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Legal education in the United States
Law school
Trial practice
Legal clinic
Juris Doctor
Master of Laws
Doctor of Laws
Bar examination
Continuing Legal Education
Law School Admission Council
American Bar Association

In the United States, a law school is an institution where students obtain a professional education in law after first obtaining an undergraduate degree.

Law schools in the U.S. issue the Juris Doctor degree (J.D.), which is a professional doctorate,[1][2][3][4][5][6] and for most practitioners a terminal degree.

Other degrees that are awarded include the Master of Laws (LL.M.) and the Doctor of Juridical Science (J.S.D. or S.J.D.) degrees, which can be more international in scope. Most law schools are colleges, schools, or other units within a larger post-secondary institution, such as a university. Legal education is very different in the United States from that in many other parts of the world.



Until the late 19th century, law schools were uncommon in the United States. Most people entered the legal profession through reading law, a form of independent study or apprenticeship, often under the supervision of an experienced attorney. This practice usually consisted of reading classic legal texts, such as Edward Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England and William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.[7]

In colonial America, as in Britain at the time, law schools did not exist. Within a few years following the American Revolution, some universities such as the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania established a "Chair in Law".[8] Columbia College appointed its first Professor of Law, James Kent, in 1793. Those who held these positions were the sole purveyors of legal education (per se) for their institutions—though law was, of course, discussed in other academic areas as a matter of course—and gave lectures designed to supplement, rather than replace, an apprenticeship.[9]

The first institution established for the sole purpose of teaching law was the Litchfield Law School, set up by Judge Tapping Reeve in 1784 in order to organize the large number of would-be apprentices or lecture attendees that he attracted.[10] Despite the success of that institution, and of similar programs set up thereafter at Harvard University, Yale University (1843) and Columbia University (1858), law school attendance would remain a rare exception in the profession. Apprenticeship would be the norm until the 1890s, when the American Bar Association (which had been formed in 1878) began pressing states to limit admission to the bar to those who had satisfactorily completed several years of post-graduate instruction.[11] In 1906, the Association of American Law Schools adopted a requirement that law school consist of a three year course of study.[12]


In the United States, most law schools require a bachelor's degree, a satisfactory undergraduate grade point average, and a satisfactory score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in order to be considered for admission. Some states that have non-ABA-approved schools or state-accredited schools have equivalency requirements that usually equal 90 credits toward a bachelor's degree. Additional personal factors are evaluated through essays, short-answer questions, letters of recommendation, and other application materials. The standards for grades and LSAT scores vary from school to school. For actual admissions statistics, visit

Individual factors are also very important, although applicants are generally not asked to interview as part of the application process. Many law schools actively seek applicants from outside the traditional pool to boost racial, economic, and experiential diversity on campus. Most law schools now factor in extracurricular activities, work experience, and unique courses of study in their evaluation of applicants.[13] A growing number of law school applicants have several years of work experience, and correspondingly fewer law students enter immediately after completing their undergraduate education.[14]

Students considering law school should note that although law school tuition is high, it is not uncommon for law students to receive grants and scholarships, or, more rarely, complete tuition waivers, from their schools. While each school's financial aid system operates differently, there is a rule of thumb relating to GPA and LSAT scores: a student whose grades and LSAT are higher than those of most students admitted to a given school—in other words, a student who could go to a "better" school—has a good chance of being offered some kind of scholarship by the lower-ranked school. Likewise, some law students choose lower ranked schools due to their inability to get into higher ranked schools because of low LSAT scores and GPA, and then transfer to the better schools after their first year of study, provided that they received good grades in the first year of law school. Many highly ranked schools do not accept many transfer applicants due to lack of space in the class, and transferring may make it more difficult for a student to participate in on-campus recruiting from potential employers.


