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The Importance of Possessing Joint Law Degrees

published May 21, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
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More and more students who are interested in more than just law are opting for programs that combine law with other graduate studies. Whether in the practice of law or in the business world beyond, the J.D./M.B A. combination is hard to beat. We set out the requirements for getting both of these degrees and describe the high points and low points to expect along the way.

There are many reasons to enter a joint-degree program, some more noble than others. Perhaps you have always thought that law was sort of interesting but also knew you wanted something more. Maybe you seek a broader education or the benefits of two educational approaches. You might be trying to find a job that is a mixture of business and law. Perhaps you want to make sure you'll be employable, no matter what the economic circumstances. Or maybe you just want to impress people at cocktail parties.

Many universities offer graduate programs combining various professional degrees (sort of like alphabet soup). Chances are that you could find a program somewhere combining either law or business with one or more of architecture, journalism, medicine, economics, theology, public affairs, or another of the liberal arts. The most common program, however, is probably the law/business combination, known to law schools as the J.D./M.B.A. (and known to the business schools as the M.B.A./J.D.).

The joint J.D./M.BA. program combines the two years of business school and the three years of law school into four years. Note that the J.D./M.B.A. is a joint program, as distinct from a joint degree: you end up with two pieces of parchment, one a J.D. and the other an M.B.A. You must attend two separate schools and be able to juggle your schedule to meet the requirements for two separate degrees.

Are You Really a Masochist?

Your first decision is whether you are ready for four more years of school-not just college, but big bad graduate professional school. You almost certainly will have to go full-time, as pursuing two degrees will keep you plenty busy. By the way, if you plan to go to law school and have any idea that you might be interested in a second graduate degree, do it now-don't kid yourself that you will be able to pick up another degree later. Despite your best intentions, pursuing graduate studies while you are working like mad is extremely difficult, and evening programs are offered at only a limited number of schools.

Why would anyone want to go to both law school and business school at the same time?

While getting both degrees can be a headache, having both degrees has enormous advantages. Two degrees allow you more flexibility in the job market and provide a wider range of opportunities. If you have always had an interest in one specific area of law, following are some of the ways a business degree might fit into your plans.

The Gains

A lawyer with an M.B.A. has more flexibility to leave law and start a career in business. Given the number of young lawyers who grow tired of life at law firms, planning ahead may make sense. The joint-degree program has traditionally been considered good background for a career at a large law firm with a sophisticated corporate law or antitrust practice. An added benefit is that many law firms give joint-degree program graduates an extra year's credit for determining starting salaries and the number of years before consideration for partnership, much as they do for students who have completed judicial clerkships. Many businesses also will pay more to their M.B.A.'s who also have law degrees.

A business degree is particularly useful for corporate (or in-house) counsel, who participates in their company's business decisions to a much greater extent than outside counsel. As lawyers, they are hired in as fairly senior members of the management team and have ready access to senior management. A business degree obviously helps them understand management's goals and objectives more clearly. The corporations most likely to employ in-house counsel include those in regulated industries-such as banks, utilities, insurance companies, and brokerage houses-and large industrial concerns. Many large corporations employ as many lawyers as the largest law firms. Even though the practice of in-house corporate counsel is necessarily specialized-you will learn a lot about insurance law if you work for an insurance company - large companies have a surprisingly varied menu of projects for their legal staffs.

In addition, the curricula of the programs are to some extent complementary. The analytical skills you learn in business school can be useful in law school, and vice versa. The substance also overlaps

School Selection

How do you go about enrolling in one of these J.D./M.B.A. programs? For one thing, you have to take both the GMAT and the LSAT. Beyond that, there really are no prerequisites for law school. Business schools generally like to see that you have some math, economics, and accounting, but don't worry if you are lacking in any of those areas. You will just have to work harder once you are admitted.

