LLM vs JD: What’s the Difference?

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A student of law.

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When looking at the options for a law or legal studies degree, several choices exist based on your career goals. If you’re an aspiring attorney who seeks to practice in the United States, there are two degree programs to consider. The first is the Master of Laws (LLM). The other is the Juris Doctorate (JD).

Educational Requirements

The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) offers a quick checklist for students looking for the right law program for their needs. The basic educational differences are as follows:

  1. Students pursuing a Juris Doctorate will have a bachelor’s degree and must be able to pass the LSAT. Master of Laws students will already have a JD, LLB or the international equivalent.
  2. JD degree seekers are likely to practice law but might also apply the degree in other ways outside of the courtroom. LLM degree seekers want to specialize their legal practice by expanding their knowledge in specialized areas of law and regulation.
  3. The JD degree typically requires three years of full-time study. An LLM degree program can be completed in as few as four semesters of online study.

Career Goals and Learning Outcomes

A legal career development guide from Indeed goes deeper into the comparison of an LLM versus a JD. Much of the decision depends on the student’s career status and goals.

Reasons to Pursue an LLM

  • An LLM provides a detailed study of the U.S. legal system for individuals with a foreign law degree. This includes attorneys, judges, government officials, prosecutors, corporate legal counsel, bankers and recent law graduates.
  • An LLM can offer a legal specialization that supports a career in international law which requires a global understanding of commerce, tax, trade, currencies and more.
  • An LLM is a natural next step for experienced attorneys who want to continue their education to grow their law practice into established or emerging specialties.
  • An LLM may allow you to sit for the bar exam in certain states, without a JD.

Reasons to Pursue a JD

  • A JD provides the necessary foundation to practice law in the United States.
  • A JD can also be helpful for students who aspire to a future in political office.
  • A JD allows you to sit for the bar exam in all 50 states.
  • A JD is useful for students interested in becoming a judge, which first requires significant experience as a lawyer.

Foundational Areas of Legal Study for a JD

A piece from U.S. News & World Report answers the question “What is a JD degree?” In addition to what you have already learned above, the article outlines the following subject matter that JD students can expect to learn:

  • Administrative law
  • Civil procedure
  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law
  • Property
  • Regulatory law
  • Torts

It is a general curriculum that prepares students to take the bar exam and embark on a career as an attorney with a broad understanding of the law.

Specialized Areas of Legal Study for an LLM

An LLM curriculum provides a much more specialized learning experience.

Students can expect a focus on the U.S. legal system and legal research including exposure to tools like Westlaw and LexisNexis. The LLM also provides an opportunity to choose electives specific to defined career goals. Some of these elective courses include:

  • Contracts
  • Mergers & Acquisitions
  • Securities
  • Intellectual Property
  • Health Care Law
  • Employment Law
  • Entertainment Law
  • Cybersecurity & Risk
  • Regulatory Compliance
  • Corporate Governance

Potential Advantages and Considerations

A U.S. News & World Report article titled “8 Key Distinctions Between an LLM and a JD” breaks down the differences even further, with a more granular look at the two types of degree programs. Again, the primary divergence comes in the opportunity for specialization and enhanced learning. Specifically, the article calls out these advantages of pursuing an LLM:

An advanced level of legal study in the area of theory.

Whereas a JD provides the foundational study of the law and its application, an LLM delves into legal theory and policy questions which encourages spirited debates.

A valued credential for highly regulated fields of legal practice.

Attorneys with an LLM are more likely to be sought for their specific knowledge of complex legal disciplines, such as the highly regulated fields of environmental law, securities law, employment law and others. An LLM can also provide an edge in obtaining a government, policy or academic role.

A chance to engage in more rigorous study.

Since many LLM students already have some legal training and/or experience, the areas of study can be especially thorough and robust. Students can expect impassioned discourse among their peers when arguing a fervent position.

An opportunity to elevate JD credentials.

A successful LLM experience can help elevate the credentials of students who may not have gotten the best grades during their JD study. The same goes for students who received their JD from a lower-tier law school, which can sometimes be a barrier when seeking employment.

An Important Choice

The decision to choose LLM versus a JD comes down to three factors:

  • Your current level of education and experience. Ask yourself if you are ready to commit the time and energy to move ahead to the next step.
  • Your professional interests and personal passions. Learn which degree will allow you to best apply your knowledge to the things you care about most.
  • Your long-term goals for your legal career. Determine where you want to go and which degree program will be your vehicle for getting there.

Explore the Online LLM from the USC Gould School of Law when considering your options. Do your due diligence in making the choice that’s right for you.



Law School Admission Council


U.S. News & World Report – JD

U.S. News & World Report – Key Distinctions