Bryan Caplan  

A Question for Juris Doctors

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About half of J.D.s don't work as lawyers.  But this doesn't mean their legal educations were bad financial investments.  Law degrees might open doors to desirable careers outside the law, most obviously via signaling

Soon after my wife finished law school, for example, top Silicon Valley tech firms started poaching elite graduates from top U.S. law schools for non-legal jobs.  Entry-level salaries at top law firms leapt about 50% in a few short years.  Of course, top firms in the late 90s might be an extreme outlier of an extreme outlier.

Question for anyone with a J.D.: In your experience, how effective is the J.D. at opening doors to desirable non-legal jobs?

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Don Boudreaux writes:

My JD (UVA, 1992) - no doubt in combination with the econ PhD that I earned six years earlier (Auburn) - certainly helped me to land a plum tenure-track faculty position in what was in the early 1990s Clemson University's Department of Economics and Legal Studies.

Matt Reardon writes:

Not a JD yet, but here's a useful non-anecdotal source:

This site aggregates ABA required disclosures, which ask for pretty specific employment types. I'm not sure how you would tease non-legal Business/Industry jobs from in-house counsel jobs, but if you're looking for a ballpark, this should help. By typing school names into the relevant part of the URL, it looks like top schools send 3-5% of their classes to B/I and that portion increases to 10-15% as you look into mid-tier schools.

Ben Gross writes:

I’m AGC of a large retailer and have remained in the legal camp my entire career (JD from UF ’98) but have been solicited for non-legal roles (real estate exec, public policy think tank, political office) in the past.

GU writes:

It's common knowledge among recent grads that going to law school for anything or than a legal job is a giant waste of time and money. Most young JD's without legal jobs are not in that situation by choice, they just couldn't find a legal job. The JD does not open doors, it closes them.

In the less competitive job market that baby boomers faced, perhaps it could signal something valuable. Now searching for a non-legal job with a J.D. signals that you made a huge mistake, have no skills, but probably have a lot of resentment and a hefty dose of entitlement to boot.

The people who land great non-law positions despite their JD are almost always in their 40s and 50s, such that their schooling is essentially ignored at that point. Great entry level placements don't happen outside of a few outliers from Yale or Harvard.

Dangerman writes:

This is a 1% (or whatever top % slice represents the elites, as you may desire) issue: the very smart *further* signal their position by getting a JD, but the other 99% or so just get more debt in exchange for trade skills that don't pay well relative to the investment.

Source: have a JD.

Mars writes:

From my experience at the University of Chicago, what matters is the experience/education you had before getting a JD. A JD doesn't really open up any new fields (except for the legal profession) but it does enhance your prospects within fields for which you already had some qualifications.

Leo writes:

In my extremely limited experience attempting to get non-legal jobs, my JD felt like a 6-figure albatross. It certainly didn't help that I spent three years in law school instead of getting more recent, relevant experience in my undergraduate field (CS). But even though having a JD from a top-10 school should signal positive qualities to potential employers (intelligence, conscientiousness, etc etc) it also signals the following unappealing qualities:

1. Lawyerness. Most people are suspicious of strangers, and doubly suspicious of lawyer strangers. Lawyers are often argumentative and stubborn. Even though most lawyers I know act ethically, the public perception is that there are a few dozen Lionel Hutzes for every Atticus Finch out there. Nobody expects to get knowing laughs when he claims that 100000 doctors at the bottom of the ocean is a "good start."

2. Flight risk. Employers figure that you're as much of a sucker for the sunk cost fallacy as most people. Since you don't want to "waste" the time/money/effort spent on law school (or because you wouldn't have invested so much time/money/effort in the first place if lawyering wasn't your dream profession), you'll bolt from this job as soon as a legal job pops up. Why bother hiring/training someone who's far more likely than other candidates to move on quickly?

There are probably some other, harder to articulate negative signals ("wannabe-ness," "overpays-for-degrees-ness") that a JD conveys to non-legal employers. But overall, unless you're going to practice law (and have a good plan for doing so), a JD is a very bad gamble.

(Also, it seems absurd that tech firms ever poached law students and forced law firms [some of the stodgiest businesses around] to raise their entry-level salaries. Extreme outlier of an extreme outlier sounds right.)

Mark V Anderson writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the to discuss editing your comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Smurfington writes:

As a 2012 GMU School of Law graduated and Virginia Bar member, the only people I know of working in non-attorney positions either had those positions in law school or had substantial experience (5+ years) in said field and are merely using the degree for promotion purposes. Examples that come to mind are subject matter inspectors/examiners for government agencies or consultants for federal contractors. Personally, I have found that the J.D. overshadows any econ or statistics background I have when it comes to applying for contract admin or compliance admin jobs, which by all rights are perfect for a J.D. but companies always hire B.S/B.A./M.B.A. for.

