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27 Feb

Types of Law Degrees: J.D. vs. Master of Legal Studies (MLS)

While a Juris Doctor (J.D.) is the most common of the various types of law degrees, it’s just one of many options available for those seeking a graduate-level law credential. In fact, 14 percent of law-school enrollees are pursuing non-J.D. programs, compared to just 8 percent five years ago.1

It’s true: If you want to become a practicing attorney in the U.S., you need a J.D. But for those who have no need or desire to practice law, a master’s degree, such as the Online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) in Corporate Compliance from Santa Clara University, can provide the extensive, nuanced knowledge necessary to excel in fields such as corporate compliance, human resources, finance, risk mitigation, and many others—with no bar exam required.

Before we dive into the main differences between a J.D. and a master’s, it’s worth it to address the many types of legal master’s degree that exist.

Non-J.D. and Post-J.D. Master’s Degrees

The American Bar Association divides law-focused master’s degrees into the following two categories:2

  1. Non-J.D. academic master’s degrees intended for nonlawyers, including:
  • Master of Legal Studies (MLS)
  • Juris Master (J.M.)
  • Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.)
  • Master of Science or Master of Studies (M.S.)
  • Master of Professional Studies (MPS)

Though the curricula in each of these types of programs will differ, they are all designed for those who do not intend to practice law but seek legal knowledge to support their career interests.

  1. Post-J.D. master’s degrees for practicing lawyers and/or foreign lawyers seeking to practice in the U.S., including:
  • Master of Laws (LL.M.)
  • Master of Comparative Law (M.C.L.)

Typically, admission to an LL.M. or M.C.L. requires a previous degree in law, such as a J.D. These degrees are designed for practicing U.S. lawyers who want to specialize in a subfield of the law, such as intellectual property or human rights law, or for foreign-trained lawyers to increase their mastery of U.S. and comparative laws.3

Now that we’ve covered the various types of law-focused master’s degrees, let’s examine the key differences between a J.D. and an MLS program.

The Differences Between a J.D. and Master of Legal Studies (MLS)


What does it take to get in?

Nearly all J.D. programs require you to submit LSAT scores to be considered for admission. The LSAT is accepted by all schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

MLS requirements will vary by program; most require GRE or GMAT scores for admission, but some may be willing to waive this requirement for particularly qualified candidates.

How long will it take to earn my degree?

J.D. programs typically take three to four years to complete. Depending on the program, students may be able to enroll part or full time.

MLS programs generally take only one to two years to complete, and most programs offer both part- and full-time enrollment options. Many programs are designed for working professionals, so students can continue to work full time while taking courses.

Can I take courses online?

Due to strict ABA regulations on distance learning,4 J.D. programs typically require students to attend the majority of classes on campus. However, many master’s in law programs, including Santa Clara Law’s Online MLS in Corporate Compliance, allow you to earn your degree fully online.

What will I study?

J.D. programs provide extensive training in legal analysis, research, and writing. A J.D. qualifies students to take a state bar examination, which is required in most states to practice law.

MLS curricula can vary greatly depending on the program, allowing prospective students to choose a program that specializes in an area of study directly applicable to their current job or a field they wish to enter.

Which careers can I pursue?

While most students earn a J.D. with the intention of practicing as an attorney, a J.D. could also be useful in the following fields: conflict resolution, government and politics, finance, legal writing, academia, and more.5

An MLS can provide unmatched credibility and potential career advancement for those already working in a field where knowledge of the law is crucial, such as compliance, HR, finance, or intellectual property management.

Choose the Right Path for Your Career

For those interested in a career in the law, the path is clear-cut. Want to become a practicing lawyer? Then enroll in a J.D. program. But if you’re interested in boosting your knowledge of the law in a specific area but don’t intend to become a lawyer, consider a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or other law-focused master’s degree for nonlawyers.

The flexible Online MLS in Corporate Compliance from Santa Clara University School of Law can accelerate or launch your career in compliance, HR, risk management, and more. With a curriculum that expands your knowledge of compliance programs, ethics, privacy, regulations, enterprise risk management, and industry best practices, the Online MLS can give you the tools you need to keep your company compliant, ethical, and profitable.

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