Law School in the United States

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

law book and gavelLaw schools in the U.S. issue the Juris Doctor degree (J.D.), which is a professional doctorate, and a vocational degree. Although most law schools only offer the traditional three-year program, several U.S. law schools offer an Accelerated JD program.

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.

According to a study by labor economists Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, a law degree increases lifetime earnings by $1,000,000 compared to a bachelor’s degree. This is present value, as of the start of law school, and includes opportunity costs and financing costs. After taxes, the mean present value will be around $700,000. Because law school tuition (less scholarships and grants) is often around $30,000 per year for 3 years, this means that a law graduate with average outcomes effectively becomes $600,000 richer as of the day he or she starts law school. At the median, or 50th percentile, the pretax present value is $610,000 and the after tax value is $430,000. After tuition, the law graduate becomes around $330,000 richer. Even toward the bottom of the distribution, the value of a law degree will typically exceed its costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average salary for lawyers in 2012 was above $130,000. Salaries vary by geography, with higher average salaries in big cities—especially New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles—and lower salaries in rural areas. An unpublished table produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment rates among experienced lawyers are lower than those for most high-income occupations. BLS data also suggests that lawyer employment has grown slightly faster than other occupations, with lawyers comprising a growing share of the work force over the last decade.

However, not all recent law graduates work as lawyers. According to Simkovic and McIntyre’s study of U.S. Census Bureau data, around 40 percent of U.S. residents with law degrees do not practice law. Law graduates are disproportionately represented in leadership positions in business and government. The National Association for Legal Career Professionals produces an annual report summarizing the employment of recent graduates of U.S. law schools at a single point in time, 9 months of graduation. Employment at that point is typically around 90 percent, although from 2009 to 2011, the numbers have been lower, at around 86 to 88 percent. Approximately 2 percent of graduates were employed in non-professional jobs. Approximately 75 to 85 percent work in jobs classified by NALP as “JD required” or “JD preferred”, and another 5 percent work in other professional jobs. However, a law degree increases earnings, even including those who do not practice law.



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.

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”. 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.

The first institution established for the sole purpose of teaching law was the Litchfield Law School, set up by Judge Tapping Reeve in 1784 to organize the large number of would-be apprentices or lecture attendees that he attracted. 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. In 1906, the Association of American Law Schools adopted a requirement that law school consist of a three year course of study.

History of women in law school

Women were not allowed in most law schools during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The “first woman on record to have received a law degree was Ada Kepley from Union College of Law in Illinois (Northwestern)” in 1870. Some law schools that allowed women before most others were Buffalo Law School which “begun in 1887 . . . and open to women and immigrant groups”; University of Iowa which “admitted women as law students” since at least 1869; University of Michigan; and Boston University Law School which started admitting women in 1872. “In 1878 two women successfully sued to be admitted to the first class at Hastings Law School,” one of whom was Clara S. Foltz. Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett founded the Washington Law School for women and men in 1898 (now known as, American University Washington College of Law).

The difficulty of entry of women into the legal profession was further aggravated by the fact that federal courts did not allow women to be admitted as lawyers, which was demonstrated in the famous case involving Myra Bradwell as the plaintiff in Bradwell v. Illinois. The federal courts were subsequently opened to women in 1878 due to a successful campaign by Belva Ann Lockwood.

The elite law schools remained closed to women for a while after. Pushed by the suffragist movement for women, Harvard Law School started considering admitting women in 1899 but without success. Partly in response to the pressures of the suffragist movement and the unwillingness of elite law schools to open their doors, “in 1908, Portia Law School was founded in Boston” which later became the New England School of Law and was the only law school at the time with “an all women student body.” In 1915, due to Harvard’s continued refusal to admit women, the Cambridge Law School for Women was established as an alternative to elite law schools, and was to be “as nearly as possible a replica of the Harvard Law School as is possible to make it.” World War I encouraged the movement toward admitting women to law schools, and in 1918, Fordham Law School and Yale Law School started admitting women. Northeastern University School of Law, at the time a YMCA institution, started admitting women in 1923. Harvard Law School did not admit women until 1950. In 1966, Notre Dame Law School started admitting women.

Despite all of these advances, “in 1963, women had comprised only 2.7 percent of the profession. In the academic year 1969-70, only 6.35 percent of the degree candidates at law school were women.” Attendance of women at law schools did however improve significantly in the next 10 year period. “In 1968, 3,704 of the 62,000 law students in approved schools were women; by 1979, there were 37,534 women out of 117,279 students in approved schools” although still represented in larger proportions in less elite law schools.


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) as prerequisites 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.

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. 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.

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Many law students receive grants and scholarships, or sometimes complete tuition waivers, from their schools. Some law schools condition scholarships on maintaining a certain GPA. 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.


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 193 with full accreditation and 6 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. Non-ABA approved law schools have much lower bar passage rates than ABA-approved law schools. and do not submit or disclose employment outcome data to the ABA.

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 that 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 distance legal education (online and correspondence) 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.” 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.

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 “layering skills” course, which may also include a small oral argument component. Because the first year curriculum is always fixed, most schools do not allow 1L students to select their own course schedules, and instead hand them their schedules at new student orientation.

At most schools, the grade for an entire course depends upon the outcome of only one or two examinations, usually in essay form, which are administered via students’ laptop computers in the classroom with the assistance of specialized software. Some professors may use multiple choice exams in part or in full if the course material is suitable for it (e.g., professional responsibility). Legal research and writing courses tend to have several major projects (some graded, some not) and a final exam in essay form. Most schools impose a mandatory grade curve (see below).

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. Graduation is the assured outcome for the majority of students who pay their tuition, behave honorably and responsibly, maintain a minimum per-semester unit count and grade point average, take required upper-division courses, and successfully complete a certain number of units by the end of their sixth semester.

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.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.

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. Law schools that offer accelerated JD programs have unique curricula for such programs. Nonetheless, ABA-approved law schools with Accelerated JD programs must meet ABA rules.

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.

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