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September 07, 2009


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This is a terrific idea, though not for everyone. I did the same, I went to the UK right after law school to pursue a Ph.D. You can easily do it in three years, and in law if you would like, which gives you an opportunity to become an expert on a niche area.

One cautionary note though: the possibility of a stipend is pretty slim abroad. They just don't have as broad a funding base, particularly for Americans. You will incur some more debt as a consequence, but it offers a good foothold into legal teaching. Though after three years of law school more debt can be pretty scary.

Matthew Reid Krell

Stop telling people the secret plans I made!

Kevin Jon Heller

I second the first comment. Our PhDs here at Melbourne finish in three years, because it is a research degree. Most PhDs outside of the US do no require coursework, including the Oxfords, Cambridges, and LSEs of the world.


This is an interesting idea, but I would be much more cautious than Jeff's post suggests. Legal academia is incredibly difficult to break into, usually requiring top 10% of a top 10 school to even be in the running. Someone who is having trouble finding a law firm job cannot count on landing a legal teaching job.

And, to my knowledge, legal academia (despite it long-shot odds) is actually among the easiest in terms of getting a tenure-track position, compared to non-legal disciplines. Each year, there are approximately 600 applicants at the meat market, and nearly 100 will get hired (though, again, those hired are almost invariably the top 10 of the top 10). Jeff's own numbers show 25 applicants for one position in Poli Sci, though I don't know how many other positions open up in one year. But if you have $100k in law school loans that is racking up interest, and potentially more graduate loans after 5 years of graduate school, it is somewhat reckless to go for an eventual academic position with 1-in-25 odds.

In short, the path to academia is tough even for the cream of the crop--people with prestigious clerkships and top grades. It seems somewhat reckless for a person who is unemployed precisely because they lack those credentials to double-down on the longest of long-shot options. Jeff, obviously, succeeded (though I would imagine he could in fact have landed a law firm job, notwithstanding his horror stories). But it just seems an extraordinarily risky bet with the odds against you and a mountain of non-dischargable debt to repay.


I dropped out of a Ph.D. program, and 2 years later I went to law school. I've never regretted it, nor have I ever considered going back to graduate school (it's been 12 years since I left that path behind). I can see how a Ph.D. might be a good fit for some with a J.D. (especially those with aspirations to enter academia), but overall, I wouldn't recommend most people with a law degree go that route unless they have some very specific, very deep interests that will dovetail with their legal interests.

Jeff Yates

Wow, this is a lot of comments; thanks for your interest.

Kevin and Illicit property - I defer to your expertise on programs in other countries; I have little info on that, but it sound very interesting - especially the part about less course work.

Matthew - it's funny you should say that - undergrads often ask about my "JD-PhD plan" - I had none. Seriously, I was going to leave my legal position anyway and the lateral legal market wasn't happening so I figured I'd take it semester by semester - and here I am. Also, they often ask whether I hated the law and left - no, I like being an attorney and found the work fulfilling. Things just worked out this way.

Anon - you raise some fair points on risk and debt, but I feel the need to clarify and expand on some of my points. First, the social sciences are not nearly as preoccupied with pedigree as law - not even close - it's still there, but doesn't mean nowhere ville if you don't have it - check the placement records I cited at some not so prestigious institutions. Yes, I know - how many people attended these schools? Plenty, but I would suggest that most non placements in pol sci are a result of having other, better alternatives (some of my grad school friends have made good $ in statistics oriented jobs) or people just not working hard, smart, and long enough (all three are necessary). That said, the academic market can be unfair - trust me, I know this from experience.

Re debt - if one lives frugally and works in the summer, then there's no reason that he or she should run up a huge debt. I only ran up 9k in grad school (much more in law school) and I know people who ran up zero debt in grad school. Clearly choice of schools matters on the point of expenses (eg. Binghamton vs. a NYC school). But it is a matter of making choices and assessing risk - but this is true in any career. I would not describe it as a "longest of long-shot options".

Re legal job, as stated, above, I did land a legal job, did it for 2 years, and then applied to grad school (I also worked for a firm while in grad school - a way for JDs to make $ that may not be available to their classmates).

What do the jobs look like in the law and courts subfield? Fair question. I've listed below a non-exhaustive list of the job openings in the law and courts subfield this year

University of North Florida
Columbus State University
Monmouth College
Roosevelt University
Illinois State University
University of Oregon
University of New England
Pacific Lutheran University
CUNY-Hunter College
Elizabethtown College
North Central College
Pomona College
Allegheny College
University of West Florida


Jeff, being unfamiliar with academic hiring in the social sciences, I will defer to your expertise. But then it starts sounding like this advice is better for someone before they enter law school--they should have chosen the Poli. Sci. Ph.D. instead and avoided all that law school debt in the first place.

Re: my point about debt. The concern is not graduate school debt, which is a good stipend and frugal living should be minimal. The problem is that your post is ostensibly directed to people who already have graduated law school, and right now have nothing to show for it except an accumulated pile of $100k of debt, which is growing exponentially bigger due to the miracle (in this case, curse) of compound interest. If they spend a couple of years at a law firm to pay of law school debt first, not a problem. But the people with law firm jobs are not your intended audience.

In sum, it seems you are telling a group of newly minted JDs who have not seen one dollar of return from their investment to consider the possibility that law school was a big and very expensive mistake--and go with some other field (perhaps related to law, but distinct) that they should have chosen from the start. That may be sound advice; but it surely is a bitter pill to sell.

Jeff Yates

Anxious - I believe we commented at about the same time or I would have included your remarks in my last message - you raise a very important point - you gotta enjoy this stuff and find it interesting; otherwise you will be very, very annoyed and bored. And, it can be hard to discern this w/out actually trying grad school. