With the graduate admissions cycle in full swing, So Educated decided to have a virtual roundtable interview with four attorneys who pursued dual degrees. Over the past ten years or so the practice of law schools offering a variety of dual degree options, has become more frequent. Following Northwestern's lead, some schools (e.g., Yale and the University of Pennsylvania) have even shortened their JD-MBA programs to three years as opposed to the usual four, thus significantly lowering the amount of time and opportunity cost required.
But what questions should applicants considering such an endeavor ask themselves? How do short- and long-term goals factor into such a decision? How do employers view dual degree graduates? What skill sets are truly gained in the process?
So Educated featured a virtual roundtable discussion with five dual degree graduates to hash it all out. Our five esteemed guests are:
Alex is currently COO at Transparensee Systems, a NYC-based technology company that builds next-generation search technology. Prior to joining Transparensee, Alex was the CEO and co-founder of UpGuppy Media, a company that focuses on making it easier for people to share opinions and rankings. Alex is a graduate of Boston College where he majored in Psychology and Theology, and earned a JD / MBA from Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management.
Alfred McQueen Jr
Candice Jones (picture unavailable at press time) Candice is a consultant for the government affairs team at Buck Consultants, a leading human resources consulting firm. Previously, she worked as a litigator for large law firms and for a nonprofit civil rights organization in Washington, DC. In addition, she worked on Capitol Hill for the House Committee on Ways and Means and the House Democratic Caucus. Candice earned a B.A. in Political Science from Stanford University and J.D. and LLM (Taxation) degrees from Georgetown University. Barred in New York and the District of Columbia, Candice has practiced law since 2002.
Nicole is a graduate of Boston College where she earned her bachelor’s in Communications and Hispanic Studies. She then pursued a JD/MPH joint degree program at Northeastern University School of Law and Tufts University School of Medicine. A determined public health advocate and legal scholar, Nicole is currently a judicial clerk at the Massachusetts Appeals Court and an adjunct professor at North Shore Community College where she instructs Litigation and Field Placement Seminar for Paralegals in an ABA-approved paralegal program. In the near future she intends to pursue legal teaching full-time.
IntroductionSo Educated: Thank you all for joining me.
Alex Acree: Thanks John.
Alfred McQueen: Happy to help. Thanks.
Candice Jones: Hi John, glad to help.
Stefanie Winston: Thanks, excited to take part.
Nicole Bluefort: Hey, I think this will be very valuable.
Passion for both degrees
SE: I think a good place to start is, what factors influenced your decisions to pursue dual degrees?
AA: When I applied to graduate school, I applied only to law school. While at law school, I found myself taking a wide variety of business-related law classes. I was really enjoying the business aspects to the topics we were studying in addition to the legal ones. I also had a formative experience in a law school clinic where we were working to support a foundation’s effort to start a community development bank in the New Haven neighborhood. I had this ‘aha’ moment when I realized how important it was to understand the micro and macroeconomic flows of money in order to affect change, and how much of a positive influence business can have in our communities. It was then that I decided to devote some more concentrated time to understanding business and to apply to the MBA program at Yale School of Management.
AM: I was a physician and during my residency I realized that this occupation was not a good fit for me. I had always liked the policy side of medicine and decided to pursue that field.
CJ: My own education is not a “dual degree” in the traditional sense. I considered a dual degree program while at Georgetown Law. However, at that time, I decided that (1) I wanted to continue with my classmates in the law program; (2) I didn’t want to incur the extra cost of a second degree; and (3) the law market was hot! I wanted to get out and into the work world while job opportunities were abundant.
Further, at the time, Georgetown did not have joint JD/LLM degrees as it now does. Had such a joint degree program been available (assuming that it didn’t significantly push off my graduation date), I think I would have seriously considered pursuing such a program at the time rather than wait until 7 years later to earn an LLM in Taxation from Georgetown.
SW: I started out just in law school, but later decided that I had a strong interest in health care and I wanted to be able to focus on health law when I graduated. So I applied during my second year, and was accepted to do the joint-degree program. I will be graduating in December of 2010.
