MLS vs LL.M. vs J.D.: Which Degree is Right for You?

Many legal positions require an advanced degree such as a Master of Legal Studies (MLS), a Master of Law (LL.M.), or a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. If you’re drawn to a career in the legal field, you may be wondering which advanced degree is the best fit for you. The following information will help you learn about what each degree entails, admission prerequisites and the types of career paths you can pursue with each degree.

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Legal Degree Focuses: MLS vs LL.M. vs J.D.

One way to figure out the differences between an MLS, LL.M. and J.D. is to look at the curriculum description and the areas of focus of each degree. It is important to note that the LL.M. and J.D. have more similarities than with MLS.

Master of Legal Studies (MLS) Degree

An MLS degree prepares individuals who already have a bachelor’s degree or higher education to have a better understanding of legal matters. MLS degrees may provide alternatives for individuals who don’t want to attend law school but do want to increase their legal knowledge.

Some MLS degree students enter the program because they work with legal professionals regularly. Other students work in highly regulated industries, like healthcare or pharmaceuticals. Business owners also become MLS students because they want to be able to handle more legal aspects of their business. An MLS degree helps professionals understand laws and regulations so they can perform better in their roles.

There are dozens of online Master of Legal Studies programs that enable students to enroll in the school of their choice without having to relocate or attend class in person. Rather, students are able to take classes through a connected device, on their own schedule.

LL.M. vs J.D. Degrees Comparison

J.D. degree is a postsecondary law degree that individuals must have if they want to sit for the bar examination, which determines competence to practice as a lawyer in the United States. In some law school programs, students may be required to complete pro bono work, which is legal work for the public good that is done voluntarily and without payment.

One of the main differences between a J.D. and an LL.M. is that an LL.M. degree is designed for students who already hold a J.D. or other first professional degrees in law. If students want to take the bar exam, a J.D. degree will enable them to practice in every state while the LL.M. degree may qualify them only to take the bar exam in a few states. LL.M. degrees are great for lawyers or lawyers-to-be who are interested in studying a specific course or law topic further. For example, a lawyer who wants to work in taxation may pursue an LL.M. program in tax law.

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Differences in Credits Required and Concentrations

Compared to J.D. degrees, it’s worth noting that MLS or LL.M. degrees require fewer credits and less time to complete.

Master of Legal Studies
24 to 40 credits
1 to 2 years
Master of Law
20 – 26 credits
1 year
Juris Doctor
around 90 credits
typically 3 years

Many legal degree programs have concentration tracks that students can choose from.

MLS concentrations may include:

  • Business
  • Healthcare Compliance
  • Technology
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Human Resources and Employment
  • Construction
  • Sustainability

Common courses students take include American common law, legal writing, civil litigation, international law, criminal procedures and more. Sometimes, MLS curriculum is similar to J.D. curriculum.

J.D. programs cover broad theories and concepts within the U.S. legal system, including contracts, civil procedures, legal method and practices, torts, criminal law and Constitutional law.

LL.M. concentrations may include:

  • Tax Law
  • Immigration Law
  • Health Law
  • Estate Planning
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Business Law
  • International Law
  • Securities and Financial Regulation

Some LL.M. programs enable students to customize their program based on their career goals.

Differences on Admissions Requirements

Admission criteria will vary from school to school, but some common requirements may include a resume, personal statement/entrance essays, references and/or writing samples, letters of recommendation, sometimes an interview as well. Apart from these, some requirements differ among MLS vs LL.M. vs J.D. degrees.

MLS Degree Requirements

To apply for an MLS degree program, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree and undergraduate transcripts.

If your undergraduate GPA doesn’t meet the program’s minimum requirements, but you have relevant work experience, you may choose to apply for an MLS program that considers work experience for admissions.

Admissions Comparison of LL.M. vs J.D.

Law school doesn’t require a master’s degree, but it does require a bachelor’s degree.

J.D. degree schools only consider the GPA you received for a bachelor’s degree. Even if you have several master’s degrees, your GPA for those programs may not factor into law school admission. Additionally, J.D. degree applicants must also complete the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for entrance into most U.S. law schools, as well as for some around the globe. The LSAT tests for skills like persuasive writing, logical and analytical reasoning, and critical reading.

Applicants for an LL.M. program in the U.S. must have completed a J.D. degree program or an equivalent law degree. Some schools may require applicants to be licensed to practice law. Having significant experience in legal practice is also favorable for LL.M. applicants. Work and research experience is also typically considered for admittance.

Career Comparison of MLS vs LL.M. vs J.D.

