Top Degree Law Programs and Career Paths

Interested in what a degree law entails and where it can take you? This article covers different types of law degrees, such as JD, LLM, and MLS, and the vast career opportunities they open up. Whether you’re aiming for a courtroom career or a role in academia, discover the possibilities a degree law offers.

Key Takeaways

  • A variety of law degrees, such as the Juris Doctor (JD) and Master of Laws (LLM), offer specialized education catering to different career aspirations, from practicing attorneys to legal scholars.

  • Specializations within law degrees, including criminal law, intellectual property law, and environmental law, allow students to hone expertise in specific legal fields, preparing them for niche roles in the legal industry.

  • Law graduates have diverse career opportunities, ranging from traditional roles like lawyers and judges to alternate paths including legal consultants and academic positions, highlighting the versatility and broad applicability of legal education.


Have you ever considered the power and prestige associated with a law degree? Whether it’s the thrill of a courtroom victory or the satisfaction of aiding in the delivery of justice, a career in law is as varied as it is rewarding. This comprehensive guide will unravel the tapestry of legal education, highlighting the different law degrees available, their benefits, and the myriad of career paths they unveil.

From the courtroom to the boardroom, law graduates find themselves at the epicenter of critical decision-making. With a law degree, you are not only equipped to navigate the legal system but also to influence it, crafting a career that can reach far beyond the walls of a courtroom or law office.

Understanding Law Degrees

Illustration of a law school classroom with students and a professor discussing legal concepts

The appeal of law degrees lies in the unique combination of human interest and intellectual rigor they offer, equipping you for diverse professional roles. Law degrees are not merely stepping stones to the bar; they are the keys to unlocking a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that uphold societies.

In the United States, law degrees are considered graduate degrees, signifying a level of specialized academic achievement. Before setting foot in a law school, you must first earn your bachelor’s degree. This prerequisite underscores the comprehensive nature of legal studies and sets the stage for the advanced education that follows.

Types of Law Degrees

The diversity of the legal field is reflected in the variety of degrees it offers. Each type of law degree serves a distinct purpose, whether preparing you for the bar exam, diving deep into legal research, or providing specialized legal knowledge. In this section, we will outline the five prominent law degrees:

  1. Juris Doctor (JD)

  2. Master of Laws (LLM)

  3. Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD)

  4. Master of Legal Studies (MLS)

  5. Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR)

Juris Doctor (JD)

The Juris Doctor, commonly known as the JD, is the gateway to becoming a practicing attorney in the United States. This degree encompasses a comprehensive study of U.S. law and legal procedure, with a curriculum designed to prepare students for the bar exam. You’ll immerse yourself in core subjects such as:

  • contracts

  • torts

  • constitutional law

  • criminal law

during this rigorous three-year program.

Embarking on this journey requires a bachelor’s degree and passing the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Law schools assess your undergraduate GPA, LSAT scores, personal statements, and letters of recommendation. Once admitted, the JD program lays the foundational legal knowledge and practical skills necessary to navigate the legal system as a competent attorney.

Master of Laws (LLM)

The Master of Laws (LLM) is an advanced degree designed for JD holders and international lawyers who wish to specialize, typically completed in one year. This degree offers a closer look into specific areas such as tax law, environmental law, or intellectual property law. It’s a path chosen by those looking to sharpen their expertise or prepare for further academic pursuit.

For international lawyers, the LLM is an opportunity to acquaint themselves with U.S. legal practices, while for JD graduates, it represents a chance to delve deeper into a chosen specialization. The customizable nature of the LLM program allows legal professionals to stand out in a competitive field by gaining in-depth knowledge in niche areas of law.

Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD)

At the summit of legal education is the Doctor of Juridical Science, or SJD, a degree for those aspiring to climb to the highest echelons of legal scholarship. This research-intensive program is the legal equivalent of a PhD and is designed for those who have already completed a JD or LLM. This degree is favored by those targeting careers in legal academia, such as law professors or esteemed legal scholars.

The SJD journey is a marathon, typically spanning three to five years, culminating in a significant contribution to legal scholarship through a dissertation. Admission to an SJD program is highly competitive, with candidates expected to demonstrate legal expertise and an aptitude for academic research.

The Master of Legal Studies (MLS) caters to those interested in acquiring legal knowledge without the intention to practice law. This degree is tailored for professionals who interact with the legal system in their careers but do not require a law license. The MLS provides a deep dive into legal principles, enhancing one’s ability to navigate the complex landscape of regulations and contracts.

Typically completed in one to two years, the MLS curriculum covers:

  • legal procedures

  • ethics

  • research

  • writing

Admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree and, often, a personal interview. Graduates of the MLS program may pursue careers in fields like health care, human resources, or finance, where legal insight is invaluable.

Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR)

The Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR) is designed to equip students with the skills to professionally navigate and resolve the inevitable conflicts in life. This degree focuses on mediation, arbitration, and negotiation techniques, preparing graduates for roles in human resources, business management, or public policy.

