How Long Is Law School? Law Degree Timeline

A sash for Commencement, indicating graduation from law school

Patricia Marroquin / Getty Images 

Law school is typically three years long. In a standard J.D. program, this timeline does not vary unless a student has extenuating circumstances and receives special permission to extend the length of their studies. 

There are a couple of exceptions. Some law schools offer part-time programs, which last four years. In addition, if you are pursuing a dual degree, it generally takes longer than three years to complete the law school program. 

For the vast majority of students, the law school experience follows the three-year timeline. Here’s what to expect during each year of law school.

The First Year (1L)

The first year (1L) of law school often surprises students because of how different it is from the undergraduate years. Most students will tell you that there’s no such thing as an “easy” first year of law school, even if you excelled in your college courses. The first year is all about learning the basics of a legal education and getting accustomed to new teaching and learning styles.

All law students take the same first-year courses: civil procedure, torts, criminal law, contracts, property, constitutional law, and legal research and writing. Before the school year even starts, professors will expect students to check the posted syllabus and read the material for the first day of class. Once the year begins, first-year students should expect to dedicate several hours of intense study every day, with minimal breaks for lunch and dinner. Students must treat the first year like a job. 

Most classes start at 8:00 a.m in the morning and continue through the afternoon. In between classes, students read, study, and prepare for the next day. In class, professors question students via the Socratic method. To succeed, students must be able to synthesize and discuss cases proficiently—you never know when a professor will ask you unexpected questions about applying the rule of law from last night's reading. If you don't understand a concept, go to a professor's office hours.

Tip

Start your course outlines at the beginning of the semester and form study groups to discuss cases with your classmates. These study habits will help you succeed throughout all three years of law school.

In most first-year classes, grades are based on a single exam that covers the entire semester. Grades matter a great deal in the first year of law school, especially if you aspire to clerk for a judge or secure a summer associate position at a big law firm. Clerkships for judges and prestigious law firms are based on grade point average. Prominent law firms recruit from the top 20% of the student body and law reviews pick staff from those who excel during the first year.

1L Summer 

For students who place at the top of the class, it is possible to secure a clerkship with a judge. Large firms won’t typically hire first-year students, but those who want to gain experience can determine whether small or medium firms are interested. Those who want to take a break could return to a non-law job and volunteer for a professor in an area of interest. Public interest organizations have a small staff and will likely want extra help. This is a perfect opportunity for those who want to pursue positions in the public sector. 

The Second Year (2L)

By the second year (2L), students are accustomed to the grueling schedule and have some freedom in choosing classes based on interest. However, there are certain recommended classes that second years should take, like administrative law, evidence, federal income taxation, and business organization. These classes build on the foundation of the first-year classes, and the topics they cover are relevant to virtually any area of legal practice.

There's more to juggle in the second year than the first year. Second-year students participate in moot court and law review, and some might work part-time at a law firm for additional experience. During the fall semester, students who wish to pursue a summer clerkship must complete on-campus interviews. These summer positions may lead to permanent places of employment.

The second year of law school is the time to hone in on a particular area of interest. Take courses in your desired area of law. If you aren't sure what you want to practice, make sure to take a variety of classes, and consider taking a class with any distinguished professors in your law program. While the focus of the second year is academics, students should also begin familiarizing themselves with the bar exam and perhaps look at the test requirements and prep courses to facilitate a passing score. 

2L Summer 

After the second year of law school, many students choose to complete a clerkship with either a judge or a law firm. Clerkships offer practical legal experience and often lead to permanent employment, so it's crucial to be professional and work hard. Other students might consider reviewing bar exam material or dedicating the summer to practice tests during the 2L summer. 

The Third Year (3L)

Third-year law students are focused on graduation, the bar exam, and securing employment. Students interested in litigation should pursue clinical work or an externship with a supervising attorney. The third-year also involves meeting any outstanding graduation requirements. For example, some law schools have a pro-bono requirement, which entails spending a certain number of hours volunteering in a legal capacity, like a clinic or government agency.

Tip

Don't slack off by taking "fluff" classes during your third year. Your coursework should be focused on the areas of law you wish to practice.

The bar exam, which students take after graduation, looms large during the third year. It's important for 3L students to begin familiarizing themselves with the material on the exam. Equally important is logistical planning. Most jurisdictions offer only two test dates per year, so 3L students must plan ahead in order to be prepared. The law school career services department can offer assistance with regard to navigating the job market, securing employment, and preparing for the bar exam.

After Graduation 

After graduation, law school grads dedicate themselves to bar exam preparation. Most students opt to take a bar review class and then go over their notes during the afternoon and evening time. Some students balance bar exam prep with a job. Many firms emphasize that permanent employment is conditional on passing the bar exam. Those who haven’t secured a job will likely see chances of employment increase once bar results are released.