MSL vs. LLM vs. JD: Which Law Degree Is Best for Your Career Path?

While pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) is a surefire way to practicing law, students can also consider the Master of Laws (LLM) and Master of Studies in Law (MSL) based on their experience and career goals.

From legal shows like Suits and How to Get Away with Murder to high-profile trials covering Robert Durst and Elizabeth Holmes, it’s clear many of us are fascinated by the inner workings of the courtroom — and have maybe even considered pursuing a law career ourselves.

And that isn’t surprising. Law intersects with almost every aspect of our lives, and becoming an attorney is a thrilling, rewarding career path.

While obtaining a Juris Doctor (JD) is the most common way to practice law, there are other degrees — including Master of Laws (LLM) and Master of Studies in Law (MSL) — available to those interested in the field.

To gain a better sense of which degree is best suited for your career goals, we spoke with two experts from USC Gould School of Law: Anne Marlenga, director of special projects and adjunct assistant professor of law, and Nicholas Kajimoto, assistant director of online programs.

Below, they discuss the benefits of each degree, the program requirements and the job opportunities that open up with a JD, LLM or MSL.

What Is a Juris Doctor (JD) Degree?

Is passing the bar exam and practicing law your ultimate dream? If yes, then the choice is simple: You will need to earn your JD degree.

As Marlenga put it, it’s the “bread and butter, traditional law degree,” the basic qualification needed to practice law in the United States.

The three-year, on-campus graduate degree — which began as the Bachelor of Laws (LLB), an undergraduate degree, until it was upgraded in the 1960s — allows students to sit for a bar exam in a particular state.

“If you want to become a lawyer in the U.S., first you complete an undergraduate degree, you earn a JD, you then take a bar exam, which will ultimately allow you to practice law,” Marlenga said.

Of course, she did note there are a couple caveats to that order of requirements, but “they are very rare and don’t really matter unless you watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

For those unfamiliar with the reality show, Kim Kardashian, beauty mogul and criminal justice reform advocate, is currently studying to become a lawyer through the California Law Office or Judge’s Chamber Program, in which aspiring attorneys train under the supervision of an experienced lawyer or judge.

“So, there are other routes if you have the resources, like Kim Kardashian. But for most normal people, they would do a JD degree,” Marlenga laughed.

During a JD program, students learn the basic tenets of law and gain a deeper understanding of legal practices in order to pass the bar exam and launch their careers as attorneys.

It’s worth noting, however, that you cannot obtain a JD online at USC or many other universities. The American Bar Association has approved only nine online JD programs nationwide, all of which have been launched within the past few years. For those who need the flexibility or distance an online program provides, you may want to explore other law degree options.

What Is a Master of Laws (LLM) Degree?

If a JD provides a clear path to becoming a practicing attorney, where does the LLM come in?

While a JD is the prevailing law degree in the U.S., in many other countries, it remains as an undergraduate program. Typically, according to Marlenga, the LLM is for international students who have obtained an LLB or equivalent and are looking to develop a deeper, master’s degree-level understanding of the U.S. legal system.

“Students who seek the LLM don’t normally stay in the U.S. and practice law, but they could take a bar exam after doing the LLM and become an attorney here. It’s less common because law firms tend to seek JD graduates, and it can be difficult for non-citizens to secure a work visa and to obtain public sector work. A lot of students go back to their home countries, and it’s a great boost on their resume that they speak English and can work with American lawyers because they understand the U.S. legal system,” Marlenga explained.

The LLM can also be a springboard for attorneys who are looking to specialize their law education in a new area, said Kajimoto. The online LLM at USC Gould includes seven concentration certificates: Business Law, Entertainment Law and Industry, Compliance, Financial Compliance, Health Care Compliance, Human Resources Law and Compliance, and Privacy Law and Cybersecurity.

“In recent years, many other law schools in the United States have expanded their offerings to include an LLM … for JD graduates who want to specialize in a particular practice area,” he explained.

USC Gould offers multiple program options for the LLM, including in-person, online, full-time and part-time opportunities.

What Is a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) Degree?

What if you want to gain a greater understanding of law, but don’t necessarily have dreams of becoming an attorney? After all, legal expertise is a massive benefit for a myriad of careers, and it’s why many people opt to get their MSL.

“The MSL is a newer program offering for many law schools,” Marlenga noted. “You cannot practice law after receiving this degree, but you learn a great deal about the legal system in order to work in law-adjacent careers.

MSL candidates come from various industries that have high contact with legal processes, like business and entertainment, or work in law-focused roles, such as paralegals and compliance officers.

“We enroll students from a variety of fields and interests. We have students who work in business and entertainment and have exposure to contracts, which they want to be able to understand better, even if they’re not the individuals who are drafting them. We also have students from the health care industry, because there’s all sorts of litigation and compliance issues involved in health care, and they want to learn more about how the law works,” Marlenga said. “I think my favorite brief description of the program is that you can learn to work better with attorneys, not as an attorney.”

USC Gould offers the MSL both on-campus and online. While the online program can only be completed on a part-time basis, the on-campus version can be taken either full- or part-time. The MSL can also be specialized with the same certificates as the online LLM, which ensures you’re concentrating on the area of law you’re interacting with the most.

“Our students obtain the legal knowledge they are seeking to take back to their organizations and improve their work, or to find a job in a new field with specialized legal skills,” Marlenga noted.

Both Marlenga and Kajimoto cautioned, however, that the MSL degree should not be viewed as a steppingstone into a JD. Although many students hope an MSL will better prepare them to get into a top-tier JD program, they are “distinctly separate paths,” said Marlenga.

As MSL courses are designed for students who are not seeking to become attorneys, they approach the law in a very different manner compared to JD or even LLM programs, and MSL credits are nontransferable to a JD degree.

“The American Bar Association (ABA) does not allow students to transfer credits from the MSL to the JD, and so we encourage students to really consider their career goals. We don’t want them to spend essentially a fourth year of law school when they have to retake these classes in a JD program,” Kajimoto said. “Think [of the MSL] as a practical, nonlawyer degree.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that while the JD and LLM are universal degree titles across schools, the MSL takes on different names, such as Master of Science in Law, Master of Legal Studies, Juris Master, Master of Jurisprudence and so on.

Clearly, these three types of law degrees have highly varied curriculums, cohorts and job outcomes, and it’s important to determine what you want out of your career path in order to select a degree program which meets your goals.

As Kajimoto summarized succinctly, “If you would like to practice law, you should pursue the JD. And if you’re already a lawyer and you want to specialize in a particular area of law, then you should pursue the LLM. Lastly, if you don’t want to be a lawyer, but will benefit from having a foundation of law in your career, then the MSL is right for you.”

Learn more about the USC Gould graduate programs today.