MDR programs typically take around two years to complete and do not require prior law degrees. Graduates of MDR programs are trained to manage conflicts in a variety of settings, from corporate boardrooms to family law courts. The program’s coursework includes negotiation, mediation, and arbitration strategies, providing a toolkit for effectively resolving disputes.

Specializations in Law Degrees

Photo by Sora Shimazaki:

While the general law degree provides a broad legal foundation, many students opt to specialize in areas tailored to their interests or career aspirations. Law degree specializations enable focused studies into specific legal areas, such as:

  • Criminal law

  • Intellectual property

  • Environmental law

  • International law

These specializations allow students to delve deeper into the intricacies and nuances of their chosen field.

Criminal Law

Criminal law is the branch that deals with the prosecution and defense of individuals accused of committing crimes. It is a dynamic area of law where students explore various facets of the criminal justice system, from the initial charges and pretrial processes to sentencing and appeals. Specializing in criminal law prepares students for the intense environment of the courtroom and the detailed knowledge required to navigate the legal system.

Courses in criminal law often cover topics like homicide, the death penalty, and legal responses to terrorism. These courses delve into the complexities of the law and its application, equipping students with the skills to advocate for justice and the protection of society’s most fundamental rights.

Intellectual Property Law

In an era where ideas are as valuable as tangible assets, intellectual property law stands as a key protector of innovation. This specialization focuses on the laws that govern the protection of inventions, designs, and artistic works. Students learn about the nuances of copyright, patent, and trademark law, ensuring that creators can reap the benefits of their intellectual labor.

Intellectual property law not only safeguards individual creativity but also fuels the engine of commerce by encouraging the development of new technologies and artistic expressions. As a result, lawyers specializing in this field play a crucial role in the advancement of technology and culture.

Environmental Law

Environmental law is at the intersection of legal practice and the stewardship of our natural world. This specialization is dedicated to the laws that regulate human interaction with the environment, including climate control, resource conservation, and environmental protection. The field has evolved significantly since the groundswell of federal enactments in 1970, responding to society’s growing concerns about climate change and sustainability.

Environmental lawyers play a vital role in shaping policies that govern natural resources and ensuring that businesses and governments adhere to environmental regulations. This area of law requires a passion for conservation and a commitment to navigating the complex web of laws that protect the planet.

International Law

International law governs the complex relationships between sovereign nations, addressing issues from trade agreements to human rights. Students specializing in this field study the treaties, customs, and legal frameworks that guide these interactions. International law is a broad discipline that covers private international law dealing with disputes between private entities across borders, as well as public international law involving states and international organizations.

Those who specialize in international law may work on cases that have a global impact, including:

  • Resolving international disputes

  • Ensuring compliance with international trade laws

  • Addressing human rights violations

  • Negotiating treaties and agreements

  • Representing clients in international courts and tribunals

This specialization requires an understanding of different legal systems and the ability to navigate the unique challenges of cross-border legal issues.

Law Degree Coursework and Skills

Pursuing a law degree goes beyond merely learning the legal code; it encompasses mastering the application of law by combining theoretical studies with practical training in various law programs. Students develop a robust set of skills that are not only vital for legal practice but also transferable to many other professions.

Skills like critical thinking and legal research, which are sharpened in law school, prove invaluable in any career path.

Core Courses

Law school begins with a core curriculum designed to build a strong legal foundation. First-year courses typically cover:

  • Civil law and criminal procedure, providing insights into the framework of legal actions and courtroom proceedings

  • Constitutional law, learning to interpret and apply the supreme law of the land

  • Property law, exploring the nuances of ownership rights and real estate transactions

Legal writing is another cornerstone of the law school experience. Through extensive writing exercises, students learn to craft persuasive arguments, draft legal documents, and dissect complex legal opinions. This rigorous training ensures that law school graduates are well-prepared to articulate and advocate effectively in any legal setting.

Practical Training

Beyond the classroom, law students engage in practical training to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios. Some examples of practical training include:

  • Moot court exercises, which mimic courtroom proceedings and challenge students to argue cases before a panel and respond to questions on the fly.

  • Internships, which offer a glimpse into the daily workings of law firms or government agencies.

  • Pro bono work, which provides valuable experience and the opportunity to give back to the community.

These practical training opportunities help law students develop important skills and gain hands-on experience in the legal field.

Practical training also includes role-playing exercises in negotiation and mediation, fostering skills essential for resolving disputes outside the courtroom. By participating in these experiential learning opportunities, law students develop a well-rounded skill set that prepares them for the demands of legal practice.

Transferable Skills

The legal education journey cultivates a diverse set of transferable skills that serve students well beyond their legal careers. Critical thinking is paramount, enabling lawyers to dissect complex issues and construct logical arguments. Legal writing hones the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively, a skill that is invaluable in any professional setting.

Research abilities are also sharpened, as students become adept at navigating legal databases and interpreting statutes and case law. These skills, along with the ability to manage time effectively and think on one’s feet, make law school graduates highly sought after in a wide range of fields, from business to government and beyond.

