires. Their years working in the field and their experience applying the theories of law and the lessons they learned in law school to real-world scenarios are what make them great lawyers. An advanced degree is a tool that can help hone and shape this experience into something even more comprehensive.

Many law school administrators and employers agree that students should not apply for an LL.M. until they have spent several years working. Even then, an LL.M. is not a crucial degree for all lawyers. It is critical to examine your career goals before attempting to commit to earning a degree that may be costly, time consuming and afford you little in the way of professional advancement.

Students in LL.M. programs will take courses that are heavy with reading and writing requirements. They will demand extensive research, extensive analysis and the ability to articulate knowledge and understanding clearly. This sort of in-depth knowledge and comprehension is often learned out in the working world and not from library-based research or lectures. Students will also pursue a particular focus and likely complete a project related to this specialization, demonstrating what they have learned over the years of both study and practice.

Are There Scholarships for Law School?

Prospective applicants to law school who are concerned about the cost of their education will be relieved to learn that there are many Juris Doctor scholarships available. There are scholarships for students who want to pursue study at particular schools, there are scholarships for students who are from particular cultural or ethnic backgrounds and there are scholarships available for students who have a particular sort of law that they are hoping to practice.

The first step toward getting a scholarship or grant funding for law school is to do your research. Begin by writing down a list of every possible characteristic that you could use to describe yourself. Where are you from? How do you identify? What are you hoping to study? Where did you do your undergraduate work? What experiences have you had that make you a unique applicant? By plumbing your own past and your identity and your goals for the future, you can make yourself a Juris Doctor candidate who is eligible for all opportunities that may be available to you.

The next step is to do extensive web-based research on organizations that offer law school scholarships to people like you. Ask questions, do research and make note of application deadlines and other necessary material. Another tactic may be to reach out to your undergraduate school and see if they have any knowledge of scholarships or funding opportunities for which you might be eligible. Your undergraduate university may even have relationships with law schools, and you may find that you qualify for reduced tuition.

When Do I Need to Take the LSAT?

As most people applying to law school after completing their undergraduate work are well aware, there is a standardized test required for admission. The LSAT is the test that all applicants must complete before being eligible to apply to law school. Generally, depending on the law school to which you are applying, there is a minimum score that you need to get to be eligible for admission. People may take the LSAT more than once to ensure that their score is high enough to be considered for the school they want to attend.

While the LSAT is an absolute non-negotiable requirement for admission to law school in order to earn a Juris Doctor, there is no such requirement when pursuing an LL.M. Applications to a Master of Laws degree program are predicated on the fact that the applicant has completed a J.D. program and has thus already demonstrated the core competencies that the LSAT would require and measure.

There is no standardized test required or any other admission assessment when applying for an LL.M. program. Students who apply for an LL.M. program are assumed to have already completed a level of work that speaks for itself. This makes the process of applying somewhat easier and somewhat less competitive, as students are coming from similar backgrounds.

Why Is an LL.M. Useful?

People who graduate with a J.D. and begin to practice law immediately may see very little use for an LL.M. after the beginning of their career. After all, if you're hoping to practice law, and you've passed the bar, you do not need to take on an additional degree that is largely symbolic and won't prepare you for the work that you're doing any more than your current experiences can.

However, there are areas of the law profession where an advanced degree is not only desirable but required. These are limited positions, yes, but for lawyers who want to pursue them, an LL.M. is a necessity. Typically, judgeships, positions in the Supreme Court or in circuit courts and academic professorships in the law field are the kinds of jobs that require you to earn an LL.M. Historically, policymakers and elected officials are among those who hold this degree.

Another advantage to the LL.M. is that it is a qualification with global recognition. It offers the lawyer the opportunity to work internationally and is a credential that indicates expertise in a certain area of the field. Lawyers who are hoping to work as diplomats in a foreign capacity are often encouraged and sometimes required to earn this degree. In addition to years of practical experience, the LL.M. demonstrates that the holder of the degree has gone as far as possible in the field.

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About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.