What is a J.D. Degree in Law Mean?

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

A juris doctor, or J.D., is an academic degree awarded to an individual at the completion of a period of study at a law school. The holder of a juris doctor must take a bar examination given by the state in which the person desires to be admitted to practice law. The J.D. is a relatively new degree, having been first awarded in the 1960s, that was created to replace the bachelor of laws, or L.L.B., that law schools had been awarding to graduates.

Acquiring the Knowledge to Practice Law

The training of lawyers began as an apprenticeship program in which aspiring attorneys worked in the office of an established lawyer in what was known as a clerkship. The young clerk was expected to read the law and acquire the skills necessary to satisfy the attorney that the clerk was ready to join the ranks of established members of the legal profession.

The process of admission to the bar during the clerkship era involved a motion by the attorney to the court asking that the clerk be added to the rolls of those admitted to practice law in the state. The process usually concluded with the court clerk making an entry of the new attorney?s name into a ledger containing the names of all those admitted to practice law in the state.

The First Law Degrees

Law schools came into prominence following the Civil War. Law schools offered a system for the education and training of prospective lawyers that could eliminate the wide variations in knowledge and skills produced under the clerkship system of legal training.

Entry into law school required at least two years of college, but eventually this was changed to a requirement of a four-year college degree for entry into a three-year program of study at a law school. Upon completion of their studies, law students were awarded a bachelor of laws.

Emergence of the Juris Doctor

By the 1960s, the academic world and the legal community questioned the continued awarding of what was essentially a bachelor?s degree to a law school graduate. The juris doctor was adopted to replace the L.L.B. and give recognition to a law degree as a professional degree on a par with the degrees earned by medical school graduates.

Most law schools today award graduates a juris doctor. A juris doctor is not a terminal degree. Holders of a J.D. can return to law school and pursue a graduate course of study leading to a master of laws or L.L.M. The terminal degree in the study of law is the doctor of judicial science or S.J.D.

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