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Introduction to the JD/MBA Dual Degree

Published May 2010, last updated June 2010

Overview

Many students headed to law school are also interested in business; indeed, the legal and business worlds have a substantial intersection. The largest law firms all have businesses for their primary clients, after all, and two of the most prominent areas of practice for these large firms are ‘mergers and acquisitions’ and ‘corporate litigation.’ Law firms also frequently have tax and commercial real estate practices whose clients are these same corporations. This relationship works both directions, since law is essentially the mechanism by which business is actually carried out (read: contracts).

Law students, however, receive little to no training in business management or in business finances while in law school, while business school students’ educations correspondingly lack training/certifying classes in the mechanisms of contracts. The ultimate solution for those seeking training in both is the JD/MBA joint degree.

Curriculum and Admission

Most universities that have law schools and business schools allow students to enroll jointly in both schools if they can gain admission to both (in fact I don’t know of any qualifying universities that don’t allow joint-degrees). The benefit to this is that a program that would normally take 5 years (3 for law school, 2 for business school) can be completed in 4 years by taking classes that count for credits at both schools. This saves a year of tuition and of opportunity cost if you were going to get both degrees sequentially. You can usually apply to these programs simultaneously, and you can also usually gain admission to one, enroll, and apply to the other during the first year of the program you were already admitted to.

The logistics of a JD/MBA degree curriculum usually look something like: 1st year – law, 2nd year – law, 3rd year – business, 4th year – half law and half business, though you can easily start in business and do your second and third years at the law school instead. You almost always have to gain admission to each school individually in order to enroll in a joint degree and this usually involves taking both the LSAT and the GMAT. Some schools have moved to accepting the same test at both schools, though these schools are few and far in between (for example: UVA’s Darden Business School and Michigan’s Ross School will accept the LSAT for students already admitted to the law school and Northwestern’s law school will accept the GMAT for candidates applying to their dual-degree program).

Of course business school and law school admissions are very different games and both schools look for different qualifications in their students. Law schools focus heavily on undergraduate GPA’s and LSAT scores and are likely to put more weight on academic recommendations. Business schools, conversely, are not nearly as interested in undergraduate GPA’s, care less about the GMAT than law schools do the LSAT (though the GMAT is still very important), and are much more interested in professional recommendations than academic ones. In general the biggest qualification for top business schools is strong work experience (usually on the order of interesting/prestigious employment for 3 to 5 years) while law schools don’t have near this focus on work experience.

Gaining admission to both schools also varies in difficulty depending on the university and the quality of the law/business school. Some schools have better law schools than business schools (Yale) while some have better business schools than law schools (U. Penn). It is true that admission to a university’s law or business school can help your chances at the other, but be wary; schools know that students sometimes try to “backdoor” their way into prestigious programs through other university departments and frown upon this. The Wharton Business School at Penn, for example, is rumored to look unfavorably upon applicants seeking to enhance their business school chances by gaining admission to the law school first (Wharton is perhaps the most highly-regarded business school in the world). Similarly, Yale Law School is not likely to put much weight on admission to the Yale School of Management.

If, on the other hand, you have already been admitted to the higher ranked program, this can greatly help your chances, and if the business and law schools are of similar quality there is likely some benefit in having already been admitted to one. For example, the acceptance rate of U. Chicago law students to the Booth School of Business is ~40% while the general acceptance rate for booth is ~20%. Some of this boost, however, is likely the result of a sampling bias since students admitted to a top business or law school are going to have strong credentials in the first place.

Accelerated Programs

One recent development in the world of the JD/MBA is the appearance of accelerated programs now being offered by a few schools (most notably Penn and Northwestern; two of the very best business schools). These programs take just three years to complete and yield both degrees. The fact that these programs have been put forward by Kellogg/Northwestern and Wharton/Penn is no coincidence, as these are both Universities where the business schools are stronger than the law schools and are, perhaps, more likely “calling the shots” in the law/business school relationship (since in the dogmatic culture of legal education the idea of condensing law school to 1.5 or 2 years is fairly odiferous). Still, for those focusing on the business side of the JD/MBA in particular, these programs are ideal.

Tuition

The accelerated programs are attractive because they address the greatest drawback of the JD/MBA; the cost. Not only is a JD/MBA going to cost you an extra year of tuition (~55k, business school tuition rates are even higher than law school rates) but you should also take into account the opportunity cost of one more year of foregone salary. This opportunity cost can be huge especially for a newly minted JD from a top law school who might reasonably expect to earn $160,000 or more in their first year out of school. The real cost of a JD/MBA, then, can be fairly estimated at an additional $215,000, not including the additional accumulation of interest during that extra year in which you are not making loan payments.

The real rub is that the additional $215,000 you are spending for the MBA (assuming you were already going to law school) is not necessarily going to translate to a higher starting salary. Law firms will not necessarily prefer candidates with a JD/MBA over candidates with just a JD; furthermore, if you go into a field like investment banking, the reality is that any job you take was likely on the table with just your JD (or just your MBA), and your starting salary will be the same (usually ~$150k with bonus). An MBA is not required to get into the financial industry (a JD will often suffice, though the MBA is certainly the most common path to these careers), and an MBA is absolutely not required to practice corporate law for large firms.

The value in the JD/MBA, then, is somewhat ethereal. It does give you a broader knowledge base, a wider understanding of the business/law worlds, and it absolutely makes networking and job-hunting easier down the road. You will be an alumnus of two graduate institutions instead of one and that can definitely count when looking to make a career move. It also gives you greater mobility; you can try law, hate it, and still have the freedom to transition seamlessly to the business/financial world. Also, should you choose to stay at a law firm, you will have more in common with your clients, many of whom will have MBA’s themselves. You can better understand their businesses and can translate this understanding into strong client relationships. This level of insight can be very valuable.

And, of course, let’s not discount the satisfaction of study and of knowledge. You will simply know more and possess more skills with a JD/MBA than you would with either degree alone. To some people, this value can be enough to make the dual degree worthwhile. And who knows how you might use these skills later in your career, whether or not they translate into a higher starting salary right now. You never know when you might want to start a business, for example, and it is knowledge and experience that inform our capabilities. A wider and deeper skill set certainly never hurt anyone.

And finally – don’t listen to TLS forum users claiming that a JD/MBA joint degree will hurt your chances of landing a job in BigLaw; this is unfounded with supporting evidence that is apocryphal at best. After speaking with numerous graduates of a JD/MBA programs, career services offices, and law/business professors who have worked in corporate law and the business world, I have been told repeatedly that the impact of the MBA on your legal job hunt will unlikely have any negative effect. It may not move your resume to the top of the stack, and is certainly not as important as what law school you went to or what grades you earned, but it will absolutely not hurt and can often be a good story to tell/angle to take during interviews.







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