Pros and Cons of a JD/MBA – Part 4

Part 4: Long-Term Career Goals

The following entry is the fourth part of an ongoing series exploring the pros and cons of the increasingly popular JD/MBA degree path. The first three posts focused on:

Part 1 – Finances
Part 2 – Opportunity
Part 3 – Short-Term Career Goals

Today, for Part 4, we focus on the impact that a JD/MBA can have on your long-term career goals.

JD vs. MBA Student. In each of the three previous explorations, there has been a heavy focus on drawing distinctions between traditional law students and those that would pursue an MBA path. There are myriad near-term considerations that are informed greatly by which degree would be the “lead” area of study and subsequent career path. In the case of long-term career goals, there is less need to distinguish, because you are looking at the end of the funnel. Whether someone starts out as a lawyer or a banker or something else entirely isn’t as crucial as the tools and skills that dual degrees may (or may not) provide down the road.

Legal vs. Non-Legal. As with short-term career considerations, the easiest way to add some clarity to the long-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. The biggest advantage to a JD/MBA during a long legal career is that lawyers are likely to possess a versatility that can help on two levels. The first 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 (or simply “sales,” as nobody seems to want to call it), 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. This is especially true at firms where there are few “institutional” clients where partners can be stashed (such as “Boeing partners” or “Disney partners”) with no pressure to bring in business.

The second area where versatility can help a great deal is in transitioning from a firm to a company – aka, “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.

Cons, Legal. The only real downside to a JD/MBA over the long haul in a legal career is that you might increasingly wonder whether you ever needed the MBA degree. Each year that someone practices or studies the law, they will increase their level of subject matter expertise. So for a corporate attorney or a venture capital transactions professor, the knowledge they will possess a few years into their career will dwarf what they might have learned in an MBA program.

Pros, Non-Legal. The biggest advantage to a JD/MBA as it relates to a long-term, non-legal career path is that it often makes it all possible in the first place. An MBA can be an ace-in-the-hole for someone looking to shed the lawyer tag and move into an executive position. We’ve seen lawyers become business professionals in sports, entertainment, consumer goods, technology, health care, finance, education (including your author), and a host of other industries.

Another big advantage is that the combination of a JD and an MBA is extremely helpful 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.

Cons, Non-Legal. As with the legal track, there aren’t a lot of “cons” to a JD/MBA over the long run. One longstanding issue was that acquiring both a JD/MBA at the outset of a career might eliminate the use of business school as a “reset button” later in one’s career should legal work not prove to be an ideal choice. However, given the pressure on b-schools to place their graduates into great jobs in a tough economy, the reset button aspect of an MBA has all but evaporated at most top programs. Frankly, business schools simply are not looking for unhappy lawyers who want to start over. Therefore, being in prior possession of an MBA degree – and the experience that comes with it – is probably the best bet for making a career shift.

All told, long-term career goals are often where the JD/MBA path starts to make the most sense no matter what you have in mind. It is almost all upside and very little downside at this stage in the game, as most of the real “cons” have already been navigated through the process of gaining admission, paying for it, and getting a career off the ground.

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.