Becoming a Lawyer in the United States requires you to complete a Juris Doctor degree and pass the state board bar examination of your target state of employment or practice. You do not need to have a Master’s in Law (LLM) degree to be able to become a Lawyer in the United States. If you want to become a Lawyer in the US, you will need to do these:
1. Complete a 4-year undergraduate Bachelor’s degree (Pre-Law).
2. Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
3. Apply for a Juris Doctor (JD) Degree program in one of the American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools.
4. Complete the 3-year JD program.
5. Pass the bar exam in the state where you intend to practice.
Before applying for law school, you will need to complete a 4-year Bachelor’s Degree. Law schools do not require any particular undergraduate course. The American Bar Association (ABA) encourages prospective law students to take any course they find challenging and interesting.
If you are serious about entering law school, the ABA says some courses can help you get to law school and prepare you for law school.
Some undergraduate courses that are typical pre-law studies include Political Science, Economics, Philosophy, and English. These majors encourage critical writing, analytical thinking, research, reading skills, and communication which can help you in your law studies.
You can also choose a major that is related to the legal specialization you want to pursue. If you want to be an Intellectual Property Lawyer someday, an Engineering degree will work to your advantage.
Since there is no specific undergraduate major required for law school, many students take one that they find the easiest to complete. An easy major for them will ensure a high GPA which will be extremely helpful when applying for law school.
Levels of Law Degrees
Legal degrees come in three different levels with each level serving different purposes.
I. Juris Doctor (JD)
A Juris Doctor degree takes 3-years to complete for full-time students and 4 years for part-time students. This is your “first degree” in law. If you want to practice law in the US, you need a JD degree.
II. Master of Laws (L.L.M.)
After completing your JD program, you can pursue a Master in Law degree to develop a specialization in a specific area of law. Lawyers who completed their law studies abroad but intend to practice law in the US also often enroll in an L.L.M. course to qualify for the state bar exams.
An L.L.M. program takes 1 year to complete. It allows Lawyers to specialize and focus on a specific field of law. An L.L.M. graduate also gains international qualifications if completed their law studies outside of the US or Canada. There are also other reasons Lawyers decide on a Master of Laws degree:
Some students do LLM to continue and further their education and of course to specialize in a specific area of law. For example, you could study for an L.L.M in Human Rights Law, or Labor and Employment Law. This will allow you to have a better awareness and understanding of the specific area of law.
Some employers prefer to hire Lawyers with LLM degrees. An LLM degree listed in your CV allows you to stand out amidst all applicants in the competitive and tough job market. It can be your passport to a dream job because your LLM degree shows that you have a high level of intellectual ability.
In a situation where there is no opportunity for an impending promotion at work, an LLM degree may help you add progress in what you currently do thus, increasing the possibility of an increase in your compensation package. It can also open many doors in the advancement of your career.
Shift in Career
If you are looking at venturing into the academe, consider working for international organizations like the EU or the UN, a Master in Law degree will boost your credentials. An L.L.M is beneficial and often required if you want to be a law professor.
Stepping Stone to a Doctor of Juridical Science Degree
In order to qualify for an S.J.D (Doctor of Juridical Science), you may need to have completed your L.L.M degree. An L.L.M., being an intensive course and research-based, can prepare you for PhDs (Doctor of Philosophy) making you more qualified to lecture and teach law.
Improve your Grades
Law firms always prefer the “cream of the crop” when hiring Lawyers to work with them. If you had low grades during your law studies, or you feel your grades are not good enough to meet the standards of the large and top tier law firms, enrolling in an L.L.M. program can give you an opportunity to up your grades and be more competitive in the job market.
III. Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.)
This is the highest law degree. Lawyers who take this degree want to specialize more in research, and the academe than in the practice law. An L.L.M degree is a prerequisite to applying for an S.J.D program. This is a 3-year degree program that requires the submission of a high-quality dissertation before graduation. An S.J.D. is the most prestigious and highest law degree. Most law professors have S.J.D degrees.
What You Should Know
American or Canadian Lawyers
If you are an American or Canadian student, to pursue a Masters’s in Law you need to already have completed your J.D. degree. You can immediately enroll in the L.L.M. program right after completing your J.D. degree. You can also first seek employment and enroll for L.L.M. after a few years.
Most L.L.M graduates and law professors though suggest that you practice law for a few years before enrolling in an L.L.M. This is so you will not have a difficult time with your thesis. A thesis is an L.L.M. graduation requirement.
International students who wish to take their Masters in Law in the U.S. should first have completed their first professional degree in law such as a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) or equivalent law studies that allow them to enter the legal practice.
Depending on the rules in each jurisdiction, internationally-educated law students who take their L.L.M. in the U.S. become eligible for the state bar exams.
An L.L.M exposes international students to U.S. law systems as well as comparative law studies, and legal reasoning.
Is a Masters in Law Worth It?
First things first, a Masters’s in Law is not a requirement to be able to practice law in the U.S., a Juris Doctor is together with a license after passing the state bar examinations. However, an L.L.M degree opens a lot of opportunities for Lawyers in the U.S.
If you are fresh out of your J.D. program and have no legal work experience, it is a smart move to concentrate on gaining real-world experience in the practice of law before thinking of doing a Masters in Law.
More importantly, an L.L.M should be taken by Lawyers who already know what area of law to specialize in. It should not be considered as a stop-gap measure between your J.D. degree and seeking employment.