A very common reason among prospective law students for enrolling in law school is the belief that obtaining the JD law degree can never hurt. After all, this is law school, more or less the lay-prestige equivalent of medical school. How can pursuing three extra years of higher education in a relatively prestigious field such as the law not be beneficial for someone’s career prospects? Even in a worst case scenario, in the off chance the law does not work out, simply obtaining a JD degree will show prospective employers how well-rounded and capable the student is, increasing the student’s marketability and potential career alternatives. Couple this thinking with the constant mantra that pursuing as much education as possible is always the right choice, and even students that are not really sure what they want to do in life can quickly find enrolling in law school is the perfect solution. How can it not be? The JD law degree opens doors, in and outside the legal field. Another notch on the education belt of this caliber is just unlikely to ever be an impediment. Unfortunately, this type of thinking makes perfect sense in theory, but in practice the truth leads to quite the opposite result for most law graduates.
What Drives the JD Versatility Myth?
If you ask anybody why a law degree is useful to obtain, the most common answer will point to all the famous people out there that hold the JD and are successful in many other fields outside the law. Most often, you’ll hear how this and that CEO of a Fortunate 500 company holds a JD and how at least half of the politicians have a law degree as well. Ironically (for LSAT takers), this is just a really bad correlation/causation assumption error. Just because someone has a JD law degree and is successful does not mean that it is the law degree that made them successful. On top of this, this is just a very common form of selection bias. It’s not hard to point out the people that actually made it and are successful because they are the most well known, yet nobody stops to think about the legions of people who tried the same thing and failed. This is no different than attempting to be an actor or pop 40 singer: yes, Lady Gaga made it, but how many thousands are waiting tables hoping to be the next best thing even if they can sing great and write songs? The point is that there are many factors at play, nobody can correctly zero in on any one factor and proclaim it is the cause of someone’s success.
In theory, the JD degree should be useful and welcomed in many professions. Generally speaking, the average college graduate is above average in intelligence and is somewhat driven. At the very least, he or she demonstrated they have the ability to stick with something for a long period of time and complete it. Out of this select group of people, a small niche decides to pursue law school by taking the LSAT, a standardized test that is curved based on the performance of everybody taking it. This means that a batch of presumably even more driven individuals competes with each other to see where they stand on a test that determines where they will head to law school, a pretty grueling three year experience (1L, at least). Upon enrolling, these individuals will indeed gain some valuable skills. Law students will learn how to reason on a higher level and hopefully develop strong critical thinking and writing skills along the way (even if practical skills for law practice are left wanting). Therefore, it is not hard to imagine how the combination of these skills, the drive to complete law school, and above average intelligence will be valuable almost anywhere, especially in compliance and almost all types of government work (often referred to as “JD Preferred” positions). However, in reality what matters is not what may be the case, but what is the case. Specifically what employers, those potentially hiring you, think about the JD. Some of the same reasons that demonstrate in theory why law school may be a good idea come right back around to haunt those same law graduates.
Why Isn’t the JD Really That Versatile?
1. You’re overqualified – with a law degree, you’re no longer just a college graduate seeking an entry-level position. You’re viewed by employers as an individual with an advanced degree that won’t settle for any old job at the company. After all, why the extra 3 years if you expect to still start at the bottom? It smells fishy and immediately draws negatives. For example, it isn’t unreasonable to draw the conclusion that the low level start will bring you unhappiness and resentment, resulting in you being unproductive. Worse, even if you’re potentially being interviewed for a mid-level position, there’s a chance the person interviewing you doesn’t have your educational credentials. You make them fear for their own job. Yes, the JD degree shows you’re driven, driven enough to potentially displace them. Why pick you over someone who can equally get the job done without that threat?
2. You’re not qualified – you went to law school, law school! Everybody knows lawyers make bank, just check out the myriad of TV shows and those celebrity cases on the news. Why in the world would you want to escape this type of financial freedom? There must be something wrong with you. If you couldn’t hack it in law school, the employer doesn’t want you either. Again, in this economy there’s a slew of candidates without this theoretical blemish.
3. Negative views of lawyers – lawyers always argue, they worry about trivial things, and have no problem suing. These are all advantageous traits when representing a client, but how exactly are these characteristics supposed to impress at a non-legal workplace? Most employers are looking for people that can come in, get the job done, and not cause any problems. There’s always the fear a law graduate will try to outsmart others, and will not be a pushover at work, causing problems for management. Even worse, what if the law graduate is hired and starts trying to act like a lawyer instead of focusing on his or her position? Even if one can argue some of this stuff is far from the truth in practice, do you see how “theory” itself does the damage?