In order to sit for the bar exam, the vast majority of state bar associations requires that an applicant's law school be accredited by the American Bar Association. The ABA has promulgated detailed requirements covering every aspect of a law school, down to the precise contents of the law library and the minimum number of minutes of instruction required to receive a law degree. As of July 2008, there are 199 ABA-accredited law schools that award the J.D., divided between 188 with full accreditation and 11 with provisional accreditation. The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia, a school operated by the United States Army that conducts a post-J.D. program for military attorneys, is also ABA-accredited. The ABA maintains a list of ABA approved law schools. For an explanation of ABA accreditation, see ABA Accreditation Process.

In addition, individual state legislatures or bar examiners may maintain a separate accreditation system which is open to non-ABA accredited schools. If that is the case, graduates of these schools may generally sit for the bar exam only in the state in which their school is accredited. California is the most famous example of state-specific accreditation. The State Bar of California's Committee of Bar Examiners approves many schools which may not qualify for or request ABA accreditation. Graduates of such schools can sit for the bar exam in California, and once they have passed that exam, a large number of states allow those students to sit for their bars (after practicing for a certain number of years in California).

California is also the first state to allow graduates of online law schools to take its bar exam. However, online and correspondence law schools are generally not accredited by the ABA or state bar examiners, and the eligibility of their graduates to sit for the bar exam may vary from state to state. Even in California, for instance, the State Bar deems certain online schools as "registered," meaning their graduates may take the bar exam, but also specifically says the "Committee of Bar Examiners does not approve nor accredit correspondence schools."[15] Kentucky goes further by specifically disqualifying correspondence school graduates from admission to the bar. This applies even if the graduate has gained admission in another jurisdiction.[16]


Law students are referred to as 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls based on their year of study. In the United States, the American Bar Association does not mandate a particular curriculum for 1Ls. ABA Standard 302(a)(1) requires only the study of "substantive law" that will lead to "effective and responsible participation in the legal profession." However, most law schools have their own mandatory curriculum for 1Ls which typically includes:

These basic courses are intended to provide an overview of the broad study of law. Not all ABA-approved law schools offer all of these courses in the 1L year; for example, many schools do not offer constitutional law and/or criminal law until the second and third years. Most schools also require Evidence but rarely offer the course to first year students. Some schools combine legal research and legal writing into a single year-long "lawyering skills" course, which may also include a small oral argument component.

After the first year, law students are generally free to pursue different fields of legal study, such as administrative law, corporate law, international law, admiralty law, intellectual property law, and tax law.

The ABA also requires that all students at ABA-approved schools take an ethics course in professional responsibility. Typically, this is an upper-level course; most students take it in the 2L year. This requirement was added after the Watergate scandal, which seriously damaged the public image of the profession because President Richard Nixon and most of his alleged cohorts were lawyers. The ABA desired to demonstrate that the legal profession could regulate itself and hoped to prevent direct federal regulation of the profession.

As of 2004, to ensure that students' research and writing skills do not deteriorate, the ABA has added an upper division writing requirement. Law students must take at least one course, or complete an independent study project, as a 2L or 3L that requires the writing of a paper for credit. Most law courses are less about doctrine and more about learning how to analyze legal problems, read cases, distill facts and apply law to facts. Legal education focuses on skill-learning, not law-learning.

Many of the top schools in the United States are much more interested in teaching students legal theory and analysis than they are in the specific doctrines or "black letter law". Top schools emphasize theory over practice for several reasons. First, these schools often train legal academics, who will be teaching future lawyers. Second, professors at these schools are often interested in questions of legal theory and legal reform, as they themselves are, and were, often not practitioners. Third, these schools often have the most prestigious journals, and students are encouraged to engage in scholarship in order to publish in these journals.

However, clinical education is very important, and many schools, such as Wisconsin Law School, differentiate themselves with excellent clinical programs. Moreover, students often seek out clinical programs because doctrinal courses offer little in the way of practical training. On the other hand, clinical programs may be emphasized to the detriment of opportunities for more lucrative tracts such as corporate law.

