Law Degrees: Master's, PhD, JD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a law degree program? Read about types of degrees requirements, the pros and cons of master's degree, Juris Doctor and PhD programs and potential careers.
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Studying Law: Master's Degrees, PhDs and JDs at a Glance

To work as a lawyer, you'll first need to earn a Juris Doctorate (JD). In addition, you can find master's and PhD programs with a law focus. Master's degree programs in law can hone your skills in a specific field of law or give you an understanding of the legal field in preparation for a career that may require some understanding of legal principles. PhD programs prepare you for a career in research and teaching at the postsecondary level. However, these programs have strict admissions policies, which may require you to have earned a JD or a doctoral degree in another field.

Be aware that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was only projecting average growth of 17% for postsecondary teachers from 2010-2020. In addition, you can expect heavy competition for tenured positions. If your interests are in the law field, the BLS expected average growth of 10% from 2010 through 2020 for lawyers.

Master's Doctorate Juris Doctorate
Who is this degree for? - Law school graduates who want to specialize in a certain area of law
- Non-lawyers interested in learning more about the law as it applies to their specific field of work
- International students who want to learn about the American judicial system
Individuals who want to become law professors Aspiring lawyers
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salaries) - Lawyer ($130,000)*
- Health Services Manager ($96,000)
- Chief Executive ($177,000)

Law professor ($109,000)*
- District Attorney ($43,000-$123,000)**
- Family Lawyer ($39,000-$101,000)**
- Corporate Lawyer ($49,000-$162,000)**
Time to Completion 1 year full-time 4 to 6 years full-time 3 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 24 to 30 hours of graduate-level courses
- Essay or research project
- Roughly 16 to 30 hours of law courses
- Dissertation
- Qualifying exam
- 84-90 credit hours
- Legal/upper level writing requirement
Prerequisites - Doctoral degree or JD
-Bachelor's degree may be sufficient for some programs
JD, admission to a JD program or completion of a master's degree program in law - Bachelor's degree in any field
- LSAT
Online Availability Yes Limited availability Fully online programs are rare and may not meet state bar requirements

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 mean salaries), **Payscale.com (May 2012 10th-90th percentile salary ranges).

Master's in Law

Master's degree programs in law are most commonly designed for law school graduates who want to gain specialized knowledge in certain areas of law, such as commerce and technology, intellectual property and international criminal law. International students who want to learn about the U.S. legal system are also good candidates for these programs. However, you can also find some master's-level programs for non-lawyers that are open to students with bachelor's degrees in other areas. Be aware though, even some of these non-lawyer programs still require a doctoral degree in a different field. Admission to a master's in law program can be competitive with some schools limiting their openings to only 15 to 25 students each year.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A master's in law will allow you to focus your career on a particular area of expertise
  • You can complete this program in as little as one year
  • The Law School Admission Test is not required to enroll in a master's in law program

Cons

  • You may be required to already have a JD in order to gain admission to a master's program in law
  • International lawyers who get a master's degree in law are not qualified to sit for the bar exam in all U.S. states
  • Some master's in law programs are only available for those who want to perform research or teach law

Courses and Requirements

Course requirements vary depending on the type of program you attend. If you have a bachelor's degree and want to learn more about the legal system and how it relates to your line of work, you may take many of the same courses that law students take, including contracts, constitutional law and criminal law. Programs specifically for international students seeking a master's in law may require students to take introductory courses to American law and legal writing courses.

Courses for students who already have a JD will focus on their area of specialization. For instance, some of the courses a student focusing on commerce might take include:

  • Antitrust law
  • Copyright law
  • Patent law
  • Securities regulation

In addition to coursework, students seeking a master's in law may be required to write a thesis or participate in externships or practicums.

Online Degree Options

Although not as common, online master's degree programs in law are available. It should be noted that many of these programs are designed specifically for non-lawyers. Degree requirements are the same for online students as they are for those taking courses on campus. While students can take most of their courses online, some programs require limited on-campus attendance.

Stand out with This Degree

While pursuing your degree, you can take advantage of student opportunities that will allow you to gain first-hand experience with the American legal system and prepare you for your career. Some options include:

  • Participating in community service programs
  • Editing a student law journal
  • Joining student law organizations
  • Networking with other students and professors in the law school

International students can also participate in summer intensives that will introduce them to the American justice system and English legal terms.

With new technologies emerging in all career fields, you could stand out among your competitors by learning more about the relationship between advancing technologies and legal practices. Your research in areas like cybercrime, intellectual property, e-commerce or biotechnology could be submitted for publication by college law and technology journals. You could also attend symposiums or conferences that focus on issues like web privacy, information sharing and digital copyrights.