4. Temporary positions – because you’re a law graduate, you’re presumably interested in the law. Even if it is accepted that some things aren’t going too well in the legal field to avoid many of the theoretical assumptions above, this one is an unshakeable dagger: the employer will think you’ll probably leave as soon as a solid legal job opens up. After all, a law degree spells success. Why wouldn’t you want to go back as soon as you get the chance?
5. Expect more pay – even if the position is offering 50K to start, the employer will have a hard time believing a law graduate will want to settle for the salary a college graduate will take. It just doesn’t seem right. It’s not hard to imagine the employer examining the JD degree candidate and believing they will be forced to pay him or her more to compensate for those extra years of education. Again, why deal with this at all in the first place? They can just hire a college graduate and not worry about this salary issue.
In reality, obtaining a JD law degree does little more than what it is supposed to do: serve as the stepping stone required to sit for the bar, the passing of which allows you to practice law. The problem is that most law graduates do not learn this until after they graduate law school, through personal experience in the job hunt. First comes trying to find a legal job. When things go sour, it’s time to expand outside the legal field. Once that expansion occurs, results are very limited at best, even for JD Preferred positions. Of course, there are the exceptions that have certain connections and network their way into some relatively obscure position here and there. However, these students are the exceptions, not the general rule. For the random prospective law student, the best advice is to only go to law school if you have a clear goal set in your mind and you have the drive and motivation to do everything you can to reach it. This means potentially obtaining prior work experience or even legal experience before enrolling, making connections and networking naturally over time with lawyers even before law school, and gaining as much practical experience in law school as possible to give you an edge over your competition. From all of this, you can develop a real story about why you want to practice law and have the experience and network available that will help you sell yourself better than your peers. Unless you destroy 1L exams and jump on the big law track, this is what’s necessary to put yourself in an advantageous position and have the best chance of graduating with a legal job out of law school. Don’t bank on jobs outside the legal field being available if things go sour, it’s an unrealistic hope (unless you held a certain job prior to law school and are able to return).
When the JD Is Versatile
The JD degree may be versatile, but it is not versatile in the way you probably were lead to believe. As discussed above, generally speaking a student that completes both undergrad and law school has more skills, drive, and intelligence than the average person. However, these characteristics demonstrated and built by obtaining the JD degree are not the reason why a JD degree is versatile. What really happens is that individuals who enter the legal field and practice after law school, gaining substantive experience in the process, can more easily transition to other fields as a result. When you combine that drive, intelligence, and skill set developed by law school with actual legal experience, it becomes much easier to make moves elsewhere. But this is more related to a lawyer’s areas of expertise than the JD degree itself. Although law school provides you with above average critical thinking skills, the ability to learn a certain field of law and take that legal knowledge with you elsewhere provides the real answer. For example, someone practicing commercial real estate for several years may learn the ins and outs of the commercial real estate market. Then, they decide to take that knowledge along with the critical thinking and writing skills taught by law school and perfected in practice to transition to the business side of the field. Viola, suddenly there’s a business person with a JD. This happens often, but what most students don’t understand is that getting that first legal job is the big obstacle in all of this. When only a little more than half of lawyers get a legal job, let alone a good legal job, being a shining example of this type of JD versatility isn’t very common.
Another reason why the JD versatility claims have been taken out of context can often be explained by situations that exist at the very best law schools. If you go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or almost any of the Top 14 law schools, these schools have the deadly combination of high prestige and an amazing alumni network. When both those features are triggered, some students, particularly those at the top of their classes, have options that 95+% of law students do not. This includes potential employment opportunities at places you would not expect a law graduate to obtain, including positions outside of the legal field. This phenomenon has somehow spiraled out of control and created this notion that the JD law degree itself has been the cause of this success, as opposed to the combination of the prestigious school, alumni network and the individual student’s academic strength. Again, this is faulty logic.
In the end, the JD degree may be versatile, but it is not the cause of its versatility. It’s either merely a factor in the overall stories of initially successful lawyers or the product of right school, right network, right grades. These results are the exception, they are not the general rule. However, somehow, this has been flipped in reverse to have you believe it is the general rule, and not the exception. Counting on JD Preferred jobs is also unrealistic, as those jobs are also few and far between. There’s certainly not enough of them out there for all the law graduates who want to pursue them or need to pursue them because they’re unable to get a legal job. The JD law degree may provide you with important skills and demonstrate you have valuable characteristics, but out of the box all of this means very little, if anything at all. To give an individual an edge, these characteristics need to be part of an overall bigger story the individual is crafting that usually starts with an entry-level legal job after graduation. Don’t be fooled into thinking law school, by itself, will open up doors. It will not. The JD degree’s versatility only really kicks in for those that already have something going for them in the first place. As a result, the safest bet is just to simply assume that obtaining the JD degree will make you valuable for one purpose: to be a lawyer.