Pros and Cons of a JD/MBA – Part 2

Part 2: Opportunity

The following entry is the second of an ongoing series exploring the pros and cons of the increasingly popular JD/MBA degree path. Part 1 explored finances and the many costs and benefits to securing dual degrees in one educational experience. Today’s post explores the good and the bad with regards to opportunity — what are you gaining by pursuing both of these degrees simultaneously and what are your chances of successfully doing so?

JD vs. MBA Student. As always, any analysis of a single JD/MBA factor must first address the disparity in student “type.” Simply put, law school students and business school students often have very different considerations and in almost all cases, one program is driving the JD/MBA interest more than the other. In the case of opportunity, as with finances, the JD/MBA is often seen as the more attainable and feasible pursuit for the would-be law student, as the opportunity cost is relatively lower than it is for an MBA student. However, due to the differing natures of the admissions process at each program, there may actually be a greater barrier to entry facing the law student in gaining access to the MBA program in question, due to the added importance placed on work experience by many prominent business schools. More on this below.

Sequence. One thing that is important to bear in mind when considering the chances of gaining admission to a JD/MBA program is that there are a variety of ways to arrive at the desired end result. The following are some of the ways that a student might find themselves enrolled in both programs at the same university:

1. Accepted into a three-year JD/MBA program via a single/joint application (notable schools: Northwestern and Duke).

2. Accepted into a three-year JD/MBA program via a dual/concurrent application process (whereby each program makes independent admissions decisions — notable school here is Penn Law/Wharton).

3. Accepted into a four-year JD/MBA program via a single/joint application (notable school: NYU).

4. Accepted into a four-year JD/MBA program via a dual/concurrent application process (all other top schools with JD/MBA offerings).

5. Accepted into a three-year accelerated JD/MBA program during the first year of law school (currently only available at Yale).

[Update: Penn/Wharton also allows first year law students to apply for the three-year accelerated program. Apologies to Penn for the omission.]

6. Accepted into a four-year JD/MBA program during the first year of law school (most schools allow some variation of this).

7. Accepted into a four-year JD/MBA program during the first year of business school (very rare).

8. Accepted into a four-year JD/MBA program during the second year of law school (many schools allow this).

As you can see, there are many ways to arrive at a similar destination. And depending on where you are in the process, the sequencing options will make a big difference regarding your opportunity. We work with a large number of admitted law students who have developed an interest in a JD/MBA late in the process, and so we point them to options 6 and 8 (and 5, if they are going to Yale Law). For someone at the very beginning of the process, we work through all of the sequencing options to decide what makes the most sense, often circling back to the very pros and cons upon which this series is based.

Pros. The biggest advantage to the JD/MBA is that you can consolidate your time. Except in rare circumstances (such as the 1-year MBA program at Northwestern), the combination of a JD and an MBA achieved separately takes five years to complete (two for the MBA, three for the JD). By enrolling in both programs simultaneously, students can boil this process down to four or even three years of school. As discussed in the section on finances, every year saved is both one less year of tuition and one more year that you are out earning income, so this is no small consideration.

Furthermore, there is an argument to be made for “education volition.” Many subscribe to the thinking that most people really only get the ball rolling on a graduate school education once and so if there is interest in both degrees, you would be best served to go after them all at once. In other words, if you don’t do it now, you never will.

The other opportunity advantage that pertains more specifically to law students is that getting into an elite law school can sometimes provide a “backdoor” into a great business school. For someone who may not have the work experience, leadership skills, and analytical abilities to get into Harvard Business School in a typical admissions process, one way around that may be to crush the LSAT, pair it with your high GPA, get into Harvard Law and that walk across the Charles River and ask to be let in to HBS. Is it that easy? Sometimes it is, but not always. We’ll explore the biggest obstacle to this approach in the “cons” section below, but law students do have a relatively good chance of gaining admission to the accompanying business school after enrollment. The odds of having that kind of success corresponds directly to the relative program strength of the law school and business school in question. At the risk of over-simplifying things, here are four university tiers that may help students better understand how this works:

Tier One — MBA is king. At universities like Penn and Northwestern, the MBA program tends to reign supreme. Wharton and Kellogg are more prestigious, relatively speaking, than Penn and Northwestern Law, and the business schools often drive the admissions process for joint degree applicants. The odds of getting into Wharton or Kellogg through the backdoor by gaining admissions to the law school are very low. In fact, the word on the street is that Wharton has grown extremely tired of the practice.

Tier Two — Law School is king. The flip side is when the law school is clearly the flagship school of the two programs, making the transition much easier for JD students. Examples would include Yale, NYU, Columbia, and Georgetown. These are the schools were a law student might even find themselves in a “get this score on the GMAT and you’re in” type of scenario.

Tier Three — Coin toss. At many universities — examples include Chicago, Berkeley, Duke, Cornell, Virginia, and UCLA — it is hard to know which program has the greater relative strength. They are often rated similarly by the prominent ranking systems and have similar national reach. In these cases, you can often assume that the law student will still enjoy the benefit of the doubt and find good opportunities at the business school. This author experienced this first hand at Chicago, where attendance at the law school served as a sort of de facto qualification for attending the business school.

Tier Four — Harvard and Stanford. These two universities belong in their own separate category. Because both are at the top of the heap for both law (usually ranked second and third) and business (often first and second), they qualify for “coin toss” status, except that HBS and the Stanford Graduate School of Business are so competitive that there may not be enough admissions flexibility for even the law students on their own campuses. There is anecdotal evidence to support the notion that Harvard and Stanford law students can indeed migrate over to the business school, but most research suggests that it is more difficult to do so at these programs than other “coin flip” universities.

Cons. The first bit of “bad news” regarding the JD/MBA surrounds the notion of getting in. We’ve danced around this topic above, but the cold, hard truth is that you are doubling your degree of difficulty if you seek acceptance at both a top law school and a top business school. Getting into, say, Anderson is hard enough, but to gain acceptance to the UCLA School of Law on top of that? No easy task. And since there are so few universities that handle the application process jointly, you really have to strike gold twice at the same place in order to get the opportunity you desire.

Even if you try the “backdoor” approach as detailed above, there are considerable risks. By attending a law school to which you gain admission, you are solving one half of the equation and — in most cases — putting yourself in a better position to finish the deal. However, there is no certainty that you will get into the business school in question. While some business schools are trending younger and there are exceptions made all the time for law students who want to add an MBA, a lack of work experience can often prevent a JD from tacking on the MBA. You may also be trying to insert yourself into an over-enrolled class, which is pure bad luck, but can’t be ruled out.

Of course, even if you don’t get into the MBA program in question, there is still the silver lining that you can have a very “business school” type of experience at most law schools (through elective courses, cross-curriculum opportunities, and clinical work), while preserving the MBA for a rainy day. In fact, that is the second “con” to getting both degrees at the same time: you use up your last bullet when you get a JD/MBA. Above, we discussed the school of thought that says you have to capitalize on your educational momentum. There is another school of thought that says to wait and save the MBA as a “get out of jail free” card in case you need to make a career change down the line. Much of this stems from short-term and long-term career goal considerations, which are the subjects of future entries in this series, but each prospective student should give careful consideration to this notion of saving the MBA as a possible career change option.

All told, there is no perfect way to consider this factor in a neat tidy way. Whether it is opportunity cost or mere opportunity that is in question, there are a tremendous number of variables that can impact both the choices students should make and whether they will even have the chance to make them.

For those interested in learning more about JD/MBA programs, exploring whether the degree might be a good fit, or looking for assistance with a JD/MBA application, please explore our JD/MBA admissions consulting services.