TL;DR / Key Takeaways
- There are a number of different factors to consider when determining which law school is right for you - cost is only one of them.
- Make sure to ask yourself what kind of flexibility you will need in order to complete a law school program. Different programs offer different levels of flexibility.
- There are a number of other degrees you can pursue, in addition to a Juris Doctor—each of which can advance your career in a different way.
The first question to ask about a law school is if it is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). With rare exception, law students who graduate from a Juris Doctor program that is not accredited by the ABA will not be able to take the bar exam.
How much time can you commit to your legal education? Most online JD programs take at least three years to complete. If you already have a career and will continue to work while in law school, a part-time program may make more sense for you. A number of part-time JD degree programs, such as the FlexTime JD Program offered by Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, the Weekend JD program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and the new JD Flex Program at Golden Gate University School of Law limit in-person class requirements to the weekends, which allows law students to continue to work full-time.
Area of Speciality
Most law school programs tend to have curriculums that are fairly general. However, law school applicants who already have a career in a particular field may want to explore a legal program that caters to their professional strengths. The Hybrid JD program offered at the University of New Hampshire School of Law has an Intellectual Property, Technology, and Information Law focus.
The cost of tuition varies considerably among law schools. Currently, tuition at the most expensive law schools in the U.S. is over $65,000 per academic year. In contrast, there are law schools with annual tuition that is less than half of that amount. As you research different law schools, keep in mind, too, that in-state tuition may be significantly more affordable and may mitigate your law school debt. You should also find out what kind of financial aid is available at each school. Another way to evaluate law schools financially is to look at the median salaries of their graduates. With this number, along with the cost of tuition over the entire program, you can determine the school’s salary-to-debt ratio. Of course, you should bear in mind that the profession you choose to pursue after graduation will materially impact your personal salary-to-debt ratio. Going to work at a law firm will almost certainly pay significantly more than focusing your efforts on criminal justice reform. Nevertheless, looking at the salary-to-debt ratio of different law schools is another helpful tool to determine which is the best program for you.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
Law schools with an online component may use synchronous distance learning or asynchronous distance learning (some schools may use both). With synchronous learning, a student interacts with the professor and the other law students in real-time, albeit from different places. This may take the form of web chats, online seminars, video conferencing or conference calls. Generally, synchronous learning requires you to follow the schedule set by the professor; there is little flexibility in the timing, though you may “log in” from anywhere. In contrast, with asynchronous learning, a student is completely on her own schedule—she does not interact with the professor or the rest of the class in real-time. Asynchronous learning can take the form of recordings (whether audiovisual or just audio) and discussion boards. By definition, asynchronous learning provides considerably more flexibility; a student can go through the material whenever she chooses. When you are evaluating different law school programs, make sure to ask yourself which type of distance learning is better suited to your needs. Some law school programs, like the Online Hybrid JD program at the University of Dayton School of Law, use both forms of distance learning: law students learn the rules of law through asynchronous online sessions and then attend live online classes in order to apply those rules.1
An invaluable way to gain hands-on experience is through externships. Externships get law students out into the workforce to experience law firms, legal aid offices, and in-house positions, among many other professional environments, for themselves. Externships also offer a student the opportunity to continue to build a professional network. Some JD degree programs, such as JDinteractive at Syracuse University College of Law, have an externship requirement. Be sure to look into whether an externship makes sense for you and if it is a graduation requirement at any of the schools you are considering.
What Types of Law and Legal Studies Degrees are There?
There are actually a number of different types of law programs that confer different degrees upon graduation. Just as it is important to determine which school is the best fit for you, it is also important to be certain what type of degree best supports your professional aspirations. These legal programs vary widely in tuition costs, the number of years needed to graduate, and admissions requirements.
If you want to practice law in the United States, this is the degree you most likely will need. While there are some exceptions (for example, California does not require an individual to have a JD degree in order to practice law in the state), most states require this degree in order to sit for the bar exam and, ultimately, practice law.
To be eligible to apply to most JD degree programs, a prospective student must (1) receive a bachelor’s degree from a college or university by the time the student enrolls in the JD program; and (2) have taken the LSAT or, if the JD program accepts it, the GRE. While there is no minimum LSAT score required to apply to law school, each law school is required by the American Bar Association to disclose its admissions data, so you can determine what the average LSAT score is for any JD program just by checking its website.
In a traditional full-time JD degree program, it takes three academic years to graduate.
An LLM, or Master of Laws, is typically a one-year degree program.
While a JD degree program prepares a student for the practice of law, an LLM provides a student with the opportunity to specialize in a specific area of the law. For example, a student can pursue a Criminal Law LLM. or Taxation LLM. An LLM also gives an international student the opportunity to become familiar with U.S. law.
Unlike a JD degree, which caters to students coming straight out of college as well as people who have already started their career, in order to apply to an LLM program, you must already have a Juris Doctor (or, in the case of international law students, the foreign equivalent).
If you are interested in studying law, but do not want to become a lawyer, you can explore a master’s degree that is centered around legal studies. This master’s degree goes by a number of different names, depending on the law school offering it, such as: Master of Legal Studies (MLS), Master of Science of Law (MSL), Juris Master (JM), and Master of Jurisprudence (MJ). While the names may be different, the focus of the programs are generally the same.
A prospective student must have a bachelor’s degree by the time of enrollment.
A student can typically complete the program in one year.