The J.D. degree (also known as Doctor of Law or Juris Doctor) is a three-year professional law degree awarded by US universities. A J.D. degree is actually one of several Doctor of Law degrees, next to Doctor of Juridical Science ( S.J.D. or D.J.S) and Legum Doctor (L.L.D.), which is an honorary degree.

This is the standard degree you need to obtain to practice law in the US and represents a mandatory step in the process of becoming a lawyer. Even though this is a standard degree, it requires the law school applicant to have a bachelor’s degree. After obtaining their Juris doctorate degree, the graduate needs to pass the Bar exam to practice law. Since practicing law can be a very lucrative profession, there’s rarely a lack of prospective lawyers.

So, what is a J.D. degree, how long does it take to obtain it, and what does a J.D. program look like? Let’s find out.

History of the J.D. Degree

Back in the 18th century, law practice in America was far from structured and formalized. Originally, a lawyer’s education functioned more as an apprenticeship. Experienced lawyers would act as mentors to trainees, teaching them how to practice law. During the colonial period, lawyers would be trained in and imported from England.

However, the law practice itself would differ from place to place, as well as the interpretation of the law and the training process.

The first official law degree was granted in 1793 by the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This legal degree bore the name “Bachelor of Law” and was abbreviated as L.B. In the same period, universities led by Harvard spearheaded the movement to standardize legal education in the United States. It was Harward that then changed the name of the degree to “Legum Baccalaureus” (L.L.B). At this point, this was still a bachelor’s degree, and applicants were not required to have another undergraduate degree beforehand.

C.C. Langdell, the dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, then led the drive to create the Juris Doctor degree. The proposed degree would be a three-year professional one instead of an undergraduate degree.

There were several reasons Langdell proposed this change. One of the major ones was certainly uniformity. First, there was a need for a standardized law degree to be attainable in the US. Second, Harvard had four professional schools at the time (law, theology, medicine, arts and sciences), out of which two were bachelor’s degrees, and two were doctoral. In practice, all of these Harward schools were graduate schools, meaning the degrees they conferred were the second degree a student obtained. If the previous system remained in place and the law degree remained a baccalaureate, graduates would be effectively getting a primary degree twice once they graduated from Harward law school.

Hence, the J.D. degrees were conceived as doctoral degrees, conferring the name Juris Doctor, Doctor of Jurisprudence, or Doctor of Law to the graduate. The first J.D. degree was awarded in 1903 by the University of Chicago. 

However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the American Bar Association adopted a resolution recommending that the J.D. be adopted as a first law degree lawyers obtained. With this change also came the definitive requirement that a J.D. candidate needs to have a bachelor’s degree before applying.

J.D. Degree Academic Standing

In the US, the J.D. degree is treated as a professional doctorate. These differ from research doctorate degrees, which require published academic research. Unlike the US, many countries reserve the term “doctorate” exclusively for research degrees.

While research and professional doctorates have different characteristics, the ABA issued a Council Statement requesting that J.D. be treated as equal to a Ph.D. when it comes to educational employment.

Another interesting fact is that while J.D. certification “ranks” higher than a master’s degree in law in the US, a lawyer will actually pursue the latter after obtaining their J.D. degree. The Master of Laws (L.L.M) is primarily used to specialize in a certain area, such as criminal law or corporate law.

There’s also a third law degree that stands above the other two - Scientiae Juridicae Doctor, also known as Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D. or D.J.S.). S.J.D. is a research doctorate and is the highest degree in law you can attain in the United States.

Legum Doctor, as we’ve mentioned in the beginning, is solely an honorary degree.

Now that we’ve gone over the somewhat convoluted history of the degree and its academic standing let’s take a closer look at how obtaining this degree looks in practice.

J.D. Program Requirements

If you’re eyeing to enroll in a J.D. education program, you should know that they come with a universal set of requirements you need to fulfill in order to apply. These requirements are an undergraduate degree, letters of recommendation, a passed Law School Admission Test, and a personal statement.

Bachelor’s Degree

To apply to a Juris doctorate program, you need to have an undergraduate degree. Unlike with some other graduate programs, there’s no specific prerequisite course or undergraduate degree you need to be able to apply.

A common question among J.D. applicants is whether any primary degree is best-suited or favored by university admissions committees. The answer is that there are truly no rules and that you’re best off studying what interests you and what might be of use to you when you start practicing law. If multidisciplinarity doesn’t allure you, you can pick law or legal science for undergrad studies as good preparation for what awaits you ahead.

What does matter is your GPA score, which directly impacts your chances of getting accepted to a J.D. program. Furthermore, the bachelor’s degree does have to come from an accredited institution.