PhD in Law

Doctoral programs in law include the Doctor of the Science of Law, commonly known as the JSD, or the Doctor of Juridical Science. PhD programs focused on a specific topic in law, such as social policy or economics, are also available. Additionally, you can find combined JD/PhD programs, which offer an interdisciplinary option for law students. These programs prepare you to perform research and teach legal courses at the postsecondary level. However, admission to doctoral programs in law is highly restricted, with most schools only admitting the most exceptional students and requiring that they first complete a master's degree program in law or have a JD. Students pursuing a combined JD/PhD don't generally need to earn a master's degree first.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • During a doctoral program, you'll have the opportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor who can assist you with your research efforts
  • Law professors have flexible schedules, with many taking summers off to complete research or travel
  • Law professors can teach a variety of law-related subjects to students in many locations and usually find their work rewarding

Cons

  • In addition to three years of law school to get a JD, those seeking a PhD can expect to spend up to an additional six years in school
  • It can take up to seven years for law professors to achieve tenure, and the number of tenure-track positions in universities is declining*
  • Law professors must balance teaching with doing research and publishing their work

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

PhD students are expected to complete advanced scholarly research while making a substantial contribution to legal knowledge. Courses are specific to each student's doctoral research, but usually include some similar courses including:

  • Methodological training
  • Advanced legal research
  • Advanced statistics
  • Research methods

Some programs may require foundation courses in areas like law and economics, courts or legal philosophy. PhD students also have to take oral and written exams and will spend a substantial amount of time completing a dissertation under faculty supervision. Some programs also require passing a foreign language exam.

Online Degree Options

Although online PhD programs are available, they are not as common as on-campus programs. The online programs that are available may be focused on a specific area of study or designed for working professionals outside of academia. Most doctoral programs in law are designed for full-time study and have residency requirements. If you plan on teaching in a university after receiving your PhD, you may have better chances of finding a faculty position if you attend classes at a traditional brick-and-mortar program.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

To stand out with your degree, take advantage of any teaching opportunities, fellowships and research assistant positions that are available, so that you may gain hands-on experience in these areas. You may also want to participate in conferences and other special events related to the legal field.

You can look for educational, research and internship opportunities that focus on innovation and law in areas like environmental justice or technology and public policy. In these programs you may be able to work on intellectual property issues, legal protection for new inventions or information technology legal concerns.

Juris Doctorate

In a JD program, you can expect to take all or most of your required courses in the first year. The next two years are focused on elective course options, practical experience and seminars. During these two years, you can engage in trial advocacy programs, law clinics, externships or practicums. Depending on the school you choose, these experiences may be required, and they offer you the opportunity to get hands-on experience applying your legal skills in different areas. Some programs offer concentrations that allow you to choose elective courses that focus your interests in areas like civil litigation, social policy, public law or international law.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Opportunities to focus on a particular area of law through elective courses or concentrations
  • Flexible curriculum options after completing required courses
  • Building a relationship with a mentor is encouraged at many schools

Cons

  • Intensive study required for these programs means you may not be able to work while earning your degree
  • You can expect strong competition for jobs*
  • Admission to law school is competitive*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

In most law schools, you'll need to meet an upper level writing requirement. You have options for meeting this requirement, including creating manuscripts, participating in seminars or taking a writing course. You can also expect to take an ethics course. In your first year, required courses may include:

  • Torts
  • Criminal law
  • Civil procedures
  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts

After your first year, you are able to choose electives in such areas as business organizations, evidence or public law. You may also be able to participate in moot court competitions, dispute resolution seminars or trial clinics.

Online Degree Options

While you may find some online options at this level, you should be aware that fully online JD programs are not approved by the American Bar Association, and you could be restricted from taking the bar exam if you choose one of these programs. However, some schools do offer a few online courses that you can apply toward your degree requirements. You may find that these schools impose restrictions on when you can take these courses, such as after your first year of study, or how many courses you can take.

Stand Out with This Degree

JD students can select from a variety of elective training options that can help them get ahead with this degree. A more globalized society means you may need to help clients from other countries or be aware of international laws during your career. As a result, you might consider studying abroad while you complete your JD program. You can find study abroad options at most law schools that allow you to study in areas such as France, Argentina, Germany and China, among others.

You can also stay on top of cutting-edge technologies that may have an impact on your future law practice by pursuing a second degree or taking courses that focus on informatics, scientific legal concerns, intellectual property, privacy and data security.

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