A Comprehensive Guide to Law Degrees in the USA (2023)
Studying law can open many doors, and often leads to very versatile and lucrative careers. American law schools and colleges have a long been renowned for their excellent academic teaching, which makes a Law degree from a US university highly valued around the world.
At almost $130,000 per annum (US Bureau of Labor Statistics), the median annual salary for lawyers is nearly three times the median annual wage for all occupations nationwide.
Lawyers are also very much in demand, with the BLS projecting a 10% increase in employment for lawyers from 2021 to 2031—twice the average projected growth rate for all jobs.
During their three or four years of specialized legal studies, students learn about topics such as administrative law, legal theory, analytical legal methods, bankruptcy, business law and ethics, civil rights, constitutional law, and many more.
In this article, we look at the types of law degrees available in the US and their entry requirements, some the best universities for studying law, and potential career paths open to law graduates.
Table of Contents
Types of Law Degrees
Studying law in the United States is different from studying law in many other countries in that students need to have first completed an undergraduate degree.
Practicing law in the US requires an advanced Juris Doctor (JD) or similar degree (three years of schooling on top of a four-year bachelor’s degree). Students who know they want to pursue a law career in the future will often study pre-law in undergrad. Public policy, social justice, public affairs, political science, history, economics, and philosophy are also common program tracks for pre-law students.
Before being allowed to practice law, most students are also required by the state in which they practice to pass a bar exam.
Because states administer the bar, it can therefore be helpful for students to attend law school in the region where they’d like to practice.
Juris Doctor (JD)
All law schools in the US, both public and private, grant the J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree that is required to practice law in the country. A J.D program involves three years of study for full-time Law students and four years for part-time students.
Regardless of which university law students attend, they can expect the first year of law school to involve foundational courses in core law concepts such as torts, contracts, civil procedure, property, criminal law, and constitutional law. In years two and three, law students then choose an area of study and begin to explore specialized courses.
Master of Laws (LLM)
A Master of Laws degree is a one-year full-time study course after finishing a J.D. program.
An LLM in US Law provides students with in-depth knowledge of the American legal system. Attorneys living outside of the United States often pursue this graduate degree in order to practice in America or because their work involves interactions with US laws.
Those with an LLM are often recruited by law firms with an international presence, as well as those that do business in the US. Governments hoping to develop relations with America may also need LLM qualified lawyers. Employment opportunities can include positions as a practicing attorney, foreign diplomat and in-house counsel to major corporations.
Some of the LLM in USA programs focus on specialization areas such as business, corporate law, commercial law, environmental law, taxation, and finance.
Doctorate in Law (SJD)
Any law graduates who aspire to teach law in an academic setting will most likely need to pursue a doctorate program in Law.
The Doctor of Science of Law, also known as the SJD or JSD, is the most advanced law degree in the US. Typically, these degrees involve both advanced level coursework, and independent research, conducted under the guidance of a faculty member.
Law School Entry Requirements
In this section, we look at what’s required of students who wish to pursue a JD degree in the US - from academic requirements, to visas.
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1. Undergraduate degree
Unlike many other countries, where students immediately enter law school after completing high school; those students who wish to complete a law degree in the US must have first completed an undergraduate degree. In other words, studying law in the US is only possible if you are already a graduate.
Students from any discipline can get admitted to law school in the United States, however it is important is that students choose something that will help them build their oratory, analytical, written, and critical thinking skills.
2. Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a crucial part of the admissions process for US law schools. The LSAT is a half-day standardized test designed for prospective law school candidates. It is scored on a scale from 120 to 180.
The test does not measure any specialized knowledge. It tests the student’s ability to use reasoning, analytical, and logical reasoning; ultimately it helps prospective law students determine if law school is right for them, and law schools identify the candidates most likely to succeed on the course.
It is crucial to do well in this exam, especially if for those students who wish to attend one of the prestigious, top-tier law schools.
Some law schools will accept tests other than the LSAT for admission. However, students who want to maximize their chances for admission and be best prepared for law school are encouraged to take the LSAT.
