Is a JD/MBA Right for You?

Mmm… the best of both worlds.

We get a lot of calls from applicants who are thinking about pursuing a JD/MBA. With potential paths into almost countless professional opportunities, such a degree seems the a can’t-miss, best-of-both-worlds prospect, right? Especially in an uncertain job market, why not invest a little extra in one’s education now and be in an even better position to succeed down the road?

We do like JD/MBA degree for a lot of reasons, and love some of the newer, more innovative joint-degree programs that some leading universities have rolled out in recent years — see our coverage of recent announcements at Columbia, Yale, and Penn — but we end up talking a majority of these JD/MBA candidates out of one degree or the other.

Why? Because these applicants rarely have thought through all of the implications of pursuing both degrees.

We’re not here to tell you a JD/MBA is a bad idea. We think it’s a terrific program, but it’s certainly not for everyone. With that in mind, here are three things you should ask yourself before applying:

How Much More Will You Spend on Your Education?
A joint degree often makes more sense for a law student seeking to add the MBA than a business school student thinking about pursuing a JD. This is true for a simple reason: law school is a longer program. Since most JD/MBA programs are four years in length (the most notable exceptions are Northwestern, Duke, and Penn, all offer three-year programs), it is only one extra year for a law student, yet it is double the length for an MBA student.

For an MBA student, the financial advantages to a JD/MBA are sometimes hard to identify but it usually comes down to versatility. A JD/MBA may not increase immediate earning power, but it will provide some security in a recession economy. Lawyers are seeing bonuses minimized and salaries frozen, but for the most part they are keeping their jobs. “Legal” is often the last budget item to get cut. Therefore, it can be quite comforting to have a JD in a time when Wall Street banks are transforming into nationalized institutions, right down to the government jobs. For law school students, the benefits of adding an MBA are more immediate and more tangible. Most (not all) top law firms pay a JD/MBA bonus that is equitable to a low-level federal clerkship bonus ($15K-$30K), and many will start an incoming associate with a JD/MBA at a second-year salary.

On the other hand, there is the increased cost to consider. A four-year program requires staying in school for at least one more year (two if you are an MBA student), while three-year programs feature higher annual tuition rates due to the summer coursework. However, this is only part of the equation. You also need to account for the lost earnings during that additional year of school. Many people use the wrong calculus here, adding in housing and living expenses (you are going to have to pay for those things whether you are in school or working), but ignoring the wages they fail to garner.

What Career Do You Want to Pursue in the Short-Term?
What you want to do right after you earn you graduate will have a big impact on whether or not you should add the second degree. At the highest level, you can break this down into legal careers and jobs outside of the legal field. Legal careers include general counsel work, public interest work, academia, and, of course, practicing at a big firm. Non-legal careers are basically anything else that does not require admission to the state bar.

Assuming you want to pursue a legal career, adding an MBA can soften the learning curve. Many corporate attorneys will tell you from firsthand experience that this advantage is short-lived as you quickly acquire the knowledge you need, but there is no denying that a new associate can come out of the gates with more confidence and can perform tasks more quickly if they have a solid understanding of the business principles in play. Merely possessing a comfort level with the vocabulary can make a world of difference. There is nothing that feels worse than having a senior associate explain mezzanine loans to you or map out an org chart on the back of some scratch paper. Again, it is really only relevant during the first 18 months or so of your practice, but that is increasingly becoming a good chunk of a corporate attorney’s shelf life.

The biggest downside to securing an MBA on the road to a legal career (beyond the financial and opportunity costs outlined in previous posts) is the perception it might create among potential employers. Simply put, a JD/MBA is often seen as a “red flag” at law firms, due to increased flight risk presented by the JD/MBA applicant. That said, this stigma is starting to go away and for good reason: there’s nowhere to fly off to. Many of those lucrative counterpart jobs have dried up in the wake of the financial markets’ meltdown. So while a JD/MBA is still looked upon with some measure of suspicion by many BigLaw firms, the fear that they are hiring a banker-in-training is starting to go away.

For non-legal careers, pairing a JD with an MBA can be a great way to entice a variety of potential employers. However, for the most part, there is only one traditional MBA career path that consistently rewards and appreciates the JD/MBA degree: management consulting. Many elite consulting firms prefer law students over their business school counterparts due to the critical thinking, logical reasoning, speaking, and writing skills that are often produced at top law schools. However, the downside with a JD is that he may or may not know the first thing about business. Therefore, adding an MBA – and the presumed quantitative skills that come with it – is an easy way to put those fears to rest and present a “best of both worlds” scenario to consulting firms.

What Career Do You Want in Five to Ten Years?
If you pursue a legal career right out of school, there are two ways in which earning an MBA, in addition to a JD, can help you. The first role in which a joint degree can help is as a partner at a law firm. There are a variety of “soft” skills necessary to performing the tasks of an elite law firm partner, including negotiation, human resource management, rainmaking (i.e., sales), and expansion -– all key elements to growing a practice and a book of business. Being an associate is about acquiring the skills to be a great lawyer, but by the time the firm is looking to mint new partners, they assume technical legal skill and start looking for the other areas so they can bring in more business. Versatility can also help in transitioning from a firm to a company — i.e., “going in house.” A general counsel position requires more understanding of business concepts, challenges, shortcomings, and everything else that is necessary in order to successfully operate within a large organization. Having an MBA and, more importantly, having worked with MBA students, is a huge asset when transitioning into that world.

Assuming you pursue a non-legal career right out of school, the advantages of a JD/MBA are similar: It can be a huge asset in reaching the upper echelon of a corporate hierarchy. Just as an MBA can help a lawyer transition into business, so too does a JD often put an executive over the top as a CEO candidate. It is not so much legal knowledge that a CEO needs but rather the skills and tools that lawyers often possess –- the ability to understand regulatory frameworks, a comprehension of deal timelines, recognizing transaction costs, and (this is the big one) knowing which questions to ask in a given situation. Lawyers often prove to be the best CEOs and a quick look at the Fortune 100 shows that companies are certainly aware of that fact.

Still think a JD/MBA may be right for you? Give us a call at (800) 925-7737 and speak with one of our admissions consulting experts. To stay on top of all of the news and trends in grad school admissions, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!