JD: JD Stands for Juris Doctorate. The typical American law degree. Required to practice law as an attorney in the US.
LLM: LLM stands for Latin Legum Magister. An advanced degree to develop academic expertise in a specific area of law, or for foreign-educated lawyers seeking an education in U.S. law
JD: To sit for a bar exam and practice law somewhere in the US
LLM: To focus in an area of law. Can help with career improvement/opportunities, and mobility.
JD: Three years of study (full-time)
LLM: One year of study (full-time)
JD: Broadly covers the U.S. legal system
LLM: Often focused on a specific area of U.S. law. General programs do exist. Most top-tier law schools with LLM programs have general LLM programs.
JD: A bachelor’s degree, LSAT score, letters of recommendation, and personal statement
LLM: A JD degree or equivalent for foreign-educated lawyers, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and proof of english competency. (You’re already a lawyer so no LSAT!!!)
Now with a little more detail
In the US, a Juris Doctorate (JD) is the term used to describe what degree you get when you attend ‘Law School.’ Law school is a three year program that ends with you graduating with a JD. If you get your JD in the US from an ABA accredited law school then you can take the Bar and practice law as an attorney in any state.
LLM (often written as LL.M.) stands for Legum Magister, which is Latin for Master of Laws. An LLM is a one year degree program which you can pursue after receiving a JD (or international equivalent). An LLM serves two primary purposes. First, the LLM allows you to focus your studies on a single aspect of the law. Second, if you completed your JD (or equivalent) outside of the U.S. then completing your LLM at an ABA approved program allows you to take the Bar in the U.S. and practice law as an attorney.
Both an LLM and JD are law school based post undergraduate degrees that focus on the study of the law. LLMs and JDs usually have access to the same course catalog and professors at a law school. For most classes, LLMs will be in class next to students pursuing their JD. Both LLM and JD programs accept international (meaning non-US citizen or permanent resident) students.
Getting a JD takes 3 years and getting an LLM takes 1 year. When people in the US talk about going to law school they mean getting a JD.
Nearly all LLM programs also require you to write a thesis to complete your program while JD programs usually just have finals for grades.
In order to pursue an LLM you already have to have gone to law school and received a JD, or a JD equivalent from a foreign country.
This means that the LLM is actually a more advanced degree than a JD. For many this order is confusing because the JD is often considered a final degree. Additionally, in the American university system, a doctorate (as in JD) is often considered superior to a Masters. However, in this case the M in LLM stands for the latin word, Magister, and is not a Master’s degree like an MBA.
About 75% of LLM Students in the US are international students who received their JD outside of the US.
For international lawyers who received their JD outside the US, there are two main reasons to get an LLM.
For lawyers who received their JD from a bar accredited law school in the US, the main reason to get an LLM is to specialize in a specific type of law. For example, tax law is a common type of LLM for those with US JDs who choose to pursue an LLM.
JD programs are broad introductions to the law and prepare law school students by providing them a broad range of courses. The first year at all law school programs are nearly identical with students taking primarily black letter law classes such as Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, Real Property, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research and Writing.
LLM programs are often more focused. In a focused LLM program you will take classes for a full year on a specific topic. LLM program types include: Advocacy, Air and Space Law, Animal Law, and many others. Some law schools have ‘general’ LLM programs. When enrolled in these ‘general’ programs students’ schedules are more flexible, but they are still expected to focus their studies on a more narrow topic than a JD program.
Each JD and LLM program is different, but in general LLM programs are smaller than JD programs. Some LLM programs, such as Harvard's, can be as large as 150 people. However, that is substantially smaller than the JD program which is about 1500 people total, or 500 per class.
I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.
Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.