What is a JD degree? (UPDATE)

If you hope to practice law in the US, one of the steps toward accomplishing that goal is obtaining a Juris Doctorate.

A Juris Doctorate or Doctor of Jurisprudence degree, also known as a JD Degree, is a professional degree and required education for qualifying for the bar examination in the United States. The coursework provides the knowledge needed to pass the bar exam, and you can only get a JD by graduating from an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law school.

Without getting a JD, you won't qualify to take the bar exam in many states and thus cannot become a lawyer without one. Not every state in the US requires you have a JD before you can sit for a bar exam, however. For instance, in the state of California, instead of getting a JD, you can get a law office study degree.

Here's everything you need to know about the JD degree.

History of the JD Degree

Before the 1940s, there were other states besides California that didn't require a JD in order to take the bar exam and get a license to practice law. Most lawyers earned their legal license by apprenticing in a law firm for a given number of years.

It was during the 1950s that state legislations began mandating that a person must have a law degree before they could practice law. This change was brought about by certain shortcomings in legal practice at the time. Many states sought to fix these issues by introducing requirements to raise the standards of legal practice and limit the number of people that could become lawyers.

Once this state legislation took effect, aspiring lawyers could get a Master of Laws degree (LL.M) from universities. It was not until the 1960s that colleges and universities began offering JD degrees, which over time became the primary law school degree.

A Juris Doctor degree is technically a professional doctorate. But unlike other Ph.D. holders, lawyers don't get the title of "Dr." Instead, they can choose to use the title "esquire," which is shortened to "Esq." and can be placed after a lawyer's name.

JD vs. LLM Degree Programs

Now we've answered the question of "What is a JD degree?" But let's explore whether there are other law degrees you can or should pursue.

After completing law school and receiving your JD, you can choose to sit for the bar exam. Alternatively, you could skip the bar exam and practice the aspects of the law that don't require a license.

As mentioned above, you can't sit for the bar exam in most US states without having a JD. If you choose to sit for the bar exam and pass it, you'll become an attorney, and be awarded a license to practice law in the state where the exam was written.

While all you need to qualify to take the bar exam is a JD degree, you can go a step further by getting a Master of Laws (LLM) degree. But you don't need an LLM to practice law. People who go for an LLM do it either for academic purposes, if they aren't ready for the bar exam, or have no intention of taking it.

You can get both a JD and LLM degree in an accredited law school. A JD degree proves that you've been trained on representing and advising clients, how the legal system works, and other aspects of legal practice. It also demonstrates that you're qualified to take the bar exam.

An LLM is a specialized degree that lawyers get after they've earned their JD. By taking it, you can improve your knowledge of law specialties. Unlike a full-time JD program, which typically takes three years, you can complete a full-time LLM program in a year and specialize in areas like environmental, international, and corporate law.

What Can You Do with a JD Degree?

For most people, the primary purpose of going to law school and getting a JD is to qualify for the bar exam in order to practice law. However, not all JD recipients take this route. Let's take a look at several different careers that require a JD degree.


After you get a JD, you can sit for the bar exam in any state to become an attorney and thus be licensed to practice law in that state.

As a lawyer who's passed the bar, you can practice any type of law you like, from criminal justice and civil litigation to environmental or medical law. You can own your own law office, partner with other lawyers, work with a large law firm, work for the government, or be an in-house lawyer for a company. Practicing lawyers have lots of options when it comes to work opportunities.

The typical lawyer represents clients in court or before the law, drafts legal and binding documents, negotiates on behalf of clients, plans the estate of a client, and much more.

A Judge or Hearing Officer

A lawyer typically must practice law for years before they can become a judge. That means the lawyer must have their JD and must have passed the bar exam.


Judges are responsible for interpreting and applying the law to legal matters involving people, companies, and the government. They work in courtrooms, overseeing criminal and civil cases.

Hearing Officers

Hearing officers are more of administrative law judges. They hear and decide cases on behalf of regulatory agencies. Their functions cover things like administrative disputes and regulatory issues. You need a JD to become a hearing officer, but you don't need to take the bar exam.


You don't need to take the bar exam to become a professional mediator. You also don't need a JD, but it qualifies you to treat a wider variety of cases, especially ones that have a legal component.

A mediator operates as a neutral third party in disputes and is responsible for helping the conflicting parties legally resolve their dispute without involving the courts.

Law Librarianship

Law librarians work in law firms. They perform duties such as legal research and manage the extensive library typical of large law firms. Having a JD is useful to those with this job as it familiarizes them with a lot of the concepts that they'll be researching.

A law librarian can also serve as a member of the law faculty of colleges and universities.


A JD degree-holder can become a teacher or professor. People who follow this career path typically go on to get an LLM instead of sitting for the bar exam. They can further specialize in their preferred field by obtaining a Doctor of Laws (J.S.D or S.J.D).

You can choose to teach law or law-related courses in universities and colleges or teach philosophy, political science, or something similar, depending on your area of interest.


With a JD, you can also become a legal or management consultant. This involves using your unique legal knowledge and experience to advise executives, business owners, government agencies, and even other lawyers.

Most consultants are freelance and work on a contract basis, while others work for consulting firms.

Writing or Editing

Essential skills that are required to get into-and succeed in-law school include reading, writing, and research skills. These skills can prove to be invaluable if a JD holder chooses to switch to a career in writing or editing.

You can become a writer of legal publications, textbooks, fiction or non-fiction, and more. You can even become a journalist for online or print media. The eye for detail that lawyers need when drafting legal documents can also be a useful skill as an editor.

Formal education in writing isn't required to become a successful writer. With a talent for words and the writing skills provided in law school, someone with a JD can do well as a writer or editor. Writing, proofreading, and editing classes can also improve these skills.

Types of Courses in the Juris Doctorate Program

Completing a Juris Doctorate will equip you with all the knowledge you need regarding the legal system, court procedures, and the laws that govern them. The coursework involves several general courses covering government, business, and politics.

You will also get to cover coursework that is related to the aspects of law you'd like to specialize in. Some of the specific course options that a J.D. program offers aspiring lawyers are:

  • Contract Law
  • Professional Ethics
  • International Law
  • Legal Writing
  • Torts
  • Civil Procedures and Laws
  • Constitutional Laws
  • Property and Real Estate Law
  • Courtroom Procedures
  • Criminal Law
  • Public Law
  • Business Law

Some law schools also offer real-life training as part of their JD program. This involves participating in an internship in order to gain practical experience of what is taught in class.

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