In the United States, three typical classifications of law degrees exist, the Juris Doctor, the Master of Laws, and the Doctor of Juridical Science. However, despite the fact that all three are graduate degrees, each has a different purpose and each must be studied in the proper sequence. Additionally, each degree exists for a specific purpose.
A number of law schools offer other degrees, often masters level degrees for journalists, paralegals, or others who could benefit from an advanced knowledge of law. While the degrees in question are taught by legal faculty, they are not accepted as law degrees.
The initial degree in law that American students earn is the Juris Doctor. It is a three year graduate degree earned after completing an undergraduate degree. Unlike many other countries, law is studied as a graduate subject in the United States. The first year of the JD is spent on the same basic subjects of law regardless of which law school is attended, with later years allowing greater specialization. For more attorneys, this will be the only law degree that they ever need; Supreme Court Justices and top law professors often achieve their goals with nothing more than a Juris Doctor.
Master of Laws
A Master of Laws is a year-long degree taken after a JD that is typically earned for one of three reasons. First, and most commonly, an LL.M is useful for those students who want to specialize in a given area of law but, due to limitations of their JD program or the trajectory of their career, have been unable to do so. This is especially common in technical areas like taxation or aviation, or more cutting-edge fields like tech law.
Second, LL.Ms are typically earned by foreign-trained lawyers looking for experience in the American legal system. This is especially true for those looking to spend part of their career in the United States; many states permit foreign-trained lawyers who earn an LL.M to sit for the bar exam.
Finally, LL.Ms allow for lawyers looking to transition into legal teaching and research time to fine-tune their work, as well as gain greater focus in a specific field of law.
Doctor of Juridical Science
The final law degree routinely earned in the US is the Doctor of Juridical Science, typically abbreviated as the JSD or the SJD. It is a research degree, much like a Ph.D, that is earned upon completing an LL.M. Only a handful of law schools offer the program, and it is typically very difficult to gain entry into. In the overwhelming majority of cases, only those interested in becoming law professors typically pursue a JSD.