5 Types of Law Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Studying law in the United States requires an advanced degree. Learn more about the different types of laws degrees you can earn when you're interested in practicing law or learning more about it.

[Featured Image]: A law degree student wearing glasses and a white sweater sits in front of her computer screen and holding a pen.

Practicing law in the United States typically requires a Juris Doctor (JD degree) from a school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). However, that's not the only advanced degree you can earn when you're interested in studying law.  

In this article, we'll review the types of law degrees you can earn, discuss the benefits of pursuing a law degree, and discuss the variety of jobs you can pursue after graduation.

What is a law degree?

In the US, law degrees are considered graduate degrees, meaning you must first earn your bachelor's degree before applying to law school or a master's program to specialize in law studies.

At the undergraduate level, many "pre-law" students choose to study English, political science, psychology, or related majors in the humanities or social sciences to improve their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, which are key skills needed to succeed in law school.

Law degree coursework

The specific classes you take will depend on the type of law degree you pursue and the school you attend. However, 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.

Law degree skills

When you earn your law degree, you'll have an opportunity to hone valuable transferable skills, such as:

  • Critical thinking

  • Logical reasoning

  • Public speaking

  • Presentation skills

  • Communication

  • Persuasion

  • Leadership 

5 types of law degrees

Depending on your career goals, you can pursue the law degrees below after graduating with your bachelor's degree.

1. Juris Doctor

The Juris Doctor (JD) degree is a terminal degree designed for students who want to practice law. Applying often requires taking the LSAT—the standardized entrance exam for law school—along with a range of materials, including your undergraduate GPA, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and more.

It typically takes three years and you will need to take the bar exam once you've finished your program. While in your JD program, you can choose from a variety of specialties when deciding what type of law to practice. Options typically include:

  • 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.

Learn more: Getting Your JD Degree: What to Expect from Law School

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2. Master of Laws

The Master of Laws (LLM) is a graduate degree for those who've already earned their 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.

3. Doctor of Juridical Science

In most schools, the Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) is the most advanced law degree you can earn, and is a common requirement for law professors. Most SDJ graduates spend their careers teaching, researching, and writing in a specific area of interest.

SJD degrees take between three and five years of full-time study to complete all requirements, which typically include coursework, examinations, presentations, and a dissertation. Applying to an SJD degree often requires first earning your LLM, which itself requires first earning a JD degree.

4. Master of Dispute Resolution

A Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR) is a graduate degree with coursework that focuses on conflict resolution. It takes around two years of full-time study to earn.

Build your negotiation, mediation, and arbitration skills for public policy, law, health care, or human resources roles. You don't need a law degree to apply for an MDR program at most schools.

5. 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. In other words, you can enroll in an MLS program without first earning your JD.

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.

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What can you do with a law degree?

You can pursue careers in legal and non-legal professions with a law degree. All industries and sectors—such as corporations, non-profit organizations, or government agencies—hire require legal expertise.

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.

If you prefer working in a non-legal field, you can apply your law school experience to many areas. The roles below allow you to use skills you developed in law school in many different situations

  • 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

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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A Law Student's Toolkit

Whether you are an advanced law student looking to review the basics, or an aspiring law student looking for head start, this course will help you build the ...

4.7

(1,309 ratings)

144,801 already enrolled

Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

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Written by Coursera • Updated on

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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