In 1968, the Ford Foundation began disbursing $12 million to persuade law schools to make "law school clinics" part of their curriculum. Clinics were intended to give practical experience in law practice while providing pro bono representation to the poor. However, conservative critics charge that the clinics have been used instead as an avenue for the professors to engage in left-wing political activism. Critics cite the financial involvement of the Ford Foundation as the turning point when such clinics began to change from giving practical experience to engaging in advocacy.[17]

Many law students participate in internship programs during their course of study. In some schools, such as Northeastern University School of Law and the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University, students have the opportunity to pursue co-operative education programs during their legal education careers.

Finally, it should be noted that the emphasis in law schools is rarely on the law of the particular state in which the law school sits, but on the law generally throughout the country. Although this makes studying for the bar exam more difficult since one must learn state-specific law, the emphasis on legal skills over legal knowledge can benefit law students not intending to practice in the same state they attend law school.


Grades in law school are very competitive. Most schools grade on a curve. In most law schools, the first year curve (1L) is considerably lower than courses taken after the first year of law school.

Many schools use a "median" grading system, that can range from any from "B medians" to "C-minus medians". Professors are obliged to determine which exam or paper was the exact median in terms of quality (e.g., the 26th best out of 51), give that paper the relevant grade depending on the system used, and then grade the other exams based on how much better or worse they are than the median. A few schools, such as Yale Law School, Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School and Boalt Law (University of California, Berkeley), and Northeastern University School of Law have alternate grading systems that put less emphasis (or no emphasis) on rank. Other schools, such as New York's Fordham Law School, use a much more demanding grading system in which precise percentages of students are to receive certain grades. For instance, such a system could oblige professors to award a minimum and maximum number of "A's" and "F's" (e.g., 3.5%/7% A's and 4.5%/10% F's). Many professors chafe against the lack of discretion provided by such systems, especially the required failing of a certain number of students whose performance may have been sub-par but not, in the professor’s estimation, worthy of a failing grade. The "median" system seeks to provide some parity among teachers’ grading scales while giving the teacher discretion to award a grade below the median only when deserved.

Even with curved grading, some law schools such as Syracuse University College of Law still have a policy of "Dismissal for Academic Deficiency", in which students failing to meet a minimum GPA are dismissed from the school.[18]

One school which has deviated from the system of competitive grading common to most American law schools is Northeastern University School of Law. Northeastern does not have any system of grade point averages or class rank, Instead, the school uses a system of narrative evaluations to measure student performance.

Pedagogical methods

Most law school education in the United States is based on standards developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell and James Barr Ames at Harvard Law School during the 1870s. Professors generally lead in-class debates over the issues in selected court cases, compiled into "casebooks" for each course. Traditionally, law professors chose not to lecture extensively, and instead used the Socratic method to force students to teach each other based on their individual understanding of legal theory and the facts of the case at hand.

Many law schools continue to use the Socratic method--consisting of calling on a student at random, asking him or her about an argument made in an assigned case, asking the student whether he or she agrees with the argument, and then using a series of questions designed to expose logical flaws in the student's argument. Examinations usually entail interpreting the facts of a hypothetical case, determining how legal theories apply to the case, and then writing an essay. This process is intended to train students in the reasoning methods necessary to interpret theories, statutes, and precedents correctly, and argue their validity, both orally and in writing. In contrast, most civil law countries base their legal education on professorial lectures and oral examinations, which are more suited for the mastery of complicated civil codes.

This style of teaching is often discomfiting to first-year law students who are more accustomed to taking notes from professors' lectures. Most casebooks do not clearly outline the law; instead, they force the student to interpret the cases and draw the basic legal concepts from the cases themselves. As a result, many publishers market law school outlines that concisely summarize the basic concepts of each area of law, and good outlines are highly sought after by many students, although some professors discourage their use.

Legal pedagogy has also been criticized by scholars like Alan Watson in his book, The Shame of Legal Education.

For purposes of passing state bar examinations, some law school graduates find law school instruction inadequate, and resort to specialized bar review courses from private course providers. These bar reviews typically consist of lectures, often video recorded.

