A look at law schools, master’s degree alternatives and certificate programs in the Seattle area.

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Maybe you couldn’t stop watching courtroom dramas. Or your mom always wanted you to become lawyer (you’re skeptical – as lawyers often are). Perhaps you’ve always wanted to pass judgment on others without social repercussions.

If you’re curious about the post-baccalaureate legal field, career court is now in session. Here’s a rundown of legal degrees and options from regional schools.

Lawyer: The Big J.D.

Seattle is home to two of the three ABA-approved law schools in Washington state: Seattle University, University of Washington and Gonzaga University, a private college in Spokane.

To apply, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required, but your field of study is up to you. Pre-law students might choose to study economics, criminal justice or world cultures to prep for a legal career, for example.

Instead of a GRE score, applying to most law schools requires sitting for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), which is given four times per year and offers a test of logical reasoning, including reading, logic problems and games, and an experimental section — but it isn’t revealed which section is the one being tested. You’ll also craft a writing sample, which isn’t scored, but sent along with your LSAT score to law schools. More than a dozen law schools have begun accepting applicants’ GRE scores, including Harvard and Georgetown, but none yet in Washington state.

Courses in law school might include administrative law, contracts, civil law, tribal law, and trusts and wills. After completing the program, you’ll earn a Juris Doctorate, then sit for the Washington Lawyer Bar Examination, administered twice a year by the Washington State Bar Association. Passing qualifies you as a lawyer and bar admission. Lawyers must complete 45 hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) every three years to maintain a license.

At UW, students can specialize by taking one or many of nine concentration tracks, including Asian Law, global business, public service, or health, or sub-concentrations in regulatory compliance or general corporate counsel. UW is hosting a application information session on Master of Jurisprudence admissions on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Room 119 of William H. Gates Hall on its Seattle campus.

J.D.s are typically undertaken on a full-time basis, although there’s a part-time program for working professionals at Seattle University, and an accelerated program at UW, which allows mid-career professionals and those under time constraints to wrap up their J.D. in eight consecutive quarters (two years) rather than the typical nine-quarter/three-year approach.

Master of Laws (LLM) is offered at several universities, and is essentially an add-on degree for those already holding a J.D. At UW, LLM programs include Asian and Comparative Law, Intellectual Property and Sustainable International Development. At Seattle University, LLMs “provide attorneys with additional training in a specialty area, such as technology law, elder law, or tribal law,” says Erica Wolf, the university’s director of graduate law programs. Another type of LLM at Seattle U is for lawyers holding a law degree from a foreign country who will take the bar in the U.S.

Baby boomers are causing a swell in the senior population until 2050, according to the Census Bureau, so an LLM in Elder Law is becoming a popular choice. The program trains attorneys to help represent and advocate in senior-related legal areas, such as health care coverage, age discrimination, estate concerns, retirement planning or long-term care financing. Courses at UW include those on public benefits, estate taxes and a clinic on Indian trusts and estates.

Master’s alternatives

Seattle University accepts students into the Master of Legal Studies, a 30-credit program geared toward working professionals hoping to enhance their legal understanding. MLS tracks include business development, health law, innovation and technology law, and tribal law and governance.

What’s the difference between a J.D. and a MLS? “The J.D. is ideal for candidates who would like to take the bar exam and become practicing lawyers, where they can represent clients and advocate in court,” Wolf says.

“The MLS is specifically for those candidates who need knowledge of the law as it relates to their field or area of interest, but who are not interested in practicing law,” she says. “For example, a candidate interested in doing compliance work or working in the legal field can benefit from an understanding of the law.”

Northeastern University, a Boston-based university with a Seattle satellite, offers a doctorate in law and policy. This program is aimed at experienced government, for-profit and nonprofit professionals, with the primary focus on legal reasoning, research and analysis of public policy. A mix of online learning and four-day, Seattle-based residencies takes students up to 24 months to complete.

Certificates

Many local universities and community colleges offer a variety of certificates in various legal programs. For example, North Seattle Community College’s Center for Legal Studies offers certificate courses in legal nurse consultant training, legal secretary, legal investigation, victim advocacy and advanced legal research and writing.

UW’s Professional and Continuing Education department offers a Certificate in Guardianship, after which the recipient can apply with Washington Courts to act as an effective guardian of developmentally disabled adults, elderly individuals with diminished capacity and other adults declared incapacitated by the courts.

Paralegal certificates are a popular option, as evidenced by the availability at many local schools. Paralegals might research laws, investigate and analyze patterns, gather evidence, interview witnesses or prepare legal documents. Programs vary widely in length, time of day offered (or online), cost and prerequisites. Advanced Paralegal programs are offered at North Seattle and Seattle Central Colleges, with topics such as victim advocacy, water law and constitutional law.

At Highline College, the Paralegal Plus certificate is designed for those students who already have a minimum of a four-year degree in any discipline.

Students who already have a bachelor’s degree are valued by certain legal settings — for example, managerial or directorial positions. “Our graduates have also been employed as legislative assistants in Olympia, and those positions typically are preferential to college graduates,” says Buzz Wheeler, the coordinator of the Legal Studies Department at Highline College.

Students might choose a paralegal program before jumping into the “deep end” of a J.D. program for several reasons, Wheeler notes. “They may have had a pronounced interest in the law and wanted to be employed as a legal professional, but are a bit intimidated by the aura of law school and the expense that accompanies it,” he says. “They may also not be sure if they would like the study of the law as much as the idea of it.” In most such cases, students enjoy law studies and discover an aptitude beyond interest, he says; at least 10 students graduated from Highline’s paralegal program, then attended law school and became lawyers.

Others pursuing a paralegal certificate want to work in the legal field, but don’t desire a lawyer’s liability or responsibility. “They can be quite capable and competent but they want the ‘insurance’ of knowing that their work is going to be overseen and supervised by a lawyer,” Wheeler says.

Alternative dispute resolution — or mediation — is another career option, focused on settling disputes. While there is no official mediation certification process in Washington state, certificates in alternative dispute resolution are offered by colleges such as North Seattle. The Dispute Resolution Center of King County provides a 40-hour Basic Mediation Training over 18–24 months, which offers theory, demonstrations, discussion and practice alongside professional mentors.

A final judgment on which educational option is the right fit requires extra research, attending informational sessions or chatting with admissions officers. Career court is adjourned.