NB: To an unprecedented degree, public health, public policy, and biomedical ethics issues are today at the forefront of America's unresolved social problems especially for underrepresented minority populations. As a lifelong resident of Lynn, Massachusetts, a densely populated and culturally diverse urban community, I became particularly interested in responding to the prevalent needs of urban communities such as access to health care. A lawyer with an MPH degree is especially well-equipped to meet these challenges by identifying health inequities, assessing their root causes, and addressing them by promoting social justice, influencing policy, establishing partnerships, providing resources and educating the public.
SE: Obviously, it is a perilous time to be an attorney. Firms have laid off thousands in the past two years and are still tightening their belts by deferring [new associate] start dates and hiring less summer associates. And recently The New York Times featured a story about the increased outsourcing of legal work to India. So my question is, what is the future of the corporate law firm position? And secondly, is having a dual degree the new prerequisite for dealing with an ever-changing legal landscape that will face globalization on a mass scale?
AA: Those are good questions and difficult ones. I think law firms, like businesses across the country, have faced tough times over the last couple years. Because of the dominant revenue model in the legal space--the billable hour--there are only two ways to increase revenue. In tough times when it’s difficult for firms to raise their rates, that will come at the cost of increased “employee productivity”, meaning higher billable hour requirements for associates.
But I do think it’s a little unhelpful to think of the “corporate law firm position” in the abstract. Like all industries, there will be firms that break the mold and innovate new models. As the global marketplace becomes increasingly competitive, U.S. companies need to--and will--continue to innovate, because that’s what we do best. Law firms are no exception.
AM: I agree that the attorney job field is a bit perilous right now. I hear from friends monthly about either being laid off or the fear that new associates have of losing their jobs. I think the business model of law firms is going to have to change. Clients are now challenging hourly billing and law firms are going to have to change in order to survive.
Many of my friends that are finding job success have looked overseas, especially in Africa and Asia. Learning a second (or third) language is becoming a necessary tool to compete in the global economy and to make oneself attractive to employers.
As for the dual degree, it can be attractive depending on what the second degree is. Those with additional education in science and engineering can be highly sought by some firms. On the other side in a recession, employers can be wary to hire people with multiple degrees for fear that they won’t be able to meet their salary requirements and that the person won’t stay at the company for long.
CJ: My experience may be a bit different from some of the other panelists because I have been practicing law since 2002. Yes, the abundance of job opportunities is not what it used to be, but there still is a market for strong attorneys. If I knew then (when I was in law school) what I know now, I would have quickly found an area of speciality and stuck with it.
A second degree that complements one’s J.D. can signal to a prospective employer that: (1) you have a strong interest in an area of specialty; and (2) you have a great deal of knowledge about that particular area of law. Is the second degree necessary to evidence these two things? No. However, in a field in which perception is very important and employers are often looking at hundreds of resumes for one position, the second degree can jump off the page of a resume and signal to a prospective employer that you might be a good fit for a particular position.
SW: I agree that finding a job in the legal field right now is not great, although it is improving this year. However, I think part of the appeal of the law degree is that you are not just constrained to working for a large firm. And adding a dual-degree just expands the possibilities even more, so that you are able to explore other areas that you might not have considered when the economy was great.
NB: I’m certainly experiencing firsthand the difficult legal job market facing current law students and practicing lawyers. Outsourcing has never been as prevalent as it is now. Firms are competing in an increasing globalized business environment, expanding internationally and merging with or acquiring other firms across international borders. Firms are taking advantage of the ability hire low-wage workers for a variety of legal work.. I think corporate firms will continue to respond to economic globalization by globalizing their practices. I think lawyers with an LLM degree will better prepared to be well versed to handle complex, multinational transactions.
How the Additional Degree Adds Value
SE: Alex, you are interested in entrepreneurship. How have the skill sets you've learned assisted you in understanding the business environment, particularly in a marked downturn such as this one? Alex feel free to explain how your business has specifically dealt with the recession.
