Understanding the Difference Between LLM and Juris Doctorate Degrees

There are a number of degree majors related to law and legal studies designed for professionals with their sites set on careers in legal support, research, academia and business. However, there are two specifically designed for aspiring attorneys who intend to sit for the bar exam, practice in a court of law and who choose to specialize in a particular area of law.

  • Juris Doctorate (JD) – The JD is the initial, post-secondary law degree necessary to sit for the bar examination and practice as a lawyer in a U.S. jurisdiction
  • Master of Laws (LL.M) – The LLM serves as a secondary degree for lawyers who have achieved their JD and passed the bar exam, and who are interested in a focused, specialized course of study in a specific topic of law

JD vs. LLM Degrees: Understanding the Differences

Though the most significant difference between the JD and LLM is in the purpose and application of each degree, the differences extend even further. This side by side comparison of the JD and LLM provides a fundamental understanding of the key differences between these two law degrees:


JD: Basic American law degree required to practice law
LLM: Scholarly credential for lawyers seeking additional expertise in an area of U.S. law or international law, or for foreign-educated lawyers seeking an education in U.S. law

Admission Requirements

JD: A bachelor’s degree and LSAT score
LLM: A JD degree or other first degree in law for foreign-educated lawyers


JD: To qualify to sit for the state bar exam and earn a state license to practice law
LLM: To achieve advanced knowledge in a specific area of law for career advancement, upward mobility, and/or expanded practice opportunities


JD: Standard curriculum covering broad theories and concepts within the U.S. legal system
LLM: Concentrated curriculum encompassing a specific area(s) of U.S. law

Length of Program

JD:Three years of full-time study
LLM: One year of full-time study

What is the Juris Doctorate (JD) Degree?

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The JD degree is the standard educational requirement for practicing law in the United States. The American Bar Association (ABA), recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national agency for the accreditation of programs leading to the JD degree, currently accredits 205 schools that offer JD degrees.

All ABA-accredited schools with a JD program provide students with a legal education that meets a minimum set of standards set forth by the Council and Accreditation Committee of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

All U.S. jurisdictions accept a Juris Doctorate from an APA-approved law school as meeting the education requirements for eligibility to sit for the bar examination. Many state boards of examiners do not allow graduates of non-ABA-accredited JD programs to sit for the bar examination.

Admission Requirements

Candidates for JD degree programs must possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. The ABA does not recommend any specific undergraduate major or group of courses to prepare for a legal education, and students of JD programs can come from nearly any academic discipline. Common undergraduate degrees among Juris Doctorate students include:

  • History
  • English
  • Philosophy
  • Political science
  • Economics
  • Business

The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is an integral part of the law school admission process in the United States, as well as Canada and a number of other countries. The LSAT measures skills considered necessary for success as a lawyer, including the ability to comprehend complex written documents, the ability to organize and manage information, and the ability to think critically, among other important skills. Candidates are assessed through three types of multiple-choice questions:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Logical reasoning

Due to the highly selective admissions process among law schools, only those candidates with the highest LSAT scores, strongest academic qualifications, and personal characteristics that would contribute the most to the law school community are considered for JD programs.

Program Structure

The JD degree program is a three-year, full-time degree for students seeking a state license to practice law. It should not be confused with similarly named legal research degrees like the SJD and the JSD, designed for students interested in legal careers in academia, business, or the public sector, and who will not be sitting for the bar exam.

The first year of a JD degree typically includes the foundational curriculum, which consists of study in:

Students spend the second and third years of a JD program exploring opportunities beyond the classroom and/or taking upper-level courses in areas of interest. This may include participating in clinics, seminars, and externships, among others. Some law schools also require students to complete pro bono work during the course of their degree program.

Licensing Requirements

Graduates of JD degree programs must demonstrate their competence for state licensure by passing the bar examination in their jurisdiction. The most common testing configuration is a two-day examination, consisting of the Multistate Bard Examination (MBE) and, depending on the jurisdiction, state-designed essays and/or the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).

What is the Master of Laws (LL.M) Degree?

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The LLM degree is a specialized law degree that practicing lawyers who have already passed the bar exam pursue as a way to advance their knowledge of law. Considered an advanced law degree with global credibility, LLM degrees are offered through both U.S. and Canadian law schools and are designed specifically for JD graduates interested in advanced legal study or for foreign-educated students who possess a first law degree from another country and are looking to become educated  in the U.S. legal system, and possibly go on to sit for the bar exam.

Admission Requirements

Since LLM programs require a JD (or another primary law degree from a candidate’s country or origin) for admission, they are designed to build on students’ working knowledge of law and the legal process.

Like JD degree programs, the admission process for LLM degree programs tends to be competitive. Law schools take into account a candidate’s academic record, commitment to the legal profession, and letters of recommendation when considering eligibility for admission.

Foreign candidates may need to take an English proficiency examination (Test of English as a Foreign Language -TOEFL or the International English Language Testing System – IELTS) if English is not their native language.

Program Structure

LLM degrees consist of between 20 and 26 academic credits, which take about one year of full-time study to complete. Part-time programs take about 24 to 36 months to complete.

Unlike JD degrees, which consist of a broad education of basic legal principles, concepts, and theories, LLM degrees feature a more focused course of study in a topic or topics related to U.S. law.

ABA-accredited schools offer both General LLM and Specialized LLM degree programs. General LLM programs allow students to customize their LLM degree according to their unique career goals, while Specialized LLM programs feature a structured course of study in a specific area of law, such as:

A number of today’s Specialized LLM programs focus on the many aspects of international law. Just a few areas of study in international law include:

  • Asian law
  • International environmental law
  • International taxation
  • International legal studies
  • Business and trade law
  • Global health law

The ABA also accredits LLM degree programs designed specifically for foreign lawyers interested in an in-depth understanding of U.S. law.