Credentials obtainable while in law school

Within each U.S. law school, key credentials include:

  • Law review/Law journal membership or editorial position (based either on grades or write-on competition or both). This is important for at least three reasons. First, because it is determined by either grades or writing ability, membership is an indicator of strong academic performance.[19] This leads to the second reason, which is that potential employers sometimes use law review membership in their hiring criteria.[19] Third, work on law review exposes a student to legal scholarship and editing, and often allows the student to publish a significant piece of legal scholarship on his or her own.[19] Most law schools have a "flagship" journal usually called "School name Law Review" (for example, the Harvard Law Review—although some schools call their flagship journal "School name Law Journal"; see Yale Law Journal) that publishes articles on all areas of law, and one or more other specialty law journals that publish articles concerning only a particular area of the law (for example, the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology).
  • Moot court membership or award (based on oral and written argument). Success in moot court can distinguish one as an outstanding oral advocate and provides a degree of practical legal training that is often absent from law review membership.[20] Moot court and related activities, such as Trial Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, may appeal especially to employers hiring for litigation positions, such as a district attorney's office.
  • Mock trial membership and awards (based on trial level advocacy skills) also can distinguish one as an outstanding trial advocate and help develop "real world" skills that are often valuable to employers hiring for litigation positions.
  • Order of the Coif membership (based on grade point average). This is often coupled with Latin honors (summa and magna cum laude, though often not cum laude). However, a slight majority of law schools in the U.S. do not have Order of the Coif chapters.

State and federal court clerkship

On the basis of a student's credentials, as well as favorable faculty recommendations, some students obtain a one or two-year clerkship with a judge after graduation.[21] It is becoming more common for clerkships to begin after a few years in private practice. Clerkships may be with state or federal judges.

Clerkships are meant to provide the recent law school graduate with experience working for a judge. Often, clerks engage in significant legal research and writing for the judge, writing memos to assist a judge in coming to a legal conclusion in some cases, and writing drafts of opinions based on the judge's decisions. Appellate court clerkships, although generally more prestigious, do not necessarily give one a great deal of practical experience in the day-to-day life of a lawyer in private practice. The average litigator might get much more out of a clerkship at the trial court level, where he or she will be learning about motions practices, dealing with lawyers, and generally learning how a trial court works on the inside. What a lawyer might lose in prestige he or she might gain in experience.

By and large, though, clerkships provide other valuable assets to a young lawyer. Judges often become mentors to young clerks, providing the young attorney with an experienced individual to whom he or she can go for advice. Fellow clerks can also become lifelong friends and/or professional connections. Those contemplating academia do well to obtain an appellate court clerkship at the federal level, since those clerkships provide a great opportunity to think at a very high level about the law.

Clerkships are great experiences for the new lawyers, and law schools encourage graduates to engage in a clerkship to broaden their professional experiences. However, there simply are not enough clerkships to accommodate all the academically eligible graduates.

United States Supreme Court clerkship

Some law school graduates are able to clerk for one of the Justices on the Supreme Court (each Justice takes two to four clerks per year). Often, these clerks are graduates of elite law schools, with Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Columbia, the University of Virginia, and Stanford being among the most highly represented schools.[22] Most Supreme Court clerks have clerked in a lower court, often for a year with a highly selective federal circuit court judge (such as Judges Alex Kozinski, Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson, David Tatel, Richard Posner, to name a few). It is perhaps the most highly selective and prestigious position a recently-graduated lawyer can have, and Supreme Court clerks are often highly sought after by law firms, the government, and law schools. Law firms give Supreme Court clerks as much as a $250,000 bonus for signing with their firm. The vast majority of Supreme Court clerks either become academics at elite law schools, enter private practice as appellate attorneys, or take highly selective government positions.

Criticism of American law schools

Lady Justice

Critics charge that the Socratic Method has fallen into disuse, and little debate occurs in law school classrooms, which are mostly lectures. The faculty at American law schools do not have to answer to the needs of students since their career advancement rests solely on publishing and peer review. Rare is the school where the ability to teach students, and the students' input into the professor's classroom experience, is given enough consideration as to determine the tenure status of a professor.

