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by Anna Ivey | March 10, 2009

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Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Question: I'm thinking of getting a joint JD/MBA rather than just a JD. What do you think of joint degrees? How does that work on the admissions side? And what about career prospects?

Anna's Answer: Although I haven't seen any figures quantifying the number of law school applicants interested in joint degrees, I would venture that the proportion is quite high. In my experience, the most popular joint degree is the JD/MBA, but other ones that pop up with some frequency are public policy degrees, masters or doctorates in fields like economics or history, and MD's. Schools that offer joint programs usually offer substantial time (and therefore cost) savings compared to doing the degrees separately. For example, pursuing a JD and an MBA separately would take a total of five years, whereas most JD/MBA programs take only four.

Most joint degrees will also require that you apply separately to both programs and be admitted separately to both programs. So, to stick with the JD/MBA example, you would have to take both the LSAT and the GMAT. You would have to submit separate applications to both the law schools and the business schools, and you will have to meet each program's separate standards. That can be a real problem for people without full-time work experience, which business schools take much more seriously than law schools currently do.

I work with both law school and business school applicants, and trying to complete both sets of applications at the same time would make most applicants' heads spin. A lot of people who think they want to apply for joint degrees drop out of the joint application process once they realize how harrowing it's going to be. Every year there are people who manage to do it, though.

Many law schools that offer joint degrees will let you wait until your first year of law school to apply to the other program, so you don't have to apply to both programs at the same time. Bear in mind, though, that it probably won't be any easier applying to the MBA program during your first year in law school, which is famously demanding.

As for the merits of joint degrees: I tend to advise people against them. There are very narrow career niches for which joint degrees might make sense. For example, the health care industry is so heavily regulated by federal and state laws that a law degree might be useful even for someone working on the business side. The passage of the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002, which imposes hefty corporate governance and disclosure burdens on publicly traded companies, their executives and their professional advisors, also offers opportunities to people with both JD and MBA skill sets.

The reality is, though, that most people with joint degrees end up picking one career track over the other after graduation rather than landing in one of those niche roles where a joint degree really makes sense and adds value. For what it's worth, I'll also add that of all the people I know who have earned joint JD/MBA's, I don't know a single one who ended up choosing a legal track over a business track. (I'm sure they're out there, but I'm guessing they are in the minority.) They could have gotten just the MBA and saved themselves the two years and hefty tuition that they tacked on for the privilege of their JD diplomas.

Another downside to a JD/MBA is that if you do end up wanting to compete for jobs with your MBA peers, many recruiters of business school graduates are suspicious of joint JD/MBA's. And their suspicion is not unjustified, because many people who pursue joint degrees do so because they aren't quite sure which career track they want, they are too risk-averse to pick a horse and they decide to defer that decision until graduation. Legal employers love the risk-averse, but the business world generally doesn't.

As for the legal job market, an MBA is not likely to hurt you and can even help, particularly in a corporate (also called transactional) practice like mergers & acquisitions, private equity, securities or real estate, as distinguished from a litigation practice. And an MBA will make your life a lot easier if you wake up one day and realize that you did in fact pick the wrong career. You'll have an easier time jumping over the fence, as many corporate lawyers ultimately do. But keep in mind that while a joint degree holder might enjoy a competitive advantage in the legal job market compared to a plain old JD, joint degree holders don't typically get paid more than their JD-only peers, and that dramatically lowers the return on your educational investment.

All in all, I don't think joint degrees are a good investment for most people. If there are joint-degree holders out there who disagree, I'd love to hear from you. I'll keep my column readers posted.

If you have your own question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

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