When applying to law school, you have a choice between entering for an LLM or a JD. Which should you take up?
Many candidates fail to research about getting an LLM vs JD before applying to law school, leading them to sign up for the wrong program—and resulting in a waste of time and money.
We want you to have all the information you need to avoid a similar mistake. So, by the end of this article, you’ll know precisely what both a JD and an LLM are, the difference between the two, and which is the right program for your long-term career goals.
What’s a JD?
A JD (Juris Doctor) is awarded after you graduate from an ABA-accredited (American Bar Association) law school in the US. The program is designed to prepare you for the bar exam, which you can choose to sit for after getting a JD.
During a JD program, you’ll be taught a variety of law-related topics and more. The program typically lasts for three years, but some schools offer two-year options. Other schools provide four-year part-time programs.
Depending on the law school, you can choose to specialize in specific aspects of law while getting your JD. For instance, you may elect to specialize in intellectual property, criminal, environmental, public, or tax law.
To complete a JD program, you’ll perform a wide variety of legal research projects, and write essays focused on criminal law, the law of contracts, civil procedure, torts, legal analysis, or other concepts of legal practice.
The point of a JD program is to provide you with not just the knowledge to pass the bar exam, but also how to successfully practice any area of the law you desire.
In most states, without a JD degree, you cannot qualify to sit for the bar exam and become a licensed lawyer. Most law school students sit for the bar exam immediately after graduating. But even if you don’t sit for the bar exam, there are still a variety of profitable and fulfilling legal careers you can pursue with just a JD. For example, a career in academics, consulting, writing, mediation, and compliance management are options.
To get admitted into law school for a JD program, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. The bachelor’s degree can be received from an accredited college or university, within or outside the US.
It doesn’t matter what you majored in for your bachelor’s degree as long as you graduate with a strong GPA. The top 15 law schools in the US typically only give admission to JD degree program applicants with an undergraduate grade point average of 3.50 and above.
Most undergrads that apply for law school admission have a major in History, Math, English, Business, Philosophy, or Political science.
Aside from a strong GPA, another minimum requirement to get into law school for a JD program is passing the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
The LSAT measures if an individual has the competence to complete a JD degree program. It accomplishes this by testing your reading comprehension, as well as analytical and logical reasoning skills, which are all essential to successfully study and practice law. But you don’t need an educational background in law to pass the LSAT.
Most of the top 15 law schools in the US accept candidates that have scored 160 and above in the LSAT.
What’s an LLM?
A Master of Laws or LLM is a specialized degree that’s also provided by ABA-accredited law schools. It is a master’s degree program in law that a JD holder can use to advance their legal knowledge or career. Unlike a JD degree program, an LLM program usually only lasts a year.
A practicing lawyer, an academic, or someone who’s just completed a JD program can qualify for an LLM degree program. The degree is globally recognized.
Students with a first degree in law from a foreign university can apply for an LLM degree program in the US. Students in this category can then go on to take the bar exam in certain states.
People who don’t have a JD but would like to get an LLM can apply for the program in most law schools, as long as they have an undergraduate degree in Law.
A practicing lawyer who goes on to get an LLM from a top-ranked university will increase their value in the job market, and thus their earning potential improves as well.
An LLM degree is designed to expand a student’s knowledge of the legal process and the law in general. To qualify for admission into an LLM degree program, the school will verify your academic record, letters of recommendation, and other factors before deciding that you are eligible for admission.
While a JD focuses on teaching students about basic legal principles, theories, and concepts, an LLM program teaches theoretical topics related to US law. You can opt for either a General or Specialized LLM program.
Under a General LLM, you can customize it to cover courses that best suit your career goals. A Specialized LLM, on the other hand, offers a structured course of study in specific areas of law. For a Specialized program, you can choose from any of the following areas of law:
- Dispute resolution
- Business law
- Bankruptcy law
- Forensic justice
- Estate planning
- International law
- Banking law
- Health law
- Immigration law
- Tax law
Other options are available depending on the law school you are applying to.
So, LLM vs JD—which is best?
Either a JD or an LLM can prepare you for a legal career, but you can’t become a licensed lawyer without a JD degree.
Other differences are that a JD degree program takes longer and has a broader scope than an LLM program. What really determines if a JD or an LLM is the right one for you are your long-term career goals.
To help you make the right choice, here are some LLM vs JD comparisons:
- An LLM will provide you with advanced training in law, but it doesn’t qualify you as a licensed lawyer. A JD prepares you for legal practice by teaching you everything you need to pass the bar exam and be an effective lawyer.
- You don’t need any prior legal experience or knowledge to apply for a JD program and complete it. You need an undergraduate law degree or a JD before you can be accepted into an LLM program.
- A JD degree program covers all aspects of law, while an LLM lets you specialize in an area of law, such as banking or environmental law.
- During 2L and 3L of a JD degree program, you can tailor your coursework such that you are taught topics that best align with your career goals. But during an LLM degree program, you can only take specific courses. Most of these require lots of legal research and revolve around legal writing and analysis.
- The courses taught during a JD degree program have more practical, real-world applications. The classes during an LLM degree program are more theoretical. This is because a JD program is meant to prepare students for practicing law in the real world, while an LLM program is mostly intended to expand a student’s knowledge of legal theory, and the reasoning behind certain legislation and policies.
- In the majority of the US, you need a JD before you can sit for the bar exam and get licensed to practice law. But if you add an LLM to your JD degree after taking the bar exam, it adds to your credentials and makes you more valuable as an attorney. This means you can attract more clients or increase your chances of being hired by a top law firm.
- Getting an LLM degree after receiving your JD makes you more marketable when vying for a high-level job in academia, consulting or government.
- If you want to practice law, a JD degree is mandatory, while an LLM is optional.
- A JD degree program doesn’t require a thesis as part of your coursework, while an LLM program does.
If you intend on practicing law, a JD is far more important than an LLM degree. As a practicing lawyer, you really don’t need to get an LLM after gaining a JD degree. That said, an LLM isn’t without value. It can add more validity and expertise to your résumé and increase your value in the job market.
But the value that an LLM degree can add to a practicing lawyer’s résumé is nothing compared to the value that diverse work experience acquired while practicing law can provide.
An LLM will be of greater value to you if your goal after law school is to join the public or private sector. Having an LLM degree implies that you have a wider, more advanced knowledge about the law, and this will give you an upper hand among other candidates applying for the same job.