"In fact, law students learn their subjects on their own. With few exceptions, students avoid faculty as faculty avoid students. The wonderful opportunity to use the classroom as a laboratory to debate and review in an atmosphere that encourages critical thinking is lost." William I. Weston, Law Schools, Heal Thyself, 15 ABA Prof. Law. 24

Critics note the cost of legal education in the United States has made it out of reach for many poor or indebted people, and that applying for enough grants and loans to cover the cost is burdensome enough to discourage many qualified applicants from applying. For these people who enter school regardless, the financial struggle can often take a toll on a student's grades. It also limits the choice of employment for graduates, with many needing to work for large firms to pay their loan and credit card debt. The crushing burden of debt can also encourage unethical behavior.

Critics further charge that law schools are run as businesses with eyes on expansion and reputation, and not enough focus on the students and community they are meant to serve. Because of higher tuition, steady or declining grants and state aid, and a greater dependency on loans, the average student's debt has increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade, after accounting for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.[23]

A further criticism is that the third year of a juris doctor program is unnecessary, and would be better served in full legal employment. However, this view is not held by many students or professors in law school.

At least one state, Washington, has recently enacted a requirement of further (albeit limited) study after law school before a graduate is permitted to practice law.[24]

Law school rankings

The University of Michigan Law School

Many different organizations rank law schools. The U.S. News and World Report's "Top 100 Law Schools," "The Leiter Reports," and the like generate rankings from quantitative factors, e.g. faculty publishing statistics, entering student LSAT scores, percentage of alumni contributing money. More recently,Vault, famous for developing a listing of the prestigious "Vault 100" law firms, has developed a ranking system based on "a unique emphasis on employability".[25] In general, these rankings are controversial, not universally accepted as authoritative, and frequently used for a variety of purposes, e.g. alumni contribution appeals.[26]


Top tier law schools

In contrast, a utilitarian approach to law school ranking looks at the relative employment prospects of graduates of the various tiers. Typically, the most prestigious opportunities in the country (e.g., U.S. Supreme Court clerkships) are filled by graduates of elite law schools.[27] In addition, graduates of these schools typically find promising and geographically diverse employment opportunities upon graduation. Such schools may be considered "top tier".

Regional tiers and lower-tier national schools

Most law schools outside the top tier are more regional in scope and often have very strong regional connections to these post-graduation opportunities. For example, a student graduating from a lower-tier law school may find opportunities in that school’s “home market”: the legal market containing many of that school’s alumni, where most of the school’s networking and career development energies are focused. In contrast, an upper-tier law school may be limited in terms of employment opportunities to the broad geographic region that the law school feeds.

A handful of law schools outside the top tiers are national in scope, mainly those that cater to a unique student niche—such as law schools operated by historically black colleges and universities, or schools with a strong conservative Christian orientation, among them Ave Maria School of Law (Catholic) and the law school at Regent University (Protestant). For example, the class that entered Ave Maria Law in fall 2006 had students from 37 states[28] and the class that entered Regent Law at the same time had students from 39 states.[29] Also, only 21% of the students who entered Regent Law in 2006 were residents of the school's home state of Virginia.[29]

State-authorized schools

Many schools are authorized or accredited by a state and some have been in continuous operation for over 95 years. Most are located in the states of Alabama, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. Some state authorized law schools are maintained to offer a non-ABA option eliminating costly ABA requirements seen as unnecessary by many of these states.

Unaccredited schools

Some schools are not accredited by a state or the American Bar Association. Most are located in California. Such schools in California are licensed to operate by the Committee of Bar Examiners. Their first year students are required to take the First Year Law Students Examination, which then authorizes them to continue their studies in years following. Graduates of these schools may then take the California General Bar Examination. Once they pass the General Bar, they are licensed to practice law in California. However, many other jurisdictions do not allow graduates of unaccredited law schools to sit for their bar examination.

Oldest active law schools

Law schools are listed from the dates from when they were first established to the year 1850.