Career Paths for Law Graduates

Illustration of diverse career paths for law graduates including roles as lawyers, judges, legal consultants, and academia

A law degree paves the way for a wide range of career opportunities. Graduates can choose the traditional path of a lawyer or judge, or leverage their legal knowledge in diverse roles such as:

  • legal consultants

  • journalists

  • company secretaries

  • barrister’s clerks

The flexibility of a law degree enables careers both inside and outside the legal industry.


Lawyers are the most recognized professionals in the legal field, representing and advising clients on a wide range of legal matters. They prepare legal documents, conduct research, and advocate in courtrooms, striving to achieve the best outcomes for their clients. Lawyers may specialize in specific fields, from antitrust to construction law, tailoring their expertise to the needs of their clients.

The role of a lawyer is multifaceted, requiring a deep understanding of legal principles and the ability to apply them in various contexts. Whether working for a large firm, a small practice, or as in-house counsel for an established company, lawyers are critical in navigating the complexities of the law and ensuring justice is served.


The journey to becoming a judge is often rooted in years of experience as a lawyer. Judgeship is typically a career pinnacle, reached after gaining recognition within the legal community. Judges preside over courtrooms, interpret laws, and make decisions that can have a profound impact on individuals and society.

The process of becoming a judge involves a rigorous vetting procedure, including a review of past rulings and legal writings. It is a career that demands the utmost integrity and a deep commitment to the principles of justice.

Legal consultants are strategic advisors who guide businesses through the labyrinth of legal regulations. This role involves assessing risks, offering legal strategies, and ensuring regulatory compliance. Legal consultants may work in-house for private companies or as part of consultancy firms, providing expertise on a range of legal matters from corporate governance to tax classifications.

The expertise of legal consultants is particularly valuable in complex business deals or when navigating the changing landscape of international law. Their ability to foresee legal obstacles and offer proactive solutions makes them indispensable to clients looking to mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities within the legal framework.


For those with a profound interest in legal theory and research, academia presents a rewarding career path. Law graduates, especially those with an SJD, often find their calling as law professors or legal scholars, dedicating their careers to educating the next generation of legal minds. In this role, they engage in teaching, publish scholarly articles, and contribute to the evolution of legal thought.

The academic realm offers a platform for extensive research on complex legal issues, allowing scholars to:

  • delve into areas of interest

  • influence legal education and policy

  • combine intellectual rigor with the satisfaction of mentoring aspiring legal professionals

  • shape the future of legal practice and scholarship.

Preparing for Law School

Pursuing a legal education necessitates meticulous preparation and a robust academic background. While law schools do not prescribe specific undergraduate majors, they do look for strong academic performance and a high score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Prospective law students should choose undergraduate courses that develop their writing, critical thinking, and research skills.

Building a strong application for law school also involves extracurricular activities that demonstrate problem-solving abilities and a commitment to the legal profession. Securing letters of recommendation from professors who can attest to your academic and personal qualities is equally important.

With a bachelor’s degree in hand and a clear understanding of the admission requirements, students can confidently embark on the path to a law degree.

Learn more, visit How to Prepare for Law School.

Upon law school completion, graduates face the final obstacle to legal practice: obtaining licensure. In the United States, this means passing the bar examination, a comprehensive test of legal knowledge and reasoning. The bar exam is the gateway to practicing law and represents the culmination of years of study and preparation.

The path to becoming a licensed attorney varies by country. For instance, in England and Wales, aspiring solicitors must complete a Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a period of training before they can practice. Regardless of the jurisdiction, the process ensures that only those with the necessary legal training and ethical standards are entrusted with the responsibilities of legal practice.


In summary, law degrees offer a robust foundation for a variety of prestigious and impactful careers. From the courtroom to the classroom, the paths available to law graduates are as diverse as they are rewarding. Whether you aspire to advocate for justice as a lawyer, preside over legal matters as a judge, or shape the minds of future lawyers in academia, a law degree equips you with the skills and knowledge to succeed. May this exploration of law degree programs and career paths inspire you to pursue your passion in the legal field with conviction and purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary purpose of earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree?

The primary purpose of earning a JD degree is to become a practicing attorney, as it prepares students for the bar exam and a career in various legal settings such as law firms or governmental agencies.

Can I specialize in a specific area of law during my studies?

Yes, many law degree programs offer specializations in areas like criminal law, intellectual property law, environmental law, and international law, allowing you to focus on a specific legal domain. This can be a great way to gain in-depth knowledge and expertise in a particular area of law.

You can pursue a career in fields such as health care, human resources, or finance, where a deep understanding of legal matters is valuable, by obtaining a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree.

Do I need to have a specific undergraduate major to apply for law school?

No, law schools do not require a specific undergraduate major for application. They value a strong academic record, high LSAT scores, and a bachelor’s degree in any field.

How long does it typically take to become a practicing lawyer after undergraduate studies?

It typically takes seven years after high school to become a practicing lawyer in the U.S., including four years for a bachelor’s degree, three years of law school, and passing the bar examination.

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