3. Minimum undergraduate Grade Point Average (GPA)
While law schools consider applicants' letters of recommendation, personal statements, work experience and extracurricular activities, undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores are often the most heavily weighed factors in admissions decisions.
What's considered a strong undergraduate GPA varies per law school. According to US News and World Report, among the U.S. News top 20 law schools, the median GPA for accepted students in 2021 was 3.86.
4. Letters of recommendation
According to the Law School Admission Council, the most effective letters of recommendation are written by professors or work supervisors who know the applicant well enough to describe their academic, personal, or professional achievements and potential with candor, detail, and objectivity.
Typically, most law schools in the US require two Letters of Recommendation, but this can vary by school. It is crucial to follow exact instructions and submit the required number of letters—no more, and no less—in order to show an ability to follow instructions.
5. Personal statement
The personal statement is the applicant’s opportunity to reflect upon their life and show the law school admissions committee who they are as an individual.It is designed to help to humanize applicants and allow committees to build a diverse community of law students.
A strong personal statement should articulate an applicant's vision for his or her future, outlining both short-term and long-term goals.
6. Credential Assembly Service (CAS) reports
LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service (CAS) simplifies the law school application process for both candidates and law schools. With CAS, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and any other documents required for each law school application only need to be sent one time to LSAC.
All ABA-approved law school applications are available electronically through a student's CAS account as well, saving time and effort. LSAC combines documents with the LSAT score and forwards a full report to all the schools a student applies to.
Almost all U.S. law schools require applicants to use the Credential Assembly for their law school applications.
Additional law school entry requirements for international students
Students can only get a student visa through a US educational institution. Once accepted to law school, they will be contacted with the paperwork they need to complete in order to apply for, and obtain, their official student visa.
Proof of English proficiency
Most law schools will ask international applicants (for whom English is not their native language) to take a standardized test such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Each school sets its own standard for required minimal scores on the tests.
Top 7 Schools to Study Law in the USA
Currently there are almost 200 accredited and approved institutions and programs that confer the first degree in law (the J.D. degree).
Here, we look at 7 of the most prestigious law schools in the US, exploring factors such as their rankings, course structure and content, program cost, faculty expertise and location.
1. Harvard University
Harvard Law School (also known as Harvard Law or HLS) is one of the professional graduate schools of Ivy League Harvard University. Founded in 1817, it is the oldest continually-operating law school in the United States and is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious in the world.
Image source: Harvard University Law School
- The school has a considerably bigger class size than most law schools – each class in the three-year J.D. program has over 500 students, the largest of the top ranked law schools in the United States.
- Harvard University is currently ranked #5 in Best Law Schools by US News and World Report (2023-24). It also ranks #1 in Business/Corporate Law, #1 in Constitutional Law, #1 in Dispute Resolution and #2 in Criminal Law.
- The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2023 place Harvard #6 for Law.
- Through the school’s Student Practice Organizations, first-year students have the opportunity to test their legal skills very early on, by helping local musicians understand copyright laws or representing state prison inmates at disciplinary hearings, for example.
- Among the school’s most prominent alumni are former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as more than a dozen current and former Supreme Court Justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts.
- The full-time program application fee at the law school at Harvard University is $85. Its tuition is full-time: $71,734. The student-faculty ratio is 7.3:1. (US News and World Report).
Cambridge , MA
2. Yale University
Yale University is an American private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale Law School is considered one of–if not the–most prestigious law schools in the United States. The school has educated a number of Supreme Court Justices as well as two U.S. Presidents–Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.
Image source: Yale Law School
- Yale University is currently ranked #1 in Best Law Schools by US News and World Report. It also ranks #2 in Constitutional Law, #3 in International Law.
- THE World University Rankings 2023 place Yale #5 for Law.
- Class sizes are small, often with less than 20 students. The student-faculty ratio is 4.5:1.
