Your Guide to Law Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Earning a law degree costs time and money, prompting many people to question is a law degree worth it. Fortunately, you can do more with a law degree than practice law. Discover law degree jobs you can pursue in and out of the legal profession.

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Practicing law in the United States typically requires a law degree from a school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). The knowledge and skills you can build as you progress through the coursework can be an excellent foundation for plenty of careers, including those outside the field of law. People with law degrees work in many settings, including politics, legal journalism, academia, and financial planning. 

This article will go over the types of law degrees you can get, discuss the benefits of pursuing a law degree, and discuss what jobs you can get after graduating from law school.

Is a law degree worth it: Why study law?

A law degree is surprisingly versatile. Some people study law because they want to pursue a legal career, but you can develop essential skills and a set of knowledge that applies to various fields. Use your training in real estate, politics, media, finance, and education. You may even decide to start your own business or promote social change.

Coursework

When you study law, the classes typically include broad topics like the legal system, procedure, and law. For example, as a first-year law student, you may participate in courses covering civil and criminal procedure, constitutional and property law, and legal writing. Later, you may take courses that concentrate on contract writing or negotiation. You can deepen your understanding of the law and learn more about your legal rights through these classes. 

Transferrable skills

Some of the most valuable skills you develop in law school are human skills that you can take with you if you switch careers. These include:

  • Critical thinking

  • Logical reasoning

  • Public speaking

  • Presentation skills

  • Communication

  • Persuasion

  • Leadership 

Types of law degrees

Depending on your career goals, you'll find several different types of law degrees you could choose to pursue. When choosing a degree program, consider how the degree fits into your overall career plans.

Juris Doctor

Most practicing lawyers in the United States have at least a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. This is a terminal degree, which means you can apply to take the bar exam in most states after you finish your program. Earning your JD typically takes three years of full-time study to complete, four years if you attend part-time.

Master of Laws

The Master of Laws (LLM) is a graduate degree for lawyers who've already earned a JD and want to build expertise in a specific area of law, such as tax law or immigration law. Lawyers from outside the United States and Canada may also pursue this degree to learn US legal skills. It's a customizable program that typically takes one year to complete.

Doctor of Juridical Science

In most schools, the Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) is the most advanced degree a law student can earn and is a common requirement for law professors. Most SDJ graduates spend their careers researching and writing in a specific area of interest. Plan to spend about three years of full-time study completing the requirements for this type of program, including coursework, examinations, presentations, and a dissertation.

Master of Dispute Resolution

A Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR) is a graduate degree with coursework that focuses on conflict resolution. Build your negotiation, mediation, and arbitration skills for public policy, law, health care, or human resources roles. You don't need a law degree or LSAT scores to apply for an MDR program at most schools.

Master of Legal Studies

A Master of Legal Studies (MLS) allows you to build your law knowledge without pursuing credentials to practice as a lawyer. At many schools, you can complete the degree in one to two years. Customize your education by choosing a concentration like health care, human resources, or finance. You may see this degree called a Master of Science of Law, Juris Master, or Master of Jurisprudence.

How do you earn a law degree?

If earning a law degree supports your career goals, proceed through the following steps:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree.

Before you can enter law school, you need a bachelor's degree. Law schools typically don't require you to have a specific degree or complete prerequisite courses while you're an undergrad. Subjects like English, criminal justice, political science, psychology, and business are popular undergraduate majors for law students. If you plan to work in a specific field like entertainment or health care, a related degree (art or nursing, for example) can be beneficial.

2. Take the LSAT.

Law schools require most students to take and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This standardized test assesses your reading comprehension, reasoning, and writing skills, which play a role in your success as a law school student. The test has two parts: multiple-choice and a written essay. You can take the test multiple times in a single year but cannot take the test more than seven times in your lifetime. 

3. Choose a law school with the degree you want.

You can find in-person and online law degree programs at schools across the country. Look for one that has the degree and concentration you want to pursue. As you evaluate programs, consider school demographics, class sizes, clinical programs, and options like part-time and evening classes. Make sure it's worth the time and money it will cost you to attend.

4. Complete the application requirements.

Carefully review the application requirements and deadlines for the school you want to attend. You will likely need to complete an application, pay an application fee, and send your undergraduate transcripts. The school may also ask you to send in a written personal statement. You may also need letters of recommendation. Make sure you send in all documents on time to avoid delays.

What can you do with a law degree?

You can pursue careers in legal and non-legal professions with a law degree, including private practice law, politics, administration, and more. Legal jobs include work as a lawyer (bankruptcy, business, criminal defense, labor, entertainment, estate planning, immigration, personal injury, tax, etc.) and a judge at the municipal, state, or federal level. You may work in private practice or for a corporation, non-profit organization, or government agency.

If you prefer working in a non-legal field, you can apply your law school experience to many areas. They include:

  • Activism: Non-profit manager, community organizer

  • Administration and management: Law firm administrator, business manager, project manager 

  • Education: Higher education educator, director of education

  • Finance: Financial planner, investment banker, venture capitalist, certified public accountant

  • Human resources: Employee trainer, director of human resources, recruiter

  • Journalism: Reporter, editor, publisher

  • Politics: Legislative representative, campaign manager, or policy watch organizer

These roles allow you to use skills you developed in law school in many different situations.

Types of law you can practice

You can choose from a variety of specialties when deciding what type of law to practice. This variety can be advantageous if you have varied interests or later decide to challenge yourself with a new specialization. Options typically include the following:

  • Civil rights: Help counter discrimination and protect civil liberties.

  • Corporate: Review contracts, prepare documents, and assist with mergers, acquisitions, and compliance.

  • Criminal: Prosecute crimes or defend people accused of those crimes.

  • Employment and labor: Cases can include labor disputes, unlawful terminations, discrimination, and workplace safety.

  • Environmental: Work with cases that focus on natural resource management, pollution, and land disputes.

  • Family: Assist families with issues involving divorce, child support, adoption, marriage, and domestic partnerships.

  • Immigration: Assist people at any stage in the naturalization process or handle cases regarding asylum.

  • Intellectual property: Help creators protect their inventions, writings, and works of art.

  • International law: Work with private companies or governments to enter agreements, comply with the law, and conduct business.

  • Personal injury: Work on cases involving accidents, wrongful death, medical malpractice, and product liability.

  • Real estate: Review contracts and assist with cases involving commercial or residential developers, tenants, and landlords.

  • Sports and entertainment: Your clients may be artists or athletes who need help protecting intellectual property, staying in compliance with regulations, or negotiating contracts.

  • Tax: Help clients comply with tax law while lowering tax liabilities.

The decision to specialize in more than one area is a matter of personal preference. For some lawyers, it makes sense to accept work in related areas (a tax lawyer may help a client with a real estate transaction). Others believe they do better work when they focus on a specific type of law because they can devote themselves to fully understanding its nuances.

Next steps

Are you considering a career in law? Build a foundation in the terminology, concepts, and tools you'll need to succeed in law school and your career with A Law Student's Toolkit from Yale. If you haven't yet earned your bachelor's degree, learn more about getting from a top university on Coursera.

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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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