Charles writes:

Current JD Candidate at T-14(3L)

The non-legal job pipeline directly out of law school is fairly limited and requires effort outside of the usual recruiting mechanism. McKinsey, PWC, and a few similar consulting/accounting firms recruit at law schools but only hire 1 or 2 people. I-banking recruiting is almost non-existent. A few corporations hire but for in-house legal positions. Overall, law firms still dominate the on campus interview process and those jobs are not only easy to come by but also pay more than most 1st year banking/consulting jobs.

With that being said, after an initial stint at a law firm, it is increasingly more common for lawyers to escape the legal profession. Those can be tough transitions though and a stint in-house at a company or with the government can help before moving to the operation side of a business.

Sam writes:

JD, 2013, spent a year at an unpaid position and a year at a plaintiff's firm, now I do statistical analysis. To echo the above comments, I have a degree in Math from a top 20 university and my JD was a significant hindrance in getting out of the field.

GU writes:

I have a J.D. as well (I neglected to mention that in my earlier post).

Bill writes:

I like this example (because I know Todd's family):

_NL writes:

Lawyer who agrees with the comments above. JD helps if you want to be a lawyer, and it can give a little access to a few adjacent professions like i-banking and consulting, but otherwise it tends to be a hindrance. It marks you as a flight risk, as a potential personality clash, and as a higher risk for litigation.

Even in politics and lobbying, where many professionals are JDs, they typically start out in law first. And consulting and i-banking hire non-JDs all the time, though often the JD gets a boost in title/pay.

Some lawyers work in jobs that don't require a bar licensed lawyer, but nonetheless it helps doing compliance work to be a lawyer. This might be in accounting or finance or similar fields, though some further credential may be required (e.g. CPA). Many such compliance jobs, similar to consulting, hire undergrads for most of the jobs and will give a little bump in position to a JD. These positions more or less never pay more than a market-paying law firm.

Duncan Frissell writes:

JD 1976 from (what's now) a Tier 3 regional school. Passed CA and NY Bar Exams.

Market was different then, of course. No debt upon graduation. BA in Econ from Monica Lewinsky's Alma Mater (after my time).

Went into Job Shopping (contract work on engineering projects) as a Tech Writer. Since CV was all in sorting candidates, JD and "Member of the Bar of the State of California" helped. Given the modern regulatory environment governing any real work, I know that my JD helped me get regulatory analyst jobs on various projects. Since contract hires were often made by local managers rather than HR, I know that the idea of hiring their own lawyer appealed to them.

Signaling was significant.

Kitty_T writes:

'97 grad. I believe a majority of my classmates are still practicing, and of those who aren't I think many are in some sort of in-house position where the JD is still relevant, if not strictly necessary.

A fair number who got out went into academia, I-banking, consulting, lobbying or politics, where the JD is still something of a boon. Those who tried to jump directly from private practice to a non-legal job did seem to be at a disadvantage, though it seemed less of one for women. Those who tried to get into the business side of things via an in-house position usually found that wasn't as easy as we'd been led to believe. A significant number did something entirely on their own - started a business, wrote screenplays, founded a charity - based on experience or interests predating law school.

My anecdotal observation is that getting a JD for any reason other than practicing law in some capacity is a gigantic waste of money. "Thinking like a lawyer" actually can be generally useful (when done right it trains you to work through very complex problems logically and thoroughly; sadly it's often not done right and you end up with someone pedantic, inflexible, and narrow minded), but a few good courses in formal logic, rhetoric, and technical writing might do much the same.

Phil writes:

I think it is important to consider two populations: (a) those who earned a JD and are seeking non-lawyer positions because they could not pass the bar, and (b) those who earned a JD but never intended to practice law, and attended law school to support a different career choice.

I attended law school in my early 50s and did so to support an existing career as a public policy professor. I had several classmates who were realtors, government executives, police officers, and businessmen who believed that having a stronger knowledge of the law helped their current career.

None of the 20-somethings in my class (with no prior work experience) were looking for a non-lawyer job, but found themselves in category (a).

Phil writes:

Clarification to my last sentence: All of the students who had no prior work experience were looking for a job as a lawyer, but some of them found themselves in category (a) -- looking for non-lawyer work. (Many worked as paralegals through school and remain there, simply as better educated paralegals.)

Maximum Liberty writes:

In my experience, lawyers move into non-lawyer jobs through a corporate legal department, not directly out of law school or directly from a law firm. In-house lawyers learn the business much faster than business people of a comparable age learn the business because they are exposed to so much more so much more quickly. Then they can either move up to a top job (CEO, COO, chief of staff) or they move across to another department (compliance, HR, business development, operations). So, a JD accelerates you up within a corporate hierarchy and exposes you to opportunities to move across at a much higher level than if you came in through the front door.

I wouldn't expect this effect to be large enough to explain the 50% of lawyers who have non-law jobs.


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