The Study of Law in the United States

In the United States, legal education can take a few different forms. Here is a look at the most common paths taken by U.S. attorneys, as well as the options available to foreign law students.

The Juris Doctoris (J.D.) Degree

Those who wish to become fully licensed attorneys capable of practicing law in the U.S. typically enroll in a three-year doctor of law program. After obtaining a J.D., a graduate can then take the bar exam in a state of his or her choosing in order to start practicing law.

J.D. programs typically focus on core topics in the American legal system, like constitutional law, contract law, torts (civil wrongs such as negligence or fraud), civil procedure (the rules that govern in-court litigation, especially from an administrative standpoint) and more. Many first-year classes in a J.D. program are conducted using the Socratic method, in which a student is questioned in class by the instructor and challenged to think deeply about the issues present in a particular case.

A J.D. is the most common course of study for American attorneys.

The Master of Laws (LL.M.) Degree

A master of laws (LL.M.) degree is an advanced academic degree pursued by those holding a professional law degree like a J.D. or an LL.B. (bachelor of laws). An LL.M. is typically a one-year program that focuses on one area of law in particular. For example, international attorneys who want to expand their practice often choose to pursue an LL.M. in U.S. law. There are a multitude of LL.M. degrees available, including an LL.M. in tax, international law and intellectual property. An LL.M. in U.S. law introduces foreign-trained attorneys to the structure of the American legal system and how to practice law in the U.S. (including how to conduct legal research and draft legal documents), and it involves instruction on core topics such as business law and contract law.

In some states, an LL.M., combined with legal credentials obtained outside the country, may be enough to entitle an attorney to take the bar exam in that state. In other states, however, additional requirements may be mandatory.

Other Programs

For students who wish to understand the law in greater detail but who do not wish to become attorneys, the master of legal studies (MLS) or master of studies in law (MSL) degrees are available. Typically, a student will pursue these degrees to focus on another discipline or to better understand the law in order to have a more complete foundation of relevant knowledge.

In addition, dual-degree programs, such as a combined J.D./MBA (master of business administration), are also popular with students who have specific career goals and want to obtain additional credentials to improve their skills and understanding of relevant topics.

Entrance Requirements for International Students

Prior to admission to a law school’s J.D. program, students in the U.S. take an exam known as the LSAT. A student’’’s score on the LSAT has a large impact on the schools that the student will be able to attend, so LSAT preparation is an important part of pre-law study. For foreign attorneys seeking admission to an LL.M. program, however, the LSAT is usually not a requirement.

Instead, important admission requirements specific to foreign attorneys include 1) sufficient legal educational credentials (Each program has its own requirements — one school may accept a particular degree obtained abroad, while another may not. Therefore, specific requirements must be reviewed for each school.), and 2) a demonstration of English language proficiency on the TOEFL or a similar test. In addition, some schools may offer additional English language instruction in order to help students meet these requirements or to improve their language skills during the course of the LL.M. program.

If you have any questions about legal education in the U.S. as a foreign attorney, including how to select the right program or what requirements you may need to fulfill for admission, please contact the admissions office.