AA: My graduate education at Yale was one of the best experiences of my life. Business school gave me time to really focus on nailing the fundamentals. Yale also strongly advocates a cross-functional approach that is absolutely critical when running a small business. On any given day, you’re called on to be the spokesperson, the HR guy, the corporate strategist, the operations guru, so having a strong background in these areas makes you all the more valuable and more confident when things get tough. The best thing I took from graduate school though are the relationships--with my professors and even more so, my classmates, who have been my teachers and advisors on countless occasions since graduating.
SE: Alfred and Stephanie, the health care landscape is almost as tenuous as the legal one. And you folks are on opposite ends of the spectrum with Alfred primarily practicing law and Stephanie headed into the public health sector (possibly). Alfred - how has your medical degree informed your legal practice? Stephanie - how do you think your law degree will inform your public health practice?
AM: Yes it has. In law school, in addition to the random medical questions from students and faculty, I had a different perspective on certain topics than those without a medical background.
SW: I think that the law degree adds a lot to public health, because it gives another perspective to the public health arena, and sets the bounds for any policy that can be developed. I am in the Health Policy & Management track, and I think that this is a good combination for any joint-degree law students. In making policy decisions, it is very useful to know how the administrative bodies operate, and how different legal relationships work, and I think that I have good background knowledge of these areas from law school.
SE: Alfred, how was your perspective different in particular? And clearly, most law students aren’t going to pursue an MD and, conversely, most medical students won’t find interest in pursuing a law degree. But do you think there’s a benefit to a student in one of those disciplines taking a couple of classes in the other?
AM: One thing I noticed was that a having been through a professional school program I was overall a lot calmer than many of my collegues. Many law students I was in school with, their mood could be make or break based on the outcome of a grade. Grades are important, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying performance in school doesn’t matter. However, grades aren’t the end all be all. A lower grade than you expected doesn’t mean you can not have a successful career.
I also noticed that when I took certain class, especially when we learned about medical malpractice in torts or certain types of medical tests in evidence, the professor would occassionally turn to me for on the spot elaboration about the test and the tests’ reliablity.
As for benefits, I wish that every medical student was required to take courses on torts, contracts and corporations. A problem with doctors today is that they know how to treat patients but have no idea how to run a business. If a doctor is in private practice then he’s running a small business. Knowledge of what a corporation is versus a limited liabilty corporation versus a partnership is essential in knowing what would be the best to optimize the practice of medicine with generating profit.
LLM Degree: What’s it Worth?
SE: Candice, you earned your second graduate degree (an LLM in Taxation) a few years after your law degree so it’s a bit different than a traditional joint degree setting. How was that experience? And do you think the calculus one goes through to assess the decision is much different in that scenario?
CJ: I finished law school in 2002. For the first six years of my legal practice, I primarily practiced as a litigator (for large law firms and for a nonprofit civil rights organization) without a particular area of focus. I decided to return to school for the LLM in Taxation in 2008 when I determined that I wanted to specialize in tax law and that I wanted to transition quickly.
For someone who has practiced for a number of years without a speciality or in a different speciality, pursuing an LLM can be an effective way to quickly shift gears. The LLM signals to prospective employers that you are serious about the new area of focus, and, as for stated to me by my now employer, many regard the LLM as the equivalent of a year and a half of practice.
In addition, in pursuing the LLM, I got to know a number of folks in the world of taxation that I had not previously met while working as a general litigator. Because the world of law is as much about connections as it is about the strength of one’s legal practice, the connections I made were invaluable. In fact, it was those very connections that led to my current position.
Specifically, while in the LLM program I connected with an attorney who previously taught courses in employee benefits tax law. There was a position available with the consulting firm at which she worked that was appropriate for someone with my level of tax knowledge. I was offered the opportunity while still in the LLM program, and after a year of working somewhat parttime (full-time students of the LLM program in which I was enrolled are not allowed to work full-time), I was offered a full-time opportunity. Because of the LLM program, I was able to fairly seamlessly transition from a career as a general commercial litigator to a one in which I work as an attorney consultant on issues relating to employee benefits taxation.
