Applying to Law School With an Associate Degree | Law Admissions Lowdown

Welcome to the latest installment of Law Admissions Q&A, a feature that provides law school admissions advice to readers who send in inquiries. If you have a question about law school admissions, email us for a chance to be featured in a future post.

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Can I apply to law school with an associate degree? I have been told I can only apply with a bachelor’s degree. If so, please advise. – ML

The answer to this question is surprisingly complicated and depends on your state. Thus, there is a lot of misleading and conflicting information online.

First, let’s back up. In the U.S., unlike most countries, law is a graduate program of study.

To practice law, you must pass the bar exam of a state or territory. And nearly every state requires lawyers to have a J.D., or Juris Doctor, degree. The few exceptions, like California, offer a less-used path of supervised legal apprenticeship.

While some colleges offer prelaw programs or majors in legal studies, law applicants come from a wide range of fields.

The lion’s share of law applicants have a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent, but there are some exceptions. For example, accelerated B.A.-J.D. programs allow eligible undergraduates to transition from college to law school a year early.

But what about applicants with a two-year associate degree? Do they need to transfer to a four-year program or can they apply directly to law school?

The answer depends on the state. Check the rules for bar eligibility in the state where you plan to practice law, not where you currently live or plan to attend law school.

Each state bar should post these rules online, but for a general reference, see this compendium of state rules by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

As you can see from the chart on that site, 30 states plus the District of Columbia do not set any specific education requirements besides a J.D., while 20 states do.

Of those 20 states that do have a prelaw education requirement, some clearly cover associate degrees. California and Michigan only require two years of undergraduate study, for example. Maryland and North Carolina merely require bar applicants to satisfy the educational requirements for admission to an accredited law school.

On the other hand, several states do require a four-year bachelor’s degree, including some with major legal markets like Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

New Hampshire and Nevada require three years of undergraduate study.

Even if an associate degree satisfies the rules of the state in which you plan to practice law, be sure to check the requirements of the law schools that you plan to apply to. Many law schools set stricter eligibility requirements than the bar.

Schools post these requirements online, but you can always call or email their admissions department to confirm.

Also note that some employers or legal specializations may also have specific educational requirements. For example, the patent bar requires a bachelor’s degree, which must be either in a scientific field or supplemented by classes or experience that demonstrate knowledge of science or engineering.

Finally, if you are able to apply to law school with your associate degree, it is wise to use your application materials to showcase academic skills like reading, writing, reasoning and oral communication. Even if your transcript does not show low grades, be sure to secure excellent recommendation letters from your professors and a strong resume and personal statement.

Just to be safe, you may want to transfer to a four-year program to show you can handle rigorous classroom work, including major papers and other academic research projects.

But if you want to save time and money, it may make sense to skip a bachelor’s degree. In most states, that is not a requirement to practice law.

Janelle B. Smith

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