- Joint degrees are offered in conjunction with other professional and graduate schools at Yale, including the highly ranked School of Management. Students can also take courses at these schools without integrating a second major.
- Especially ambitious students can earn an accelerated, integrated J.D./MBA in three years, the same amount of time it takes to complete a traditional J.D.
- With more than 20 legal clinics at Yale, students can immerse themselves in real-life legal experiences as early as their first year.
- Students represent real clients in domestic violence disputes, apartment eviction proceedings and more. In addition to clinical experience, students can test their legal smarts in workshops and on-campus centers.
- The full-time program application fee at the Law School at Yale University is $85. Its tuition is full-time: $71,425 (US News and World Report).
New Haven, CT
3. Stanford University
Stanford University is a private university located in the heart of Silicon Valley, just 35 miles south of San Francisco. Stanford Law School, or SLS, was founded in 1893 and is one of the smaller top-tier law schools.
Image source: Stanford Law School
- Stanford is ranked #1 in Best Law Schools by US News and World Report 2023-24.
- It also ranks #1 in Intellectual Property Law, #2 in Criminal Law, #3 in Constitutional Law, and #3 in Contracts/Commercial Law.
- THE World University Rankings 2023 place Stanford #1 for Law.
- Stanford Law offers the opportunity for an interdisciplinary, multidimensional legal education that develops the skills law graduates need to understand the needs of the people they serve. Students have broad access to courses outside the law school, enabling them to benefit from academic thought leaders across disciplines.
- More than 200 faculty members, including 106 full-time faculty, help guide students through Stanford Law.
- Located at the heart of the university campus in Crown Quadrangle, the school is a three-building complex built specifically for legal education.
- The full-time program application fee at the Law School at Stanford University is $85. The student-faculty ratio is 4.6:1. (US News and World Report)
4. University of Chicago
Located on a residential campus in America's third largest city, Chicago Law School offers a rigorous and interdisciplinary professional education that blends the study of law with the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.
Image source: University of Chicago Law School
- The University of Chicago is ranked #3 in US News and World Report’s Best Law Schools in 2023-24.
- It also ranks #1 in Business/Corporate Law, #1 in Contracts/Commercial Law and #3 in Constitutional Law.
- THE World University Rankings 2023 place the University of Chicago #10 for Law.
- Chicago Law School has the third highest percentage of recent graduates clerking for federal judges after Stanford Law School and Yale Law School.
- The school's main publication is the University of Chicago Law Review, which is among the top five most cited law reviews in the world.
- The full-time program application fee at the Law School at University of Chicago is $90. Its tuition is full-time: $74,607. The student-faculty ratio is 5.6:1.(US News and World Report).
5. Columbia University
Columbia Law School is located in vibrant New York City and founded in 1858. Although the average class size is a little larger than some other leading schools, the student to faculty ratio is one of the smallest.
Image source: Columbia Law School
- NYU is ranked #8 in US News and World Report’s Best Law Schools in 2023-24.
- It also ranks #1 in Business/Corporate Law (and #2 in Contracts/Commercial Law.
- THE World University Rankings 2023 place Columbia #12 for Law
- Although there are some curriculum requirements, students can start choosing their own electives beginning their first year. This freedom allows them to explore their own individualized specialty instead of being grouped into generic law programs.
- The full-time program application fee at the Law School at Columbia University is $85. Its tuition is full-time: $78,278. The student-faculty ratio is 6.2:1. (US News and World Report).
New York, NY
6. New York University
Nestled in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York University School of Law (or NYU Law) provides its students with an outstanding legal education in the heart of one of New York City’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
Image source: NYU School of Law
- NYU is ranked #5 in Best Law Schools by US News and World Report 2023-24.
- It also ranks #1 in Criminal Law, #1 in International Law and #1 in Tax Law.
- THE World University Rankings 2023 place NYU #2 for Law.
- From their first year, law students at NYU Law get an interactive experience in practical legal skills through the school’s Lawyering Program.