There are definitely downsides to the path I took. For example, returning to school after an absence of 7+ years is very hard. I was ready to work, not be a student again. In addition, the cost of an LLM at a top school is not cheap. While a number of my colleagues in the program were parttime while working for law firms with employee benefits tax practices that paid for their coursework, I was a full-time student who acquired loans to pay for the program.
However, I quickly had to adjust my mindset and appreciate that I had a few goals that I wanted to meet: (1) learn as much as I could through the LLM program’s coursework; (2) make meaningful connections that could lead to a permanent position and serve me in strengthening my foothold in the tax world after I began working; and (3) signal to future employers and colleagues that I was serious about my new career path. I meet all of these goals.
So Educated: Recently, the National Law Journal questioned the value of the LLM. What would you say to law students about an LLM? Is it something all should at least look into (especially at a Georgetown, Miami, or NYU -- all top rated programs -- that offer it in conjunction with a JD in just 7 semesters)?
CJ: An LLM is certainly not necessary. For example, I know plenty of folks who are successful tax attorneys who have never considered an LLM and don't plan to attain one. For others still, obtaining an LLM from a top ranked school gives them a chance to add a "big" name school to their resume. I think all law students should at least look at the LLM options. Unlike when I was a student, more and more schools are offering joint JD/LLM programs. I think such a program is worth considering, especially if one has targeted an area of expertise that is strengthened (either relationally or substantively) by an LLM.
SE: The Tax concentration seems to get the most attention from employers, schools and students. Is there a substantial risk in getting an LLM outside of Tax?
CJ: I know a number of folks who share the opinion that the only LLM worth obtaining is one in Tax. Any degree program poses risks -- (1) time lost obtaining the degree; (2) high cost; (3) risk of not obtaining desired grades; (4) desired results not achieved.
Anyone considering an LLM should engage in a cost benefit analysis, looking especially hard at the strength of the LLM program (i.e. the quality of the courses, the strength of the teachers teaching the courses, the job opportunities afforded graduates of the program). I know plenty of folks who have earned a Tax LLM that are unemployed months after obtaining the degree. No degree is a guarantee for a job. That said, most degree programs have the potential to strengthen a person's application for a position.
Careers and Networking
SE: Do you find that employers were (or are) skeptical of dual degree graduates? Rumor has it that it may be a bit easier for employers to feel that a dual degree graduate doesn't know what they want to do, or that they may be too desirable (i.e., hard to keep from seeking other opportunities).
AA: I don’t believe I’ve encountered any overt skepticism about dual degrees to this point.
AM: I have encountered both. However all you can do is to show a employer your commitment with words and actions. Having a dual degree can be a barrier to some, but I believe in the end no education is wasted. It may take a bit longer to find the niche but with perseverance it will come.
CJ: When the dual degrees complement one another, I think a prospective candidate is that much stronger. I’m going to focus on law because that’s what I know best. When one pursues a law degree, often the legal education is very, very general, especially at top schools. Top legal programs want to teach you how to “think like a lawyer”; the aim is not to teach you how to be, for example, a securities law specialist.
While one can take classes focused on a particular area of law, a second degree (i.e. an MBA or an LLM in Securities Law) allows a students to futher deepen her knowledge while signaling to employers that this is her area of focus. Now, the downside of this is that one can be pigeon holed, and this can be a difficult thing if one is a young professional looking for that first position. That said, if one is especially interested in a particular issue area, I believe a second degree is more of a help than a hinderance to getting in position in the targeted area.
SW: I have actually had very good feedback from professionals in both the law & public health sector about my joint degree, especially since I am focusing on health care. Since it is so hard to concentrate in law school, having the additional training in public health does show that you are serious about working in health care. I definitely talked to many lawyers before deciding on adding the masters, and especially with the current economy, I got very good feedback from everyone that I talked to.
