What Is a Juris Doctor (JD) Degree?

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A Juris Doctor (JD) degree is a professional degree required to practice law.

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A Juris Doctor (JD) degree is the professional degree necessary to become a lawyer. A JD degree is a terminal degree—or the highest level of degree you can achieve in a given discipline. In order to begin a Juris Doctor program, you will need to have first earned your bachelor’s degree, but you do not need a master’s degree.  

Juris Doctor degree requirements

Law school is competitive. To give you some idea, the acceptance rate for major US law schools ranges between 6.9 and 35.3 percent [1]. And the demands can be intense. First-year law students claim to read an average of 50 to 75 pages daily because of the “case study method” many law schools use, which requires students to study past cases or precedents in order to understand current legal principles [2].

Let's go over the coursework you'll encounter in a Juris Doctor program, as well as the other requirements you may need to fulfill before graduation.

Common Juris Doctor coursework

Law school coursework is designed to teach you how to think like a lawyer, which includes developing advanced analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills. 

First-year coursework: During your first year, you'll take foundational law courses that help you gain a firm understanding of the following areas:

  • Constitutional law

  • Civil procedure

  • Contract law  

  • Criminal law

  • Property law

  • Torts

  • Legal research and writing

Advanced coursework: During your second and third year of law school, you’ll take upper-level coursework that advances your understanding of certain industries or certain practices.

  • Sports law

  • Art law

  • Animal law and policy 

  • Corporate crime

  • Antitrust law and policy 

  • International arbitration 

  • International taxation

Capstone project

Not every law school requires a capstone project, but it may be worthwhile to complete one because it can provide you with an opportunity to apply what you've learned. Capstone projects tend to take the form of a legal document, such as a brief or draft complaint, or a scholarly article that might be placed in a law review. 

Externship 

You may have the option to complete an externship during your time in law school. In exchange for college credit, you’ll work in a professional setting that ideally provides practical experience to augment what you’ve been learning. Not only can an externship help you develop or refine important professional skills, but it can also be an ideal opportunity to network.

Licensure after graduation 

Typically, once you earn your Juris Doctor from a law school approved by the American Bar Association, you can earn your licensure to practice law by taking the bar exam. However, four states (California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington) currently permit aspiring lawyers to take the bar without first attending law school, though they must complete an apprenticeship with a licensed attorney or judge first.

The exam typically spans two days. On the first day, you'll take a standardized test called the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), which includes questions on Torts, Contracts, Criminal Law, Real Property, Constitutional Law, Evidence, and Contracts. On the second day, you’ll need to draft essays based on an array of broad topics. In addition to showing competence, you will also need to submit to a background check so that American Bar Association can verify your character. 

How long does the Juris Doctor take? 

It takes an average of three years to earn your Juris Doctor degree if you’re able to attend full-time. If you need to attend law school part-time, it can take between four and five years. Many law schools stipulate that you complete your program within five years of enrollment.

Dual degrees

Some law students choose to pursue a dual degree, like a Juris Doctor/Master of Business Administration (MBA), Juris Doctor/Master of Social Work (MSW), or Juris Doctor/Master of Public Health (MPH). Earning two graduate-level degrees can help you learn more about a specific field and gear your law practice toward a specific industry. Dual degree programs take around four or five years to complete, though it’s often shorter than if you were to earn each degree separately. 

Accelerated Juris Doctor degrees

If you know before you begin your bachelor’s degree that you want to study law, there are accelerated programs where you can earn your bachelor’s degree and your Juris Doctor in six years rather than seven. But that option does require a great deal of foresight, including committing to a six-year education plan. 

It's more common for students to take a break before pursuing their JD degree. In fact, among the 65 percent who take time off between their undergraduate studies and law school, 53 percent take three or more years off, according to the American Bar Association [3].  

Juris Doctor (JD) degree prerequisites 

Law schools confer Juris Doctor degrees, and they tend to require the following in order to apply: 

Earn a bachelor’s degree.

Most law schools require you to have a bachelor's degree. What you choose to major in shouldn’t have an effect on your application because law schools accept students who studied a variety of different subjects, according to the American Bar Association [4]. Ultimately, you should choose a major that's best aligned with your interests and goals. 

That said, some undergraduate majors do help prepare you for both law school and practicing law. Here are a few popular options, according to National Jurist [5]:

Political science

This is among the most popular pre-law majors because many universities include law-related courses as part of their political science curriculum. You'll also be expected to complete a large amount of reading, research, and writing—all of which can help prepare you for the work of your Juris Doctor.

Economics

If you’re interested in going into tax or corporate law, majoring in economics can be particularly, though an economics degree can give you applicable skills for multiple areas. While earning an economics degree, you'll hone key analytical skills which may help later as you move into graduate-level work. 

English or communications

A good deal of your time in law school will be spent conducting research and writing papers. When you major in English or communications, you’ll likely develop a strong foundation that you can apply both to law school and your law career, such as drafting briefs and presenting oral arguments. 

Take the LSAT

Although some law schools have started accepting the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission, the majority require you to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) before you can apply. This standardized test will analyze the relevant skills deemed important to be successful in law school, including analyzing arguments, making deductions, reading strategically, and understanding formal logic.

The test is typically offered four times every year, and it's administered in testing centers approved by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) across the country. Because there are limited seats available, registering early is typically recommended. 

What can you do with a Juris Doctor?

Most students earn their Juris Doctor in order to practice law. Demand for legal professionals is expected to grow by 9 percent over the next decade, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [6]. While you can practice law in a law firm, many corporations rely on in-house legal departments to help save them on legal costs. 

Salary potential 

The costs associated with earning a Juris Doctor can be high, but lawyers tend to earn higher-than-average salaries. Lawyers in the United States earn a median annual salary of $126,930, according to the BLS [6]. Ultimately, your salary will depend on a variety of factors, including your experience level, your location, and both the size and type of employer you work for.

Explore further

If you’re interested in studying law and would like to explore more about the subject, you can find a number of helpful courses on Coursera. Gain a foundation in law studies with Yale University’s A Law Student’s Toolkit, or dive into law by taking the University of Pennsylvania’s Introduction to American Law or Intellectual Property Law.  

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Article sources

1. LawCrossing. “Law School Is Highly Competitive: Only the Fittest Survive, https://www.lawcrossing.com/article/900011280/Law-School-Is-Highly-Competitive-Only-The-Fittest-Survive/." Accessed January 31, 2022.

2. Harvard Law School. “The Case Study Teaching Method,  https://casestudies.law.harvard.edu/the-case-study-teaching-method/." Accessed January 31, 2022.

3. American Bar Association. “Profile of the Legal Profession 2001, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2021/0721/polp.pdf." Accessed January 31, 2022.

4. American Bar Association. “Pre Law: Preparing for Law School, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/pre_law/." Accessed January 31, 2022.

5. National Jurist. “What Are the Best Majors for Pre-Law Students?, https://nationaljurist.com/prelaw/what-are-best-majors-pre-law-students." Accessed January 31, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Lawyers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm." Accessed January 31, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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