How to Get a JD or JSD Degree in Law

The most common doctorate degree in law, the Juris Doctor or JD, is an interesting degree in the sense that not everyone agrees that it is a doctorate-level degree. Certain college professors with PhD degrees in other fields, in fact, have been disputing the standing of the JD as equal to the PhD for years, disliking that colleagues with JD degrees are called “Doctor” around campus. Such trifling is purely academic, and has not done anything to diminish the reality that the JD degree is universally respected as a high accomplishment and a valuable credential.

The Juris Doctor degree is, however, different from many traditional PhD degree programs. Although it is not uncommon for graduates of JD programs to work in professions than law, students typically use the JD degree program as preparation for the bar exam. In that sense, the JD is a professional doctorate degree, specifically designed to train future attorneys.

The other doctorate degree in law is called the Doctor of Juridicial Science or, if you prefer the Latin, the Scientiae Juridicae Doctor. Either JSD or SJD can be used to denote this doctoral degree, which qualifies you as a “Doctor of Laws.” The JSD is an academic and scholarly degree.

In the process of choosing between the JD and the JSD, and then of choosing between law schools that offer those doctorate degrees in law, do your research. The availability of online JD in Law degrees, for instance, has changed legal education radically and permanently. Keep in mind, too, that online JD degrees are not valid in every state.

How to Apply for Doctorate Degrees in Law

First, look over the field with a wide lens, noticing certain realities and trends. Only by seeing the big picture up front can you gain full control of the step-by-step application process.

The Juris Doctor Degree: An Open Door

Perhaps the most notable thing about pursuing a doctorate-level degree in law is how open the door is, and to how many people. You can apply for and be admitted to a JD in Law program with any bachelor’s degree, including but not limited to:

  • History
  • English
  • Sociology
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Anthropology
  • Political Science
  • Engineering
  • Business
  • Economics

This level of openness is exceedingly unusual in a doctorate degree, and renders the JD in Law a desirable diploma even if you have no plans to pursue a career as an attorney. Many businessmen, for example, possess a JD degree but do not practice law as a profession.

Degree programs that combine the JD in Law with another postgraduate degree are one expression of how popular the JD has become among non-lawyers. The JD/MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) degree combination is the favorite. JD/MS (Master’s of Science–specializations vary), JD/MPA (Master’s of Public Administration), and JD/MMF (Master’s of Management and Finance) are three other choices.

Naturally, it’s nice to have the option to practice law even if you have no current plans in that direction. That option is a luxury that those who have earned JD degrees enjoy, so long as they pass the state bar exam for the state in which they practice.

JD in Law as Preparation for the Bar Exam

Speaking of the state bar exam, that is the point of obtaining a JD in Law for the majority of students. JD programs do not teach only for the test, but with the test clearly in view at all times. The subjects taught in a good JD degree program are those emphasized in state bar exams:

  1. Constitutional law
  2. Contracts
  3. Criminal law and procedure
  4. Evidence
  5. Real property
  6. Torts

JD programs rightly measure themselves by bar exam pass/fail percentages. Contact schools directly to inquire about their percentages, or use a form like the ones here on to have schools contact you.

Online Juris Doctor (JD) Degrees: An Opening Door

It does you no good to apply to law school if you cannot the afford tuition for a traditional on-campus JD program, which can easily reach into the $30,000 per year range for a three-year program. Many otherwise qualified students cannot do traditional on-campus law school because you have a full-time job that you cannot quit because of family-related financial obligations. If you are one of those people, it may be exciting to realize that you now have a viable option available to you: online JD degree programs.

Online JD degree programs have dramatically lowered the cost of attending law school. You can now obtain your JD degree by paying $5,000 per year rather than $35,000. But–and this is vital–online JD degree programs are not yet accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). This lack of accreditation by the ABA means that unless you live in California, an online JD degree does not qualify you to take the state bar exam.

To date, the ABA has not accredited a single distance learning institution. This, too, may be changing in an opening-door fashion, though, thanks to the thousands of quality attorneys who have graduated from non-ABA accredited schools and are now practicing in California. These successful lawyers are proof of the online JD degree possibilities. In addition, and as would be expected, lawsuits have been filed in several states to allow online JD degree holders to sit for the bar exam.

The JSD in Law: A Narrow Hallway

The JSD in Law is the only truly “terminal” degree in the field of law. There is no higher level of education that may be attained in law. The JSD is the final step. Nevertheless, the JSD is a step that is not taken often and is not right for everyone. The JSD degree typically prepares a law student to pursue a career in academia, as a college professor, researcher, and all around legal scholar.

Competition to JSD degree programs can be fierce, due to the mentoring aspect of JSD degree programs, which makes severe demands on the student as well as the mentoring faculty member. The JSD in Law may be a good choice if you know you want a career studying and teaching law at a college or university.