Almost every university with a law school and a business school has a joint program. You have to be admitted separately to both the law and the business schools. Remember that if you don't get into both schools (or if you don't initially apply to both), you can always apply to the second school after you have started your first year.

In choosing the right university, consider carefully the strong and weak points of its business and law schools. Where do students get jobs- or do they get jobs? Do the schools draw students and faculty from around the country and have nationwide reputations and job placement, or are they more local? Are the programs at both schools of comparable quality? A university's law school may graduate dozens of federal court clerks each year, while its business school advertises for applicants on the back of matchbook covers.

Note also that while the teaching approach in most law schools is similar, business schools vary. Some take the textbook and blackboard theoretical approach, while others use the case method, which describes an actual business situation and puts the student in the management decision-making role. Many schools combine both, but in varying degrees.

As you may know, for law schools there is an established pecking order of the ten or twenty "best" schools. That order for business schools is less established, and it also varies from specialty to specialty. Some schools are known for finance, some for marketing, some for economic theory, and some for general management.

Also consider how joint-degree students are treated. Do they get scheduling priority if there are conflicts between the business and law schools? Are the law school and the business school even on the same schedule, or is one on the semester system and the other on a quarter system? Wouldn't you love to have midterms and papers due at business school at the same time that you have law school final exams?

Even if you have chosen carefully, your biggest headache once you have selected a university will be schedule conflicts between the two schools. The first two years are easy, at least in terms of scheduling. Typically, you do the first year of one program in its entirety, then the first year of the other program. In the last two years, you condense the remaining year of business school and the remaining two years of law school, essentially by taking fewer electives and having the required courses in each school count as electives in the other.

One entertaining sidelight in going through the two programs is seeing the contrast at one university between two different educational traditions with two very different pedagogical approaches. Law school tends to be more academic, with more emphasis on grades, and teaches you an approach such that you can work well on your own. Business school tends to be more practical, with emphasis on experience, and teaches you skills necessary to work well alone or as part of a team. Some joint-degree program graduates have even noted that business school prepared them better for the practice of law than did law school.

The Pot at the End of the Rainbow

As wonderful as the joint-degree program may sound to you, you should be aware that there are skeptics among potential employers. Some law firms are still taken aback at joint-degree students. Some businesspeople also have grown averse to lawyers (also known as "deal killers"), although many others do feel that if you can't beat 'em, have one join you. In any event, be prepared to answer the question, "So, what ever made you want to do a joint-degree program, anyway?"

If you had trouble deciding between business school and law school in the first place, just wait until you face the choice of whether to start in a business job or in law. Whatever you had planned at the outset, three summers' worth of jobs while you were completing the two degrees will have given you plenty of food for thought.

You should be aware that there are very few jobs, particularly at entry level, that truly let you utilize both degrees simultaneously. If a business-person has a legal problem, it usually gets referred to in-house corporate counsel or an outside law firm. If you are the businessperson in that position, your employer probably would want you to refer the question, notwithstanding the fact that you have a law degree. Similarly, law firms, although many of their clients are businesses, are not paid to make their clients' business decisions-only to point out the relative legal risks and rights. Your business clients will not want you second-guessing their business judgment, even (or especially) if you do have an M.B.A.

Most joint program graduates start as lawyers, but a significant minority start in investment banking or other areas of finance. Most graduates don't want to foreclose their law options, and since law firms are geared up to hire people directly out of law school, making a lateral move after three or four years in business can be difficult. You also probably would not want to start a business career and then take the bar exam years later. On the other hand, if you have a novel idea that combines both degrees, you should go out and find the job that meets your standards. If you take the initiative with a good idea, you will find that many employers are interested in discussing your perspective.

Best of all, there are a variety of jobs you can pursue down the road if you have both degrees. Certainly the most attractive feature of the J.D./M.B.A. program is having the flexibility offered by two of the most generally respected graduate professional degrees offered. And if you were already planning to go to law school, you can get all of this from just one extra year of school !