  1. Marshall-Wythe School of Law (The College of William & Mary) established 1779 (closed in 1861 and reopened in 1920)
  2. University of Maryland School of Law established 1816, held first classes in 1824 (closed during the American Civil War, reopened shortly after its end)
  3. Harvard Law School established 1817
  4. University of Virginia School of Law established 1826
  5. University of Cincinnati College of Law established 1833
  6. Pennsylvania State University (Dickinson School of Law) established 1834
  7. New York University School of Law established 1835
  8. Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington established 1842
  9. Yale Law School established 1843
  10. Saint Louis University School of Law established in 1843 (closed in 1847 and reopened in 1908)
  11. University of North Carolina School of Law established 1845
  12. Louis D. Brandeis School of Law (University of Louisville) established 1846
  13. Cumberland School of Law established in 1847
  14. Tulane University Law School established 1847
  15. University of Mississippi established 1848
  16. Washington and Lee School of Law established 1849
  17. University of Pennsylvania Law School established 1850
  18. Albany Law School established 1851. (Claims to be oldest independent law school.)

See also


  1. ^ Association of American Universities Data Exchange. "Glossary of Terms for Graduate Education". Retrieved 2008-05-26.  
  2. ^ National Science Foundation (2006). "Time to Degree of U.S. Research Doctorate Recipients". InfoBrief, Science Resource Statistics NSF 06-312: 7.   Under "Data notes" this article mentions that the J.D. is a professional doctorate.
  3. ^ San Diego County Bar Association (1969). "Ethics Opinion 1969-5". Retrieved 2008-05-26.  . Under "other references", this discusses differences between academic and professional doctorates, and contains a statement that the J.D. is a professional doctorate
  4. ^ University of Utah (2006). "University of Utah – The Graduate School – Graduate Handbook". Retrieved 2008-05-28.  
  5. ^ German Federal Ministry of Education. "U.S. Higher Education / Evaluation of the Almanac Chronicle of Higher Education". Retrieved 2008-05-26.   Report by the German Federal Ministry of Education analysing the Chronicle of Higher Education from the U.S. and stating that the J.D. is a professional doctorate.
  6. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica. 3. 2002. p. 962:1a.  
  7. ^ Albert J. Harno, Legal Education in the United States: A Report Prepared for the Survey of the Legal Profession (1953), p. 19-20.
  8. ^ Harno, 23.
  9. ^ Harno, 27.
  10. ^ Harno, 29.
  11. ^ Harno, 86-87.
  12. ^ Harno, 95.
  13. ^ Anderson, 53-58.
  14. ^ Anderson, 56-57.
  15. ^ "Law Schools: Correspondence Law Schools Registered with the Committee of Bar Examiners". The State Bar of California. Retrieved 2007-09-13.  
  16. ^ Supreme Court of Kentucky. "SCR 2.014 Legal Education". Kentucky Office of Bar Admissions. Retrieved 2007-09-13.  
  17. ^ Heather Mac Donald. "Clinical, Cynical." The Wall Street Journal. January 11, 2006; Page A14.
  18. ^ "Syracuse University School of Law". Retrieved October 26, 2009.  
  19. ^ a b c Anderson, 43-44.
  20. ^ Anderson, 44.
  21. ^ Anderson, 110.
  22. ^ Brian Leiter, Supreme Court Clerkship Placement, 1991 Through 2005 Terms, Leiter's Law School Rankings, Accessed April 26, 2006
  23. ^ "In Debt, Forever". Chicago Tribune. March 5, 2006.,1,591805.story?coll=chi-news-hed.  
  24. ^ "Admission to Practice Rules: Rule 5(b)". Washington State Court Rules. 2007.  
  25. ^ Top 25 Law School Rankings
  26. ^ Law School Admissions | Rankings
  27. ^ Brian Leiter Supreme Court Clerkship Placement, 1991 Through 2005 Terms
  28. ^ "Entering Class Profile". Ave Maria School of Law. Retrieved November 21, 2006.  
  29. ^ a b "Regent Law Admissions home page". Regent University School of Law. Retrieved November 21, 2006.  

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