A Juris Doctor, or J.D., is the basic American law degree that students must complete to practice law. A Master of Laws, or LL.M., follows the J.D. and gives additional expertise. It is a scholarly credential. The two degrees differ in prerequisites, curriculum, relationship to licensing and some special considerations for foreign students. Other master’s degrees in law are designed for lawyers, nonlawyers and non-U.S. lawyers who want to practice in the United States.


To get a J.D., a student must go to law school. To go to law school, a student must have a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, take the Law School Admission Test and complete an application. For U.S. students, admission to an LL.M. program presumes that the student already has a J.D., so no further testing is required. For international students whose native language is not English, most LL.M. programs also require an English proficiency test score.

Course of Study

Studying for a J.D. generally takes three years and, especially in the first year, the course of study is fairly standard. It includes constitutional law, contracts, torts, property, criminal law, civil procedure, legal writing and professional responsibility. The goal is to provide a student with the basic knowledge necessary to practice law. There is no standard definition of an LL.M. It is usually a one-year program, often offered in tax or international law, and may be offered online. It may include completion of a substantial paper. In some schools it is completely designed by the student.

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Licenses to practice law are regulated by the states, and requirements vary among them. All states require that the candidate pass a bar examination. In most states you must have a J.D. to sit for the exam. Some states will make exceptions for students who have a basic law degree from another country and an LL.M. from a U.S. school.

Other Master's Degrees in Law

Less common than LL.M.s, several other master’s degrees in law are designed for nonlawyers, practicing lawyers or non-U.S. lawyers who want to practice in the U.S. These include Master of Science or Master of Professional Studies, abbreviated M.S. or M.P.S. respectively. The Juris Master is designated as J.M.; a Master of Comparative Law as M.C.L.; and Master of Jurisprudence as M.J. These additional degrees are very school-specific. For example, one institution’s M.J. in Health Law is designed for health care professionals who want to broaden their knowledge of health care law. Another focuses on Indian law.

About the Author

Anne Wallace teaches in Indiana’s community college system, including courses in business law, business writing and paralegal studies. She has practiced law, specializing in pension and health care plans and published in "Benefits Quarterly," "National Underwriter" and "Benefits and Compensation Management." She has a bachelor’s in English from Wellesley College, and a J.D. from Fordham Law School.