Advanced legal degrees such as an MLS degree expand your career opportunities since legal expertise is useful for an array of industries. Here’s a look at some possible career paths you can take with a legal degree:

MLS Career Paths

There are multiple career options with an MLS degree. For example, you could apply what you’ve learned to your current role, move into a compliance-related role or switch into a role that directly works with attorneys. Some MLS degree holders may use their education as a business owner, entrepreneur, corporate manager or other executive positions that require master’s degrees.

Sponsored Online MLS and Law Programs

Pepperdine University

Caruso School of Law


Master of Legal Studies

  • No GRE or LSAT scores required to apply 
  • Complete in as few as 12 months 
  • Dispute resolution concentration available


Some possible career paths you might take with an MLS degree include:

  • Paralegal: Works with attorneys to prepare for trials or hearings

Learn more on how to become a paralegal with our career guide.

  • Arbitrator, conciliator or mediator: Handles dispute resolution outside of a courtroom
  • Law enforcement, private investigator or FBI agent: Works to enforce the law or investigate crimes and cases

Learn more about pursuing a career in government work.

  • Human resources manager: Manages an organization’s administrative functions and human resources issues
  • Medical and health services manager: Directs medical and healthcare services for hospitals, outpatient facilities or doctors’ offices

An MLS degree that’s specialized in a certain field may help you pursue higher positions in that profession. There aren’t many limits to how an MLS can be applied at work.

LL.M. vs J.D. Careers – Similarities and Differences

The most obvious career path for J.D. holders is to practice law as an attorney. Lawyers work on a variety of cases and issues. Some try cases in court, while others work in-house for corporations. Some attorneys work at government agencies, where they write and interpret laws and regulations and set enforcement procedures.

Other J.D. holders go on to become judges and hearing officers who oversee the legal process in courts and are employed by a federal, state or local government. Just as an MLS degree could help professionals in a variety of industries, a J.D. may do the same. J.D. holders can also work as consultants, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, law professors and legal librarians.

LL.M. degrees may help law school graduates advance their careers. This secondary degree for lawyers is a resume-booster that demonstrates enhanced expertise. It could help a lawyer working in the corporate world obtain a higher position, or enable a lawyer to apply for a new position relevant to the specialty he or she studied.

Some LL.M. degree holders pursue careers as judges or open up specialty law firms. Others pursue careers in finance, politics, or in the field they studied during their LL.M. program. For lawyers who want to move into a new field, obtain a higher position in their current field, or open up their own firm, an LL.M. degree can pave the path.

Which Legal Degree is Right for You?

Before you pursue a legal degree program to advance your law career or to enhance your professional skill set, consider which career goals you want to achieve.

  • A J.D. degree is essential if you know you want to be a lawyer.
  • If you’re already a lawyer or holding a J.D. degree and want to advance your career, an LL.M. degree may benefit you. If you are an international attorney with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) who wants to take the bar exam and practice law in the U.S., obtaining an LL.M. degree will be a shorter path compared with J.D..
  • If you want to expand your legal knowledge but don’t want to spend three years in law school, you might consider an MLS degree. With options like online Master of Legal Studies programs, you can increase your knowledge and continue to work full-time or part-time as you learn.

Frequently Asked Questions on MLS vs. LL.M. vs. J.D.

What are the core differences between MLS vs. LL.M. vs. J.D.?

A J.D. degree qualifies students to be eligible to sit for the bar exam. An LL.M. degree is designed for those who hold a J.D. degree. An MLS degree is designed for those who don’t want to be a lawyer but need legal knowledge in their work.

Is an LL.M. degree higher than a J.D. degree?

Not exactly. While students typically need to hold a J.D. degree before applying for an LL.M. program, the two degrees serve different purposes. In most states, a J.D. may qualify students to sit for the bar exam but earning an may LL.M. not.

LL.M. vs. J.D: Is an LL.M. degree a better choice than a J.D. for foreign lawyers if they want to practice law in the U.S.?

Earning an LL.M. degree does not qualify students to sit for the bar exam in every U.S. state. This also applies to international lawyers who earned their designation outside of the U.S. Each state’s bar determines eligibility requirements to practice law.

MLS vs. J.D.: Is an MLS or J.D. right for me if I don’t want to practice law?

It’s a personal choice and you should ask yourself: What are your career goals? What legal knowledge do you expect to have and may help you succeed? How much time and money are you willing to invest? How much time do you have to prepare for standardized tests, such as the LSAT or GRE?

Information on this page was last retrieved in August 2020.