Applying for a Doctorate Degree in Law: A Step-by-Step Guide

The first two steps of the applying process should be clear by now:

1. Choose between a JD degree or an SJD degree

2. Evaluate the online education choice

When taking these two critical first steps, think thoroughly about whether or not your goal at the end of your doctorate degree journey is to sit for the state bar exam and become a practicing attorney. If taking the bar exam is not in your plans, if you are pursuing doctorate-level legal education for a less specific reason, the online JD in Law option can be a terrific option.

Once you’ve taken the time to think about and research those first two steps, you’re ready to measure individual doctorate degree programs in law at individual schools–and steps three through five are upon you.

3. Facts First

Attorneys like facts, and so should you if you’re considering applying to law school, either for a JD degree or a JSD degree. No matter what doctorate degree program or what school you’re looking at, you should always obtain key facts, including:

  • Graduation rate
  • Average LSAT score for incoming students
  • Percentage of graduating students pass/fail on the bar exam
  • Year program and school was founded
  • Yearly tuition cost
  • Student-to-teacher ratio
  • Accreditation

Contact schools directly and make the acquisition of those key facts your number one priority. Specifically with respect to the accreditation issue, you need to know, immediately, if the online JD degree program you’re considering is going to help you become a practicing attorney.

If you’re planning to practice law in California, an online JD in Law may result in cost savings of up to $100,000, with no depreciation in the quality of your education and no negative impact on your ability to sit for and pass the state bar exam. If, however, you want to become a practicing attorney in Rhode Island, an online JD in Law is a waste of time and money because you need ABA accreditation to sit for the Rhode Island bar exam.

With key facts in hand, you can build your search for the right doctorate degree in law on a solid foundation.

4. Specialization Considerations

Certain law schools specialize in certain areas. Some areas of specialization include:

  • Environmental law
  • International law
  • Tax Law
  • Intellectual property law
  • Health care law

If you know that you want to specialize in a certain area of law, consider attending a law school that specializes in your desired niche. Contact schools directly and survey past students to discover what parts of their operations are strongest.

5. Assessing the Quality of Faculty

The quality of the faculty at your law school is of surpassing importance. The opportunity to interact with top minds in the legal profession can be a significant life event.

When seeking some idea of the quality of the faculty at a particular school offering JD degrees, look for:

  • Experience in the field
  • Published writings
  • Membership in professional associations
  • Credentials
  • Responsiveness to students

Responsiveness to students, while last on the list, may be one of the most vital factors to consider as you make your choice of JD degrees. Some law schools advocate a very “hands off” approach, and that is well-suited to some students. If, however, you are someone who wants to ask questions of professors and receive answers now, the responsiveness of the faculty at your chosen school may go far towards determining the quality of your education at that institution.

Online JD degree programs have competed with on campus JD degree programs on the responsiveness criteria, and made inroads into the market because of that focus. By connecting students and professors through the 24/7 medium of the Internet, as well as archiving vast reams of reading material for automatic retrieval, the faculty at online JD degree programs are encouraged and enabled to tend to students continuously.

Additional Research: Always Necessary

The profession of law is changing. Because the JD in Law is a professional degree, the changing of the profession of law means that law school itself is also changing. Lower cost schools, for example, have gained increased success as high-paying attorney jobs are no longer a guaranteed benefit of attending a prestigious on-campus JD program. Schools and jobs are directly connected in the field of law as in few other professions. Meanwhile, areas of the law that were formerly not major employers–intellectual property law, for instance–have witnessed an explosion in demand.

The California experiment has shown that online JD degree programs can turn out students who are just as ready as their on campus counterparts to practice law professionally.

In such a dynamic field, continuing research is essential. Use as your headquarters for conducting research into on campus and online degrees in law. You can search for schools by degree level, degree subject, and location. Career planning tools and financial aid information all collected in one place should save you time and resources as you search for the best JD degree program for you.

Additional resources are worth consulting as you conduct your doctorate degree in law due diligence. Think of research in terms of interrogating a witness. You want to get all the truthful information you can, while realizing that everyone has their own motivations for saying what they say. Take the time to join the academic discussions in your field. The American Bar Association has great resources for aspiring–and practicing–lawyers. Georgetown University puts out the Journal of Legal Education, which is another great resource.

Ultimately, the decision of what doctorate degree in law is right for you is up to the judge: you.


  • American Bar Association, Distance Education
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lawyers
  • Council on Legal Education Opportunity, What is CLEO
  • Journal of Legal Education, About the Journal of Legal Education
  • Law School Admission Council, Choosing a Law School
  • Law School Survey of Student Engagement, About LSSSE
  • MinnLawyer Blog, Petition: Minnesota bar exam shouldn’t be limited to grads of ABA accredited schools
  • National Conference of Bar Examiners, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements
  • Stanford Law School, Doctor of Science of Law (JSD)
  • University of Washington School of Law, Office of the Academic Dean
  • U.S. News and World Report, Best Law Schools
  • Wake Forest University
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