Pros and Cons of a JD/MBA – Part 3

Part 3: Short-Term Career Goals

The following entry is the third part 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. Part 2 analyzed 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?

Today, for Part 3, we focus on the impact that a JD/MBA can have on your short-term career goals.

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 short-term career goals, the pros and cons are often more extreme for a traditional law student adding an MBA. The reason for this is that adding a JD to a typical MBA career progression is usually seen as a minor development – potentially interesting, potentially unnecessary, but rarely make-or-break. On the other hand, as we will discuss below, adding an MBA to a law school education can move the needle quite a bit, both for better or worse.

Legal vs. Non-Legal. The easiest way to add some clarity to the short-term career analysis is to split the jobs into “legal” and “non-legal” categories. 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. A good rule of thumb: if your job does not require admission to the state bar, it is non-legal.

Pros, Legal. As discussed last time in the “Opportunity” breakdown, pursuing a JD/MBA will naturally limit your practice area options. You basically set yourself on a path toward a transactional practice, eliminating litigation or any other type of motion practice as a consideration. That said, most people who would want to pair a law degree with an MBA are unlikely to have a strong desire to litigate, so that may not be a huge issue. So long as you are headed in the right general direction, there are several basic advantages to adding the MBA to a legal career.

The first is that it softens 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 second big “legal” advantage to adding the MBA is attorneys with extensive business school experience are often more conversant with their clients. Almost all clients are ultimately business people (even if the voice on the other end of the phone is general counsel, that person still reports to someone) and being able to anticipate their needs, empathize with their challenges, and speak their language makes an attorney far more effective. And making clients happy is a skill that never goes out of style.

Finally, a JD/MBA is shaping up to be the perfect degree path to a career in corporate governance or financial regulation. Business is booming in both industries due to the scandal, fraud, and negligence that has led to the collapse of the financial markets. It is no surprise that the response to “little-to-no oversight” is “more oversight.” Regulation of securities is likely to be ushered (at long last) into the 21st Century, companies are investing more resources in the governance of their own behavior, and there stands to be tremendous growth in both the public and private sectors when it comes to general regulation of financial markets. Lawyers of all kind will be staffed in these roles, but specifically those attorneys with a grasp of financial instruments. A JD/MBA is a great way to both acquire and – more importantly – to signal such a grasp.

Cons, Legal. 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. Law firms have been waging an intense retention battle over the past decade and many of the recent changes at the associate level (salary increases, bonuses, training programs, mentorship, pro bono opportunities, etc.) are the direct result of BigLaw’s fear that their most talented people will simply leave and go work as investment bankers, hedge fund managers, or private equity fund managers. And for good reason! Top lawyers were watching their MBA counterparts make anywhere from two to 10 times as much money while working on similar deals. It came as no great surprise that those attorneys were jumping ship.

Now, however, many of those lucrative counterpart jobs have dried up. 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.

So if there is no red flag (or at least a diminution in the fears of law firms that you will bail), does that mean there is no downside? Not exactly. The other “con” to a JD/MBA is that it can put you a year behind your peers when you receive your degrees through a four-year program. This is critical because a legal career depends more on “year of entry” than virtually any other profession. The people from your class will dictate your quality of life at your firm, your opportunities for professional growth within the industry, and even your chance to move or advance. Falling a year behind your friends and peers from law school is a risky proposition that may or may not be offset by the “pros” listed above.

Pros, Non-Legal. Pairing a JD with an MBA can be a great way to entice a variety of potential employers. Financial industries have long shown a certain curiosity toward MBA students with a JD in tow and you could probably spot check any number of “random” industries – from entertainment to energy to media to health care – and find examples of dual degree holders who enjoyed an advantage in the job market. 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.

Some would add “entrepreneur” to the list of pros, but there is less certainty that a JD/MBA adds a great deal in this area. Basically, two schools of thought compete here: 1) “Pay Now or Pay Later,” which says that you can either pay for legal knowledge to pair with your b-school experience “now,” in the form of extra tuition, time, and lost wages, or you can pay for it “later” in the form of legal fees. 2) “Maybe You Know What Questions to Ask,” which says that the best you can glean from a JD is a loose understanding of legal frameworks and a good instinct regarding which questions to ask and which issues to tackle, but that true comprehension of the legal issues that will confront your business is unattainable and you will wind up paying legal fees anyway. I would add a third notion here, which is that a JD/MBA can provide added credibility depending on the audience, as some investors/customers/business partners/employees may respond more favorably to a law background.

Cons, Non-Legal. There aren’t a lot of huge “cons” to securing both degrees when pursuing a non-legal career. The biggest is also the most basic: you may spend time and money acquiring a degree that ultimately goes unused. Since most MBA career paths are accessible simply by securing an MBA, the 1-2 additional years it takes to nab the JD could wind up being a huge waste.

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.