Friday, November 28, 2008

Are Law Degrees Versatile?

The National Law Journal recently asked, Is the Versatility of a Law Degree Just a Myth? Well, yes and no. If you go to law school without any real desire to practice law, and with no concept of where your career might go afterward, you're probably going to find out that there are many degrees that are far more versatile than law. If you then try to enter a field outside of law, what employer wouldn't be curious as to why you sought the law degree, or how your law degree better qualifies you for the job than the degree of a more typical applicant?

And then there's often the question of why you're choosing a career path that pays less than legal practice. Is your explanation that you're looking for greater job satisfaction, and are willing to take a pay cut for a job you love? Is it, "Legal practice (or at least the practice I was in) doesn't pay what you think"?

When you look around and see lawyers in a wide range of fields, ask yourself how they got there? If they're older, and entered a business field back before the MBA was created, there's no direct comparison. When the degree of preference in a field has changed, the easiest way to enter that field is with the preferred degree. But what of the others? Are they truly there because of their law degree and its versatility, or because they found a way into a field by virtue of their personal interests and skills and, assuming their legal background remains relevant to their job duties, found a way to make their law degrees work for their employer.

I would not suggest to somebody who simply can't decide what they want to do "when they grow up", that they go to law school. For that matter, I would have words of caution for somebody who understands what legal practice entails and wants to join the legal profession. But really, if you're meandering, an MBA is generally going to be cheaper and will likely provide more flexibility (save for getting you a license to practice law). The flexibility I see in a law degree often has more to do with the person holding the degree than the degree itself.

Still, if you're from a modest background and are willing to put in the effort it takes to get through law school, position yourself to get into a well-paid legal position, and work yourself ragged for enough years to build up some capital, it's a slow, tedious way to get to the point that you can afford to truly follow your dreams.


  1. Heh. When I was interviewing for teaching positions, that question inevitably came up. In fact, it almost lost me a job because they have to pay me at the "doctorate" level, which is lots more money than the bachelor/masters level.

    I think you made a good point when you said something about how you have to work yourself ragged for a few years to get to where the big money is. That's the part that most folks don't realize. One day, I was pissed about something and wrote this huge law manifesto where I made up my own law school that has classes where you sit all day, waiting for the professor and if you aren't there when s/he shows up--and s/he may not show up at all--you flunk (this will ring true if you have ever practiced in 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit). Other classes include keeping track of everything you do from 7am until 10pm and billing for it and sitting in a library for 15 hours straight.

    Personally, I would like if it (somehow) law lost its status of being "well paid". When I was practicing, I knew lots of folks who were subsisting on court appointments and the occasional referral. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's probably fine, but I can't think that they were rolling in the dough....

  2. I think it's cool that TeacherPatti managed to convince a school system that a "juris doctor" is the equivalent of a doctorate.

    The running joke when I was in law school (I was on inactive status from the Air Force and would be going back to it) was that I would have a statistically significant impact (downward) on the average of my classes starting salaries.


  3. The funniest thing about the law degree as a doctorate, of course, is that it's the equivalent of what other nations call an LLB - bachelor of laws - often approached as a specialized continuation of an undergraduate education. Even here, the next degree in the progression is the LLM - master of laws, or more technically, Legum Magister. And why there are a few schools that offer, as a degree following an LLM, the JSD or Doctor of Juridical Science.

    I don't wish to understate law school as a bona fide graduate program, but I think there's a qualitative difference between a J.D. program and a Ph.D. program - not the least of which is composing and defending a thesis. Imposing that type of requirement on a J.D. student would do even more to remove the skills you learn in law school from what you need to know in practice. (Sorry, law review types - a thesis is normally a much more involved, much more academic, and much more protracted exercise than writing a note.)

  4. Oh, most school districts consider it a doctorate.
    I actually got into an argument with someone about this issue and we both researched it on the internet. It turns out that if you have a JD, you CAN call yourself doctor...but be prepared for people to call you douchebag.

  5. I didn't know we could legitimately call ourselves "doctors" that's cool.

    Unfortunately, I never had any double about the popularity of the other name . . . : )


  6. There were ethical rules that my friend and I was pretty funny that it was such a big deal. Something about how it has been in the context of academics (like we can't show up at the bar and announce ourselves as doctors, I guess :)). One of my profs at EMU is a JD and he goes by Doctor. Also, I checked my degree at the time my friend and I were looking it up and it says: Doctor of Jurisprudence and in little letters Doctor of Law. Also, I wore the doctorate robe at graduation.
    But yeah, douchebag is probably more common!! :)

  7. A law degree is an expensive commodity to come by, well it was anyway - instead of studying law I'm just going to purchase this trinket off of eBay and legally change my name to match.

    law school classes


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