Tim asked me if I would share my unconventional JD/MBA Path with the blog world. My experience is extremely different from most, and won’t be applicable to many potential joint degree students. I will lay out my background and basic career objectives, my joint degree path, and my observations about the experience.
Basic background and career objectives
I completed my undergraduate degree in Business because I knew that I wanted to do business law. (This might be the first important caveat, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I started my undergraduate degree). My first set of law school applications was not well received, so I decided to take a year off and work for the legal department of a mid-sized company and reapply to law school. This experience gave me good hands on experience and confirmed that I really did want to be a business attorney (and potentially a general counsel in the future). Furthermore, while I was working, I sat in several meetings with the General Counsel, CFO, and CEO, and I realized that being able to understand both points of view and communicate effectively on both sides was a niche that I felt I could be extremely good at. In that spirit, I took the GMAT that summer and did very well. I also felt that with a JD/MBA, and after about 5+ years at a law firm, I would be able to decide on one of the following career paths: (1) big law partner, (2) regional/mid size/boutique law partner, (3) in-house counsel, (4) private equity or venture capital related work, or (5) consulting (e.g. McKinsey, Bain, BCG, etc.)
My Joint Degree Path
I applied to the Business school where I was attending law school. I assumed I was a guaranteed admit because I was substantially above the school’s GPA & GMAT average and I had some work experience. Unfortunately, I was rejected (on the day of my first law school final). I went to the Business school and asked for clarification, and was told that I did not have sufficient work experience. (I should also note here that I did have some interesting, non-traditional work experience before and during my undergraduate studies. I co-managed KFC restaurants two summers, opened a branch office of a micro-entrepreneurship program for a non-profit organization, and had two years of missionary service with significant leadership experience).
When I asked what I could do to improve my opportunities for being accepted next year, (e.g. start working part time during law school, find a business related summer internship, start my own business during law school, etc) I was told that short of quitting law school to work full time or waiting to do MBA school until after I finish law school, there was little I could do. This was extremely frustrating and I shelved the idea of getting a joint-degree. After all, I had a basic understanding of business from my bachelor’s degree, most successful business attorneys did not have an MBA, and it would delay graduation and cost more tuition.
After surviving the first year of law school, the thought of business school kept coming back, no matter how I tried to rationalize not getting the degree. I recognized that my passion for business school would not go away and that I needed to apply. I started looking into alternative ways to do a joint degree outside of the university I was attending.
My first search revealed that the University of Indiana had a distance learning based MBA that would have allowed me to get an MBA degree by attending a few weeks on campus and doing the rest of the class through live online classes. The degree itself didn’t state that it was an online degree, and Indiana is a top 50 MBA program, so it seemed fairly promising. I ultimately did not apply because I didn’t want to lose the MBA network, and I didn’t want the potential stigma of the online nature of my degree to diminish the value of my degree.
During that time, I heard about several “accelerated” MBA programs for students with specific backgrounds. Most of the programs required an undergraduate degree in business (a minor would not work unless there were significant additional credits in accounting, finance, and several other classes), or 5+ years of business related experience (see e.g. Thunderbird). A small group of schools allowed for students with an Engineering or similar degree (see e.g. Cornell), but I did not meet that requirement so I didn’t look into it further)
The programs varied slightly, but essentially required an intensive summer semester, in which students would cover all of the standard 1st year MBA material (which should be a refresher for people with undergraduate degrees in business). Then, these “accelerated” students would join the returning 2nd year MBA students to complete various electives with some “concentration” or “emphasis” requirements as well.
I narrowed down my applications to the following schools (in approximate US News rank order): Northwestern, Columbia, Cornell, Emory, Notre Dame, University of Florida, Thunderbird, & Babson College. There may be more programs, including international programs, but these were the programs I decided to look into.
I was admitted to one of these schools just days before the Financial Collapse of 2008. I spoke with the registrar of the law school and was told I could receive a one-year deferral from law school to complete the MBA program by furnishing a copy of the admittance letter. I also explored the possibility of receiving some credit at the law school for the MBA classes with substantial overlap or vice versa. I was told definitively that the law school did not recognize credits from other graduate programs in other universities. I was told that if I took a law school class at that university, I could receive credit for that, but there was no other way to get additional credits. Because there was no credit-sharing agreement, technically, I did not do a joint-degree; I did two programs concurrently.
So I finished two years of law school and deferred law school for a year to attend MBA school for a year. This approach had a few challenges. The first challenge was career services. I had determined that I wanted/needed to practice law for 3-5 years in order to reach my career goals. This made it nearly impossible for the MBA career services office to help me very much. The did try to set me up with the law school career services office on-campus, but that was problematic as well. For example, the LAW SCHOOL career services department of my MBA school was friendly, but basically refused to let me participate in On-Campus Interviews unless there were left-over slots available after all the other Law Students had applied. (Keep in mind this is 2009, when the legal market was still extremely tight, so there were not going to be ANY extra spaces.) My law school was somewhat helpful, but I couldn’t participate in On-Campus Interviews at my home law school because I was over a thousand miles away from law school. So, essentially, I was free to use any “do it yourself” resources from the career services offices, but no one could really help me directly because I was not a mainstream candidate. (If you want to know more about my do it yourself approach to getting a job, that will require another post.)
Also, it was quite a headache arranging student loans for each school because my law school told my loan providers that I was no longer a student, so I had to submit a notice of full-time enrollment from MBA school within 5 days or I would enter repayment phase. I ran into the same problem when I came back to law school. My MBA loans became due in the Fall and I had to submit further proof of full-time enrollment again to avoid repayment phase again.
(Sidenote: The decision to attend MBA school during my 3rd year (out of four) was strategic. I knew I wanted to practice law after school, and I didn’t want to scare off law firms by doing the MBA immediately after completing a full JD degree. I assumed that lawyers would assume that I was not fully committed to being a lawyer if I finished all three years of law school and then went to MBA school afterwards.)
Overall, I am very glad that I pursued both degrees, though I generally agree with prior blog statements about the propriety of pursuing a joint-degree. I tend to view myself as a businessman who wants to specialize in legal business problems. I say that because I’m passionate about seeking out opportunities and leveraging them to create value. The additional knowledge of business is powerful to me because of my strong interest in business and it has helped me understand the different points of view between lawyers and business. By being able to understand and effectively communicate with both, I will have an advantage over other lawyers in the business world, which will hopefully help me develop a robust book of business.
For my interests, I think my unconventional joint degree has work out extremely well. In fact, I would say that it worked out even better than it would have if I had been accepted into the MBA program at my law school. First, through the accelerated program, I was able to sample all sorts of MBA electives, which would have been harder to fit in if I had done the joint degree program (which effectively shaves off 12 elective credits from both programs, thus limiting your elective choices). Also, the MBA broadened my network of connections in a way that I would not have gotten from doing the program at the same school as my law degree. I enjoyed the other university so much, I considered doing my last year of law school at my MBA school. However, financially it didn’t make any sense (because of my law school scholarship v. no possible scholarship for a “visiting student”).
There were some challenges, but I think they were worth it. Again, I realize this applies to a very narrow group of students that could qualify for an accelerated program, but I hope that it is helpful. Please feel free to ask question via the comments on the blog.