MBA vs. Law School

Which is better, law school or business school?  I get asked that question (or a variation thereof) from most MBA students I meet. Surprisingly, few law students bother asking. Why? … probably because many law students already assume nothing could be worse.  My purpose here is to outline some of the major similarities and differences between the two programs.

Competition

The Princeton Review currently ranks both the Marriott School and J. Reuben Clark Law School as #4 in “most competitive students” in their respective ratings.  Having lived in both environments, I believe the meaning of “competitive” is very different at each school.  In the MBA program there is an intense competitive spirit when it comes to representing the school and trying to make BYU’s MBA program respected and top-notch. There is direct competition when it comes to vying for individual internships and full-time placement. Yet, come winter semester, most every BYU MBA voluntarily unites to combine their collective networks to ensure every student has a job or internship by the end of April.  BYU MBAs compete much like a team: doing their personal best and assisting their teammates to achieve peak performance.

Competitive at the law school has a very different feel. To a competitive law student, GPA is everything. This makes law school inherently cutthroat. Your GPA determines your class rank, which determines which law firms or clerkships will even look past the first line of your resume. Rank/GPA opens or closes doors. This single element makes law school an atmosphere of comparison and aggressive learning.  There are many top-quality, friendly people in law school, but you won’t likely find students banning together to ensure everyone has an internship or full-time offer.

Age and Experience

I was 29 when I began law school. I was an Air Force Captain, held a Top Secret clearance, and had lived and traveled in Asia for most of the time between undergrad and law school. In law school I was surrounded by students predominantly under 25 and fresh from undergrad. I believe my age and experience disadvantaged me when it came to studying and test-taking because I had been away from school for nearly five years. My experience in organizations, decision-making, and working in various cultures did not help me understand torts, contracts, or civil procedure. Eventually I bridged the gap, but it took a lot of effort. Contrast that to b-school, where I was 30 years old and relatively average in my age and experience. Guess where I felt more at home.

Classroom Environment

The famed “Socratic Method” is used in both schools, but its intensity is several notches higher as a 1L than as a first-year MBA. B-school is geared toward collaboration and creativity in approaching problems.  Professors want you to insert experience and supposition into your answers. In law school there is a ‘right answer,’ and chances are, the professor is the only one who knows it. Law students are given 15-30 pages of small-print text to read prior to each class. During class a professor will randomly call on 2-3 students to engage throughout the class period. Socratic Method in law school means you are on the hook to engage in a one-on-one discussion with the professor for 10-15 minutes. This can be extremely intimidating and daunting to a 1L who wants to look intelligent in front of classmates. But here’s the clincher: usually no more than 2% of a law school grade will be based on class participation. Experienced law students know that class preparation will have a de minimus effect on their overall performance. Thus, after the 1L year, many law students learn how to minimalize class preparation and focus on the all-important final exam.

Exams

B-school exams are not differentiable from those most of us experienced as undergrads. If anything, professors appropriately recognize the inefficacy of exams in promoting learning. More emphasis is put on deliberate practice and solving problems in a more realistic team environment.   Not so in law school. Like many aspects of law school, exams are steeped in generations of tradition and few law professors are willing to recognize the futility of lumping all evaluation into a three-hour frenzy. One of my law school friends took speed typing tutorials to improve his grades … and it worked!  After most law school exams I had a salt ring on my laptop from my sweaty palms. Law exams include a scenario(s) that is packed with nuance to the legal subject. In three hours or less, a law student is expected to identify every issue and weave every facet of relevant law—including variations in legal jurisdictions—into a brilliant evaluation of each party’s legal case. Law students spend weeks preparing “outlines” of case law to help them study for exams. I’ve seen outlines number over 100 pages of single-space bullets.

Studying

As you might expect, studying in law school is a practice of intensive reading and documenting legal rules.  My 1L year I spent so much time at my desk that I bought a cushion for my wooden chair because my legs and butt where developing a chronic ache. Fortunately a couple of brilliant law students invited me to join their study group my first semester. We would meet once a week until finals season—when we spent hours each day discussing, debating, and compiling outlines. A few professors try to integrate some team assignments into their curriculum, but most stick to traditional exams—where teamwork is purely optional.

The best and worst part of b-school is teams. Teams can suck away all your time. They breed unnecessary drama and force you to spend time with people you might otherwise avoid. Teams also enabled me to develop life-long friendships, learn from brilliant people, and cultivate vital skills that will help me throughout my career. My first semester MBA team struggled with two roadblocks. First, we spent too much time together and needed to carve out time for individual study. Second, it took us all semester to figure out how to communicate our expectations and appropriately divide work. One of the biggest differences between law school and business school is how you interact with your classmates. In B-school interaction is forced. In law school the best students learn to leverage their classmates early on.

Career Prospects

I delve into this topic in my other post, but the topic should be chief on anyone’s mind who is considering either degree.  If law school is generally less attractive and antiquated in its methodology, why is ot so popular? I think the answer is best demonstrated in this generalized salary graph below:

The answer is in the second mode of the law school curve. Top law firms pay graduates around $160k right out of school. This lures a lot of intelligent (if not misguided) people to the law. No work experience (an MBA must!) or elongated residencies (MD) required for a very attractive salary! Sure, the hours and lifestyle are horrendous, but $160,000 is a lot of money straight out of school! One of my law classmates took a job for over $180,000 in a very competitive Texas litigation firm to pay off his six-figure student loan debt in 2-3 years. He will be working 70-90 hours/week for the next three years of his life.

Unfortunately many of us were attracted to law school believing those $160k salaries would be easily attainable. Cue market collapse and the Great Recession. Corporate lawyers, in particular, live and die by the economy. This downturn created a perfect storm for many big firms. First, they were paying attorneys too much (a cost passed on to clients who could no longer afford them). Second, there were too many attorneys. Third, there was not enough business. Even many of the top 15% of my law school class struggled to get the high-paying jobs. Many were given one-year deferments on their job offers. Others had to settle for jobs in the lower salary brackets. This left the bottom half of the class to eat the remaining bread crumbs. Imagine earning $40k after three years of law school!

Even though times have been tough for MBA students, my observation is that they are much better off than our law school compatriots. Companies can live without certain litigation or deals for a few years, but most corporate leaders realize they can’t stop the stream of talented MBA recruits.

Parting Thoughts

I have chosen a career in management and my MBA experience has far exceeded that of my life as a law student. Others out there will have the opposite opinion. I continue to believe the JD/MBA will enhance and benefit my career. Certainly the legal training I now have will help me evaluate decisions, argue my perspective, and communicate my thoughts. Law school isn’t all bad. There are lots of giveaways, dozens of clubs and activities, and some amazing people. If I had to choose between the two, I would still rather invest my time and money into an MBA.

Tim Young

4th Year JD/MBA Candidate

Brigham Young University

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