SE: I would think networking would be simpler with two crowds to depend on and a multitude of industries in which to engage with. But do you find it to be a bit more hectic, requiring a lot of organization?
AA: I think this probably depends on one’s personality. For me “networking” has always been about striking up relationships with interesting people, people I share interests with, and people whose perspectives are novel to me. It’s been something organic for me and not overly managed, so I wouldn’t say that having two sets of classmates has required any more organization.
AM: Networking in my opinion simply requires an opportunity to meet people and the fortitude to go up to people and introduce yourself. Most people are happy to meet someone that could be a potential client/employee/contact/etc. If nothing comes of it then you’ve lost nothing more than a few minutes. It’s true that who you know can be more valuable than what you know. In law school we were encouraged to meet and develop networks with our classmates, friend, parents’ friends, etc. You never know who may be of value to you in the future.
CJ: Networking is always tiring! That said, it is important and necessary. The broader one’s network the better. The fact that one’s network may be broadened because one is in a dual degree program does not, in my opinion, necessarily make networking any harder or more complicated.
SW: The two atmospheres for networking are pretty different, so I have not felt overwhelmed. It has been nice having two different career services offices working with me throughout the job search process. I agree that networking is very important, so the more opportunites, the better. It can be tiring, but worth it in the end. You get to meet very interesting people, and you never know how a job might come about.
Law Admissions and Success
SE: Frankly, how did you guys do it? All of you attended phenomenal programs. Looking back, what made you different as an applicant? Aside from Kellogg's program (which utilizes one admissions committee for the JD-MBA program), schools are notorious for saying 'admissions decisions are made separately.' But how can dual degree applicants leverage both programs in the admissions process?
AA: As I mentioned above, I didn’t apply to both schools at the same time. My interest in the dual-degree program evolved over time and culminated just before the due date for business school admissions toward the end of my second year in law school. In terms of admissions my advice has always been to seek out interesting opportunities that you’re going to be passionate about no matter how far you might think they are off the beaten path, try to distinguish yourself on those projects/jobs, and learn from them. I think the best thing you can convey on your admissions application is that you will make a unique contribution to the incoming class.
AM: As for law school, having a science background was very unique. Most of my classmates had liberal arts degrees. Admissions boards are very interested in a diverse class. Not simply racial or gender diversity but diversity of age and experience also. About 1/3 of my class had worked for one or more year before applying to law school.
CJ: I was lucky to attend a great college, and I performed pretty wel there. That said, I think what made my application particularly strong was my interaction in the community. I showed through my work in politics that I wasn’t just interested in earning lots of money and not contributing to the community in which I lived. As for the LLM in Tax at Georgetown that I later earned, it helped a lot that I received a JD from the same school. In addition, at the time I applied, I was working for the U.S. House of Representative tax writing committee, the Committee on Ways and Means. My work for that committee signaled to the admissions staff that I was serious about a career in tax policy. Most folks in the LLM program are attorneys working at law firms. I was working on Capitol Hill. As a consequence, my application stood out.
SW: I had already been in law school for a year and a half when I decided to apply for the MPH as well, so I think that it helped. Rollins has a good relationship with the law school, so the application process was less intense than if I had done it all right after undegrad. For law schools, I had no idea where I wanted to be, so I applied to about 20 schools and picked Emory because I liked the South and it was a good school. It turned out to be a good choice, since I did not even know about the MPH when I came here.
SE: A while back, probably about two years now, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, and he mentioned that the medical school culture is so much less social than the law school one (at least at his alma mater where he studied for his medical and law degrees). Would any of you agree that your other degree program had a different culture and required a change on your part or took some getting used to?
AA: I actually think both law and business school had an equally social atmosphere. There was a good balance between social activities and academic focus.
AM: I agree with your friend’s statement. I think the professions attract different types of people. Law school was much more social and I felt the students spend more time together than in medical school. My law school emphasized socializing and meeting people because of the value that networking can have to one’s career. Medical school was fun but I don’t think socializing was as emphasized at it was in law school.
