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Legal Education In The US

There is no undergraduate law degree in the United States; thus, students cannot expect to study law without first completing an undergraduate degree. Basic admissions requirements for American law schools are a Bachelor’s degree in any field and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The American law degree is called the Juris Doctor (JD) and usually requires three years of study. The JD program involves courses in American common and statute law as well as international and business law. Overseas students who are considering an American JD should note that this program focuses on preparation for US legal practice.

Undergraduate Preparation for Law School

No particular subject or major field of study is required at the undergraduate level. Law schools are concerned that applicants have taken courses which develop communication and analytical skills, and that they have exposed themselves to a variety of disciplines. The Prelaw Handbook (Association of American Law Schools) suggests students study some or most of the following fields but stresses that “well-developed academic ability” is preferable to intense specialization in any one field: economics, social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science), computers, accounting, and the sciences. Most pre-law students earn their undergraduate degrees in one of the social sciences, rounding out their general preparation with courses from other disciplines. All these subjects may be studied at virtually any university.

Law schools in the US do not require that students complete their Bachelor’s degree in America, but because of fierce competition for places in law schools, few students are accepted from overseas universities.

At the beginning of the final year of undergraduate study, JD applicants should take the LSAT. No knowledge of law is needed to do well on this exam; it is a standardized test of academic aptitude in the areas of reading comprehension and analytical and logical reasoning.

Legal Education

Students thinking of law study soon discover that the programs of most law schools have a great deal in common. The choice of one school over another is not easily made on the basis of catalog descriptions of the teaching methods, course offerings, and formal requirements. The similarity is natural, since most American law schools share the aim of educating lawyers for careers that may take many paths and that will frequently not be limited to any particular state or region. Although many lawyers eventually find themselves practicing within some special branch of the law, American legal education is still fundamentally an education for generalists. It emphasizes the acquisition of broad and basic knowledge of law, understanding of the functioning of the legal system, and development of analytical abilities of a high order. This common emphasis reflects the conviction that such an education is the best kind of preparation for the diverse roles that law school graduates occupy in American life and for the changing nature of the problems any individual lawyer is likely to encounter over a long career.

Within this tradition some schools combine an emphasis on technical legal knowledge and professional skills with a concern for illuminating the connections between law and the social forces with which it interacts. To promote the first, schools provide students with opportunities for the application of formal knowledge to specific professional tasks, such as intensive instruction in legal research and writing during the first year, clinical education, and courses or seminars focusing on concrete problems of counseling, drafting, and litigation.

The second concern is reflected in curricular offerings that devote substantial attention to relevant aspects of economics, legal history, philosophy, comparative law, psychiatry, statistics, and other disciplines. Almost all law schools offer students the opportunity to work on law reviews that are published by them but are student run and edited. The law reviews, of varying quality and influence, publish scholarly work as well as work done by law students. Most schools have a moot court program that uses simulated cases for training in brief writing and advocacy.

Prudent applicants should consider the quality of a school’s faculty and student body and how a school’s view of legal education and its course offerings relate to their own interests and future plans (as to course offerings, more is not necessarily better). Also important are: the character of the school, formal and informal opportunities for joint degrees if the law school is part of a university, library facilities, and placement record. All of these elements, in addition to individual preferences, should be carefully weighed, but no single factor should ever be considered decisive.

Graduate Legal Education

To find opportunities for in-depth specialization or comparative legal study, foreign-trained lawyers should look to US graduate law programs. Short-term training programs offered by US law schools can also provide appropriate options for international lawyers and advanced law students.

About one-third of the law schools approved by the American Bar Association offer graduate degree programs. Most law schools will consider admitting graduate applicants who have earned the equivalent of a JD in countries other than the United States, though some programs with a specific focus on US systems do not. Many others require knowledge of a system that is based in English common law (also known as civil law).

In the US, graduate law degrees are various permutations of the LLM, the MCL and the JSD. These degrees are post graduate to the JD which is after the undergraduate degree. The LLM is a one-year Master’s degree for American lawyers and for foreign lawyers and/or law graduates from common law countries. The MCL is a one-year Master’s degree for civil law lawyers and graduates. The JSD is a doctoral degree, and generally law schools will only consider candidates for a JSD if they already have an LLM degree from that same law school.

The most appropriate programs for foreign lawyers are the Master of Comparative Law (MCL) and the Master of Comparative Jurisprudence (MCJ). Recognizing that legal systems in many other countries differ from common law as practiced in the US, these programs acquaint lawyers from other countries with US legal institutions and relevant specialties of US law. Another possibility is the Master of Laws (LLM). During the period of study, foreign lawyers receive opportunities to observe courts and governmental agencies in the United States. Law schools arrange for foreign lawyers entering graduate study to attend an orientation to American law given by:

The International Law Institute

In general, higher graduate law students are qualified lawyers with several years experience. Some law schools will not consider applicants who do not have a law degree, even though they may be qualified to practice law in their own country. Other American universities do not require a law degree as long as the applicant is qualified to practice in a common law country and, in some cases, has a few years of post-qualification experience. American law schools do not usually give financial aid to foreign students for post-graduate study.

A Master’s degree in law requires one academic year of course work and usually a thesis. Courses are normally selected from the curriculum leading to the first American law degree, the JD, with additional seminars designed for advanced graduate students only. Students may specialize in any area of law in which the university provides courses, or they may choose not to specialize. Some areas of specialization are energy law, environmental law, banking and finance law, intellectual property law, and maritime law.

Generally, but not always, the LLM is geared towards students with a Common Law background, while the MCJ or MCL is intended for students with a Civil Law background. Students are urged to consult law school catalogs for complete information on the programs offered at each institution.

Doctoral programs in law are generally intended to prepare graduates for academic careers. They most commonly award the Doctor of Juridicial Science (SJD) or Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD). There is no difference between the courses of study required for these two degree titles.

It is difficult for a foreign-educated lawyer to gain direct admission to a US doctoral law program. Some schools admit only those students who have already completed that particular school’s master’s program in law. All are likely to expect the equivalent of a master’s degree in law to have been completed somewhere. Exceptionally strong academic and professional work are required.

The minimum residence requirement for doctoral programs in law is usually one academic year. The remainder of the program involves independent research working toward the dissertation, which may take one to three more years. Most programs also require an oral examination.

There are also short-term programs, usually about 30 days in length, which provide visits to US legal institutions. For information about these programs, contact the United States Information Agency (USIA) or the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

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