- In their second and third year, students can further test their knowledge in more than 30 legal clinics and about 25 on-campus centers, in addition to dynamic Colloquia seminar classes that consist of a series of workshops on a given subject.
- Students can earn joint degrees through other schools at NYU, like the highly ranked Stern School of Business, or dual degrees with outside institutions including the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
- Its tuition is full-time: $76,290. The student-faculty ratio is 6.3:1. (US News and World Report)
New York, NY
7. University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School is one of the oldest and most selective law schools in the country. Located in Philadelphia and known as Penn Law, it consists of a small cohort of over 750 students.
Image source: Penn Carey Law School
- The University of Pennsylvania is ranked #4 in Best Law Schools, US News and World Report 2023-24.
- It also ranks #4 in Business/Corporate Law.
- At the University of Pennsylvania, professional students can put a cross-disciplinary slant on their education. Penn Law students can enroll in courses in other academic departments, and other professional school students can take Penn Law courses, too.
- Students must complete at least 70 hours of pro bono work before they can graduate from Penn Law. In addition to community service projects, students can spend their free time getting involved in legal clinics and more than 100 student organizations like Penn Law Boxing and the Urban Law Reform group.
- Students have access to 270 faculty members, including 91 full-time professors.
- Notable alumni of Penn Law School include George Wharton Pepper, founder of law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP.
- Its tuition is full-time: $73,008. The student-faculty ratio is 5:1. (US News and World Report)
Potential Career Paths for Law Graduates
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A good number of Law graduates choose to practice as attorneys, which they can do across a range of industries and with a wide range of specializations.
However, given that a Law degree develops all the necessary skills to pursue a career in other areas, there are many law graduates choose not to work as lawyers, instead seeking out careers - sometimes outside of the legal profession - in fields such as business, government, diplomacy and education.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1.What’s the difference between a law degree and a law license in the USA?
The difference between a law degree and a law license in the USA is that with a law license (held by attorneys) you can practice law. A law degree on it own doesn’t give you the right to practise law as an attorney.
2. How long is a law degree in the USA?
The duration of law school is generally at least three years. Full-time students typically complete their studies within three years, while part-time students take up to five years. As law school is only for graduate students, this is on top of an initial 3 or 4 year undergraduate degree.
3. What degree do you need to be a lawyer in the USA?
Lawyers are required to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school accredited by the ABA. This follows on from an undergraduate degree. The JD will typically take three years to complete. There is also an option to earn a one year Master of Laws (LLM) degree in area of specialization after earning a JD.
4.What does a law degree in the USA cover?
Most JD Law degrees cover compulsory core areas such as constitutional law, contract law, criminal law, civil procedure, and property law. Students also take optional, specialized courses in advanced legal topics such as legal ethics, intellectual property law and taxation law.
Some law schools also offer clinical and experiential learning opportunities.
Teaching tends to be through a combination of lectures, seminars, group work, presentations, and class debates.
5. What is the cost of a law degree in the USA?
The cost of law school in the US depends on the university. While some top-tier universities have higher tuition fees, some less competitive law schools provide more affordable tuition.
According to data collected by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2022, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for full-time, in-state law school students is $42,823. (Forbes)
We hope that this article has helped you understand the process of becoming qualified as a lawyer in the US.
Completing a bachelor's degree at a top ranked university is the perfect first step in the journey to law school, and beyond that a career in law.
Through Kings Guaranteed Outcome programs, students are able to gain an undergraduate degree from a Top 50 or Top 100 university in the US.
- Students complete the first two years of their bachelor's degree at one of our partner universities (located in Boston, New York, California, Wisconsin and Oregon).
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English language programs
For anyone who has already completed an undergraduate degree, our range of English language programs can be the ideal preparation for law school in the US.
Whether you’re looking for a general English program, or an exam preparation course (such as TOEFL or IELTS) there are a range of options across our locations in the US (Boston, New York and LA) and the UK.
If you would like receive more detailed information about the Kings and our programs, please get in touch with us at email@example.com..