Criminal Law Degrees: Master's, Doctorate & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a criminal law degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctorate in criminal law and potential careers.
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Studying Criminal Law: Degrees at a Glance

Criminal law studies involve the prosecution and defense of suspects at the local, state, federal and international levels. For doctoral studies, you'll find criminal law as part of a Juris Doctor (JD) program that's designed for people who want to become lawyers. Criminal law studies at the master's level can be found as a specialization within a criminal justice master's degree program or as part of a Master of Laws (LLM) program designed for attorneys who already have a JD.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that lawyers would see a 10% increase in employment from 2010-2020, while judges would experience a 7% growth in jobs during this time frame. The BLS noted that strong competition for both fields was expected; lawyers who have experience and are willing to relocate were expected to have the best opportunities.

Juris Doctor Master's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who have a bachelor's degree and wish to practice law Attorneys looking to specialize in criminal law or students wishing to become teachers or criminal law professionals, depending on the program
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Lawyer ($113,000)*
- Judge/magistrate ($120,000 - may require experience as a lawyer)*
The LLM is specifically designed for lawyers but could lead to higher pay.
- Law instructor ($66,000 - with 2-4 years of experience)**
- Litigation manager ($91,000 - with 5 years of experience)**
Time to Completion 3 years, full-time 1-2 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 86-90 credits
- Internship/trial experiences
-Writing requirement
- 24-36 credits
- Law clinic (for LLM students)
- Thesis or comprehensive exam (for non-LLM students)
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- LSAT scores
-Registration with the Law School Admissions Council Credential Assembly Service
-Bachelor's degree
- JD degree (for LLM students)
- LSAT scores (for LLM students)
Online Availability No Limited

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), ** (figures as of September 2012).

Juris Doctor in Criminal Law

The JD program aims at giving students an in-depth understanding of criminal law at the state and federal levels. Graduates of the program should be prepared to defend and prosecute suspected criminals. JD programs usually include some form of an internship or trial practice, giving soon-to-be-lawyers a chance to see what they might encounter in the courtroom after graduation. The program takes 3 years to complete; the first year is usually spent building a foundation in law, and the second and third years allow students to choose some criminal law electives and get some hands-on experience.

Pros and Cons


  • Can lead to high-paying career options (lawyers and judges earned 6-figure median salaries in 2011)*
  • Can give you practice working in a courtroom before you graduate
  • Specific focus on criminal law gives you a chance to take courses and learn about concepts that aren't readily available in general JD programs


  • Degree is very specific and only prepares you for a few careers (lawyer, judge)
  • You'll spend at least 7 years in school to earn a degree that leads to crowded career fields (strong competition for attorney positions was expected from 2010-2020)*
  • Law school admission is rather competitive

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

Courses and Requirements

Most criminal law JD programs begin with a core set of courses, including constitutional laws, criminal procedures, evidence and dispute resolution. The rest of your coursework is usually made up of electives, which could include military law, federal courts, criminal prosecution, immigration law and juvenile law. The latter part of the program requires some form of an internship or trial clinic. These clinical experiences put you to work representing actual people in a variety of courts. You may also need to write a research paper based on criminal laws or procedures in some programs, but this varies between schools.

Online Options

Although some schools offer standard JD programs in an online format, the criminal law concentration may be hard to find. You may find some online programs that give you a chance to take a criminal law course or similar elective courses to what you'd find in a criminal law program. Since criminal law is focused on defending and prosecuting cases, the lack of hands-on learning opportunities makes it difficult to get the full experience with an online program.

Stand Out with This Degree

Lawyers need to continually keep up-to-date with the latest legal developments, so you may want to consider joining the American Bar Association (ABA). You can join while you're still a student, which could even help you with your studies as well. The ABA offers a variety of learning opportunities, including online legal education courses, downloadable learning packages and teleconferences. Membership also provides you with access to networking events and competitions.

Attorneys need to be licensed in the state in which they work, so you may want to consider which states you want to work in early on. You'll need to pass the bar exam for the particular state you plan on working in. If you move to another state, you'll need to pass that particular bar exam to keep practicing law.

Master's in Criminal Law

Criminal law studies at the master's level are often found as a concentration option within a criminal justice degree program. This master's degree is designed for a variety of different professionals; it can lead to advancement opportunities for people already working or it can help prepare students for continuing their law education at the doctoral level.

The LLM program has a much more narrow focus and is meant for lawyers who are looking to gain advanced training in criminal law. Most schools allow you to create a specialized course plan that fits your interests in criminal law. The LLM program can be completed in 1 year by full-time students, which is about half the time it usually takes to complete a standard master's program.


  • May help you stand out in a competitive career field
  • Can be useful for entry into the work force, advancement or continuing your education at the doctoral level
  • These graduate programs are usually flexible and give you full- and part-time degree options


  • Students pursuing an LLM may spend 8-9 years in school (6-7 years for standard master's students)
  • Tenured teaching positions require a doctorate
  • Admission to master's programs, especially LLMs, may be highly competitive

Courses and Requirements

The standard master's program may allow you to pick a thesis or a non-thesis degree plan. The non-thesis option requires more coursework and the completion of a comprehensive examination. Some of your criminal law courses may include capital punishment, court administration, human rights law and criminal procedure. You may have the opportunity to pursue an externship at a private business or government office, which gives you some work experience while you earn your degree.

The LLM program is based on coursework, but students may also have opportunities to participate in law clinics offered by the law school. Graduate-level course options may consist of:

  • Criminal sentencing
  • Criminal procedure
  • Evidence
  • International criminal law
  • Death penalty
  • White collar crime

You clinic options vary between schools, but you'll typically have a chance to take part in courtroom simulations by defending and prosecuting people in trials. Some schools may even offer clinics that have you working on real cases with the supervision of an experienced faculty member.

Online Options

Standard LLM programs are often instructed via distance learning, but you may not find the criminal law focus in those programs. However, master's programs in criminal justice with law-related coursework are offered by a few schools.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you plan on pursuing the LLM, you may want to explore what clinics are available at each school you're considering. Each law school has different types of clinics that deal with a variety of different cases; finding a program that offers a clinic closely aligned with your career goals could give you an edge after you graduate.

The CLE Center offers continuing legal education courses over the Internet so lawyers can keep up with the latest developments in law. You can purchase each program as you go, but the CLE Center also offers a subscription service that gives you access to all of the online programs for a year.

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