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What is a JD (Juris Doctor)?

A Juris Doctor – a law-related qualification in the United States – is the initial degree taken by lawyers in the USA prior to sitting their bar exam, it should not be confused with either the JSD or the SJD, both of which are research degrees in the area of law. There are many different pathways which can lead a student onto a JD course, indeed their bachelors degree doesn't necessarily have to be taken in law. Undergraduates in the field of politics and business for example often have highly developed analytical abilities, ideal for potential law students. If you have any doubts or are unsure if your degree would be considered relevant to LLM admissions staff, just contact the law school for advice.

Juris Doctor

Units of study

Only universities in the United States can confer a JD on students, it is a three-year program which is taken after a bachelor, or first degree. Universities hope to produce students with a good general knowledge of how law is practiced and the legal system within which it operates. As well as taking core subjects, students have the opportunity to select other units which appeal to their personal interests. This could include criminal law, business law, civil procedures, real estate or contract law. In some US law schools, for example Harvard Law School, it is possible for JD students to take a joint degree, reading business or politics parallel to law. Another facet of the course often takes the form of work experience; students will undertake an internship with a legal firm to gain a more practical understanding of their subject.

Entry requirements

Before being accepted onto a JD degree students are obliged to sit a Law School Admission Test or LSAT, if they are successful the next step is a Juris Doctorate program. Although each US law school has a measure of choice in how they deliver the course, there are certain standardised guidelines.

Practicing law

Once they have completed the course, students can move on to taking a state bar exam and be granted a license to practice in that state. Passing the course implies that a person has the necessary skills to comprehend a clients problem from a legal standpoint, then advise them accordingly and assist them in reaching a good conclusion. However, the requirements for an individual license to practice law vary widely in the US and are controlled by each state. When an attorney becomes licensed to practice law in one state, they cannot work in another unless they are licensed there too. As a general rule, wherever a US attorney chooses to work, in order to sit for a bar examination they must have attained their JD degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school. On graduation some law school’s alumni do not choose to take this route and avoid the bar exam. They can find roles in other fields which require an understanding of law, like education or the public sector.

LLM versus JD

So how do you compare a JD to an LLM program? In contrast to the JD degree, an LLM equips a lawyer with highly specialised knowledge in one particular area of law, like commerce, human rights or the environment. Most international lawyers who take an LLM have already acquired a JD or equivalent degree in their native country, and are planning to move back home when they graduate. Domestic students take an LLM to top up their existing knowledge of a particular area and to further advance their career.

However, if a lawyer is coming to the US from abroad and wishes to eventually practice law in the US, or work in the field of US law abroad, they may prefer to go for an LLM in US Law as it is far cheaper and faster to complete than a JD. Although some US firms will not consider a foreign student with an LLM when hiring, in fact it can qualify you to sit for a bar exam in a number of US states, or alternatively work in business, journalism or academia in a foreign country.

If you cannot make up your mind about which route to take it’s worth bearing in mind that some universities, Harvard, Virginia and the University of Southern California included, do have a transfer programs. Here, students enrolled in an LLM program can elect to apply for admission to the JD degree when they graduate. Law schools may even grant a number of credits taken as part of the LLM toward the JD, cutting down on costs and the time it would take to complete the course. Furthermore, students who move to the JD qualification in this way do not usually have to sit the LSAT exam.

Law school students enrolled in the United States

Here’s a table illustrating the numbers of law school students enrolled in the United States between 2015 and 2019.

Type of Law Student






JD Student






Non-JD Student including LLM









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