Letters of Recommendation

As with most graduate degree programs, a prospective J.D. student needs to submit a letter of recommendation when applying. The letter of recommendation should come from either your undergraduate professors or employers, as they can attest to your knowledge and accolades. 

J.D. programs usually require one or two letters of recommendation. Be sure to contact your referee on time so that they have time to write the recommendation letter properly. Additionally, it’s best to have a backup referee in case your initial picks are unable or unwilling to write a recommendation.

Official Transcripts

J.D. schools will also require official transcripts from your undergraduate studies. These transcripts can be requested from your university and contain your academic record at the said institution. This includes courses taken, grades, awards, and achievements.

Note that you usually have to pay a small fee every time you take out official transcripts. Since you have to request a separate copy of your transcripts for every program you apply for, be ready to part with up to $100 if you’re applying for multiple schools.

Personal Statement

Besides submitting transcripts and letters of recommendation, applicants are required to write a personal statement. In this statement, you’re supposed to wrap up your academic achievements, skills, and your overall life story in one compelling narrative.

The exact shape and form of the personal statement might differ slightly from law school to law school. However, there’s a consensus among applicants that writing the statement is one of the hardest parts of applying for a J.D. lawyer program. This is because you’re supposed to both showcase your achievements and demonstrate great writing skills at the same time – something that sounds much easier than it is.

Law School Admission Test

Before you can apply to any law school and obtain a J.D. degree, you’ll have to take the LSAT.

The LSAT is administered by the Law School Admission Council. The test consists of four sections: logical reasoning, reading comprehension, logic games, and an unscored section. The last one is variable and used to test out questions for future exams. You’ll have 35 minutes to complete each section by answering multiple-choice questions. Lastly, there’s an unscored writing section that can be taken separately.

You can use the LSAC website to register for a test. You’ll need to pay a fee to take the test, which will set you back about $200. However, the price of the test does increase for every additional law school you’re applying to.

What Does a J.D. Program Look Like?

J.D. programs are designed to offer students courses that cover all the major aspects of law practice. J.D. students can expect the following courses to be mandatory: 

  • Civil procedure
  • Civil law
  • Constitutional law
  • Criminal law
  • Property law
  • Public law
  • Business (corporate law)
  • International law
  • Public law

While on the road toward your Doctor of Law degree, it’s mandatory that you undertake a legal writing course, experiential learning course, and professional responsibility course. In most cases, these will be a part of your J.D. program.

On top of that, the majority of Juris doctorate programs also include some form of internship or practicum for graduates to obtain practical knowledge as well.

How Long Does It Take To Earn a J.D. Degree?

Law schools accredited by the ABA require a course of study of at least 83 credit hours. This means that a J.D. program usually lasts three years (six semesters). This is a crucial (and the longest) step in the process of becoming a lawyer.

One commonly asked question is “What is the average age to get a J.D. degree in the US?” as a way to gauge how hard it is and how long it takes. The average age of law school students is 22 to 24. However, if you happen to be older, you shouldn’t be disheartened – people regularly come back to get their law degree later in life.

Which Law Schools Can I Attend To Get a J.D.?

To take the bar exam and practice law, you need to obtain a J.D. degree from a law school accredited by the ABA. There are currently 199 ABA-approved institutions and programs in the United States

Nowadays, a lot of J.D. programs are paired with a master’s degree in Public Health or Public Policy or other disciplines that have natural synchronicity with law. This allows you to obtain both degrees simultaneously, as some credit hours are applied to both degrees at the same time.

Getting a Juris Doctor Degree Online

A few years ago, online J.D. programs were few and far between. However, the situation has recently started to change, obviously partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to reduce transmission risks.

Now, the ABA has started accrediting hybrid (part online, part in-person) J.D. programs. Check the list of ABA-accredited institutions and look for hybrid programs if these interest you. You should be aware that there are also nonaccredited institutions that enable you to obtain a Doctor of Law degree. The problem with these is that you won’t be able to apply for and take the bar exam if the program you’ve completed isn’t accredited.

Can You Become a Lawyer Without a J.D. Degree?

While rare, there are instances in which you can take the bar exam without obtaining a J.D. degree. The exact circumstances under which this is possible vary from state to state, and only a few states even allow this. 

The prerequisite for this is usually the completion of a legal apprenticeship. Other cases when someone becomes a lawyer without a J.D. degree involve international students. However, they often have to go through a grueling process of proving their law education was similar to that offered in the US. Again, all these instances are very rare, and in 99% of cases, you’ll need to become a  Doctor of Jurisprudence before applying for and passing the bar.