Paul L. Caron

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Downside of a J.D.

National Law Journal:  Discovering a Law Degree's Downside:  Sending the Wrong Signal in Bad Times?, by Leigh Jones:

When Dina Allam graduated last spring from Ohio State University with a joint law and master of business administration degree, she thought the combination would catch the eye of employers who could appreciate a mix of analytical skills and business know-how.

But after months of looking for a nonlawyer job that would put all that education to work and help pay off some of the nearly $85,000 in student loan debt, Allam began to think she'd made a mistake by going the law degree route.

"People don't see the value in the joint degree. They think I'm confused," she said.

In hindsight, Allam said she would have forgone the juris doctor degree and pursued just the MBA. But at the time she started law school, she was convinced that a J.D. diploma could open doors to a wide variety of job options.

"They made it sound like there were so many careers you could go into," said Allam, now a client engagement manager with Wipro Technologies in Columbus, Ohio. "I definitely think all the interviews I had were because I was in business school and not because I had a law degree."

Law schools and placement professionals frequently tout the versatility of a law degree as a path to alternative careers. But even in good economic times, the advantage of a juris doctor degree in landing a job in another field may well be overblown.

With student loan debt at an all-time high and law schools churning out about 44,000 degrees each year, graduates looking for nonlawyer jobs are finding that they often are priced out, overqualified and undervalued.

The upshot for many is that, while they appreciate the knowledge they gained, they find that they are no more marketable — and sometimes less — than if they'd avoided the law school ordeal altogether.

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I don't anticipate lawyers becoming (any more of) a protected class anytime soon.

Posted by: armchairpunter | Nov 22, 2008 8:06:49 AM

Setting aside the ethical concerns, there are several problems to leaving the J.D. degree off the resume.
1) How do you explain being out of the workforce for four years to complete a two-year program?
2) A private employer doesn't need cause to fire an at-will employee, which would encompass pretty much any entry-level position
3) The MBA side of a dual degree is less intensive than a straight MBA curriculum, with fewer business credits required. So there is your "cause" right there that may irk an employer.

Not a good idea at all in my book.

Posted by: Wade | Nov 22, 2008 7:43:46 AM

Unless you were an evening student, then how do you explain that 3 year gap on your resume without lying?

I have a JD and went to law school thinking I would become a lawyer. When I started interviewing with law firms and then interned with the Federales, I realized the actual practice of law would make me miserable. But I still soldiered through the last two years and even passed the bar under the belief that a JD would help me in finding an alternative career. I now work for a corporate/business consulting firm at the same level and pay as someone 2 years out of undergrad - I'm 3.5 years out of a good law school where I did well. The JD seems to have a priming effect, where HR and even colleagues equate JDs with certain skills and certain deficiencies. It's frustrating because no matter what I say or do I have struggled to overcome the perception. It's almost eerie how much "superiors" put me in a box and then analyze my abilities based on my education. True, the company I work for is poorly managed and lacks any real leaders with a backbone, but this is the only place that would hire me.

So, yes, getting a JD for any reason other than practicing law is a complete and total mistake.

Posted by: rsmith | Nov 22, 2008 3:31:53 AM

Let's see. Ignore the fact most employers have put a freeze on hiring. Ignore that perhaps Allam was a bad interviewee. Ignore that perhaps the Allam's references or grades were bad. Of course, the JD is the culprit!

Posted by: Adam | Nov 22, 2008 2:48:23 AM

"People don't see the value in the joint degree. They think I'm confused," she said.

Maybe she is applying to the wrong kind of company. If I had her credentials I would be looking at start up companies or young companies in general. GM might be looking for a specific tool on a specific task, but start ups usually need more well rounded people who can operate in several different roles. In my experience they also tend to covet credentials along with the higher order thinking skills imparted by advanced degrees.

Posted by: Nashville | Nov 22, 2008 12:34:36 AM

Many business people are so tired of lawyers, the last thing they want to do is hire one in their own department. Much better to add a CPA to the MBA.

Posted by: Joe Dokes | Nov 21, 2008 10:33:31 PM

I don't see any ethical problem with leaving a degree off your resume, assuming it's not being forwarded in response to a question like "list all degrees you have obtained." However, that's not realistically possible for a combined degree like a JD/MBA and even for separate degrees you'd have to be ready to explain the 3 year gap on your resume.

Posted by: Cornellian | Nov 21, 2008 9:54:32 PM

Yes, this seems absurd; perhaps the phrasing JD/MBA throws off employers looking for MBAs. One could reconfigure the resume to stress the MBA; but I think the JD would only help a candidate, especially in an interview where one could explain it's benefit.

Also, a JD myself, it makes my liberal arts education seem like kindergarden. JDs are super-citizens and also "Doctors of Law," as much a Dr. as any PhD. Though using the title is on the silly side, it's worth remembering that.


Posted by: The Objective Historian | Nov 21, 2008 9:21:18 PM

I get pretty tired of hearing recruiters and law students say, "You can do anything with a law degree." In most places you can't do brain surgery or be a rocket scientist with a law degree. You also can't cut hair or do nails.

I always advise my undergrads to decide what they want to do in life then decide if they either *need* a law degree to do that or if a law degree might be $85,000 or so useful to doing that.

Doesn't seem to faze them though. Too many lawyer shows on TV.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Nov 21, 2008 8:48:39 PM

Mayhap, The Bard had it right in Henry the V...where he has Prince Hal say....

Posted by: Rich Vail | Nov 21, 2008 8:43:27 PM

You're not very imaginative.

Posted by: A Dreamer | Nov 21, 2008 8:08:35 PM

There's always the old trick of listing the embarrassing degree under "hobbies."

Posted by: Bob Hawkins | Nov 21, 2008 6:52:44 PM

The problem with omitting the JD would be that an MBA takes 2 yrs while a JD/MBA takes 4 yrs. Hence, you would have a 2 year gap in your resume if you omitted the JD.
Last, I have no trouble imagining a court upholding the decision to terminate someone for submitting a factually inaccurate resume. Even though most judges are lawyers, I doubt we'll see the day when JDs are a protected class.

Posted by: Diego | Nov 21, 2008 6:47:16 PM

I concur, bgates. I would not reference the degree.

Posted by: bad | Nov 21, 2008 6:46:28 PM

No strategy is optimal under all conditions. Allam's plan might work well during prosperous times. It might pay off when she competes for jobs with broader responsibilities than are given to new MBAs.

None of which is much comfort now.

Posted by: gs | Nov 21, 2008 6:28:24 PM

While bgates has a good idea about dropping the JD from your resume, what do you do about the 3 year gap in your work history? Potential employers might charitably assume that a female applicant was a stay at home mom, but for males they might think it was 3 years in prison. Has it really gotten so bad for that implying you spent 3 years in prison makes you more employable than admitting that you went to law school?

Posted by: Kevin | Nov 21, 2008 6:22:02 PM

It is wrong to lie about things on a resume but never omit (puffery within the bounds of spin doctoring is allowed).
I once had a guy ask me "Is there anything you left off your resume?"
To which I replied jokingly "Of course there is. It is a 1 page resume. Could you put your whole career on a 1 page resume? But I am not hiding anything."

Posted by: Borris | Nov 21, 2008 6:21:57 PM

I have known a great number of lawyers who gravitated toward the business side and made great deal guys.

Generally, it was after they tried being lawyers and found they weren't suited for it temperamentally. It's a very different mindset.

I can see people being worried. Lawyers are specialists, really. That's a lot of extra time in school to develop a skill that adds only tangentially to what a business person does.

Though, I think this is something that could be offset by a coherent and convincing explanation in the interview.

Posted by: diz | Nov 21, 2008 6:15:52 PM

Bgates, I agree with you, except that last comment. A company/firm could fire you for that if it wanted to. I don't see any reason it wouldn't hold up in court any more than "We don't like you as it turns out" wouldn't hold up. I think overall people have some disdain for what they believe are degree-collectors. Many figure, hey, you've been lollygagging around campus for an extra year or two picking up another degree while I've been working my arse off.

Posted by: Ronald Truman | Nov 21, 2008 6:08:08 PM

Why the reluctance on the part of some employers to hire someone with a broad range of interests and knowledge? You'd think that would be an asset.

Posted by: PKL | Nov 21, 2008 5:56:48 PM

This is a bigger problem than just law school graduates. Even in tech fields, employers want square pegs for square holes, and don't know what to do with a peg that's square at one end and round at the other. Don't try for a double major in two branches of engineering, either. Same thing will happen.

Posted by: Larry | Nov 21, 2008 5:54:55 PM

"...they find that they are no more marketable — and sometimes less — than if they'd avoided the law school ordeal altogether."

If I were choosing between someone with and someone without the law degree for a business position, then all other things being equal, the one without the law degree wins hands down. I don't think the type of thinking taught in law school is conducive to good business decision making. In fact, I think it's harmful to that end.

Posted by: Billy Hollis | Nov 21, 2008 5:50:39 PM

How much of an ethical problem would it be to omit an earned degree from a resume? If the JD is really making people less marketable, don't mention it. I have a hard time imagining an employer learning somebody had a JD and firing him for it.

And a harder time imagining that decision holding up in court.

Posted by: bgates | Nov 21, 2008 5:25:11 PM