CJ: Most of my peers in the LLM program were older than my law school classmates and already working. There was less emphasis on forming social networks and more competition. I did not mind this shift in environment, however, because as an older student who left litigation practice to transition to a career in tax law, I was also less interested in the social connections and very concerned about doing my best academically.
SW: I have enjoyed the break from law school and a change in atmosphere between the two schools. Public Health school is much more laid back than law school, and there is more of a collaborative spirit to the school. It is always nice to be able to go and enjoy time at Rollins during finals, when everyone at law school is very stressed!
SE: What were your tools for academic success? I know Omar sleeps about 8 minutes a night, but what did the rest of you do? What do you feel made the most worthwhile difference in (a) digesting the almost overwhelming amount of information and deciphering what is important from what is not; and (b) balancing all your responsibilities?
AA: Prioritization and organization were two skills that graduate school helped me to hone. In college I felt like it was possible to pull things together at the last minute for an exam or paper, but in law and business school the quantity of work usually filled--or often exceeded--the amount of time allotted to complete it. Being focused about what I hoped to get accomplished in given time periods and spending the time to organize before starting projects helped me to leverage my time more effectively.
AM: Studying. I don’t know any other way to put it. If you want to be successful in school you have to put the time in. That means spending some weekends in the books, not going to every party you might be interested in. There are strategies when your in school that depend on how you learn, but there are usually resources there that can help you maximize your study time. The key in my opinion is putting in the time.
CJ: Procrastinating is deadly if you want to do well in a competitive degree program. It’s important early on to identify those concepts with which you are having difficulty so that you can find assistance or figure out a way to overcome the challenge. Finally, I think finding ways to make the academics real is important. What I mean by this last point is that I enjoyed learning more when I acquired internships/fellowships and the like that complemented my studies.
SW: I agree that staying on top of your work is pretty important; its’ nice because as long as I stay up on my reading for law school, I can focus more on public health classes throughout midterms, and then really be able to focus on law classes during finals. It’s hard to balance, but I think worth it in the end. Whenever I get too overwhelmed, I remember that I could be going to school for an extra year, and then I feel better.
SE: Last but not least, thank you all for your participation. Was there anything either of you would like to add?
AA: John, thanks for inviting to us to take part in this interview. Graduate school was a wonderful journey for me, and I wish all the prospective applicants the same.
AM: Thanks for the opportunity to participate John. I hope this will be useful to people out there considering going to law, medicine and business schools.
CJ: Our experiences are our experiences. While I think what we’ve said here is useful to folks considering dual degree programs, the decision regarding what degree programs to pursue is very personal. If one, like me, decides to not initially pursue that second graduate degree, know that it is never too late to return to school if you later determine that the degree is just what you need to make your career dreams a reality.
SW: Always remember your priorities and what you want to do with your joint degree; it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and as long as you remember what you are there to do, it helps to get through the bad days. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Related Discussion on sister site, Policy Diary:
1. Previous roundtable with four law students on what the first year of law school is like
2. Interview with law admissions consultant Ann Levine
3. The law school transfer bible
About the Author
John is wholeheartedly determined to contribute to the rapidly changing dialogue in the health care and education communities. He has made continuous contributions by conducting research, publishing articles, interviewing practitioners and professors, and engaging students through on-campus organizations.
John's publishings have appeared in fora such as: The Orlando Sentinel, The Daily Voice, Wiretap magazine, Black Web 2.0, The Daily Californian, NewMajority.com, Club Relaford, HipHopRepublican.com and Policy Net.
Previously, he served as a legislative fellow in the offices of the Honorable David Englin (D) and David Bulova (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates, in the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions, respectively. John also interned in the office of the State Attorney General of Virginia, and completed a Governor's Fellowship in the Office of Gov. Bob McDonnell where he worked with the deputy secretary of health on projects regarding aging, HIT and disability.