Master of Legal Studies vs. JD

While researching pathways to a legal career, you might have noticed that there’s more than one type of law degree. Two of those options are a Juris Doctor (JD) and a Master of Legal Studies (MLS). 

You are likely already familiar with the Juris Doctor degree. In most states, it is the minimum education required to become a lawyer. Individuals with a JD have a deep understanding of the law that allows them to prosecute or defend in court and offer legal advice. MLS degrees, on the other hand, are designed to educate people who work closely with laws and need to have a good understanding of them, but will not be interpreting or applying laws in court as lawyers do. In other words, MLS graduates are equipped with a working knowledge of the law that enables them to ensure compliance in highly regulated sectors, such as healthcare and technology. 

Your choice between a Master of Legal Studies vs. a JD will depend on your goals and desired career path. The information below compares MLS vs. JD degrees in more detail, outlining the different career options each one can offer.

What Is a Juris Doctor Degree?

A Juris Doctor, or JD as it is commonly called, has been the standard law degree for many years, and almost all lawyers have one. As previously mentioned, most states require lawyers to complete a JD program. 

The American Bar Association (ABA) has provided accreditation to nearly 200 law schools and programs that confer JD degrees. Most full-time JD programs last three years. Part-time programs take longer to complete. Whichever option you choose, you’ll explore a wide and detailed range of topics within law. 

Even if you earn a JD, you cannot practice law until you are a member of a bar. Most students take the bar exam the summer after graduating from law school.  JD holders may go on to work as prosecutors or public defenders in law firms or as in-house counsel. Some argue in courtrooms, some put together deals, and some counsel individuals or companies on the best ways to comply with laws and regulations. There are numerous career paths.

Areas of Study and Learning Expectations

JD programs are known for their intensity and the high level of effort and commitment they demand from individuals. But all that hard work can potentially pay off. Students who successfully earn a JD may pursue rewarding, high-growth careers. In 2021, the median salary for lawyers was $127,990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Students in a JD program may take the following core courses in their first year or two:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal Law
  • Property Law
  • Legal Research and Writing
  • Torts (Injury)

Some schools encourage students to pursue concentrations and focus their last year of studies in one area, such as environmental law, international law, or advocacy. Students may select a concentration based on their interests or veer in the direction of industries with the most jobs. American University Washington College of Law offers over 30 different initiatives and specialty programs to law students.

In addition to the classes in your core and specialty curriculum, many JD programs incorporate experiential learning—such as simulations, law clinics, or externships. This allows you to gain hands-on experience under the guidance of faculty, practitioners, and experts in the field before graduating. To help students translate their knowledge from the classroom to the courtroom, American University Washington College of Law offers legal externships and live-client education

What Is a Master of Legal Studies Degree?

A Master of Legal Studies is a degree designed for individuals who need to have a solid understanding of laws but will not be working as lawyers. Professionals with MLS degrees occupy roles in sectors where ensuring compliance with laws and regulations is key for operations, such as human resources, data privacy, financial compliance, and the government. An MLS program is usually completed in one to two-years, and once you graduate, you are not required to take any exams (unless you opt for voluntary certification in an area or industry of your choice).

Areas of Study and Learning Expectations

Completing an MLS degree program involves a smaller time commitment than a JD program. Online MLS programs are designed to fit the schedules and needs of working professionals across the country. American University Washington College of Law offers an online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) that can be completed in as few as 12 months. 

Core courses will vary depending on the institution, but most MLS programs include coursework in:

  • Basics of the U.S. legal system
  • Compliance
  • Contract drafting 
  • Ethics
  • Negotiation

Focus Your MLS With a Specialization

While MLS students have the option of pursuing a general degree, many choose to specialize. American University Washington College of Law offers a comprehensive General MLS—plus specializations in business, healthcare compliance, information technology, cybersecurity, and U.S. legislation. Students graduate with key knowledge in legal concepts, enabling them to help teams and businesses in various sectors successfully navigate and comply with laws and regulations. 

An MLS with a concentration in business is a great option if you’re seeking a degree that will allow you to expand both your legal and business skill sets. The online business MLS program from American University Washington College of Law is designed to equip you with the legal knowledge needed to work in business, finance, and government roles. 

Through our partnership with American University Kogod School of Business, law school students have the opportunity to attend the same classes as business students and gain critical knowledge on the intersection of business and law. Some of those courses include: 

  • Cybersecurity Governance
  • Business Law, Ethics, and Governances
  • Database and Big Data
  • Organizational Behavior

Students in this program will graduate with the knowledge and skills needed to help organizations create and implement business strategies that are both effective and compliant with laws and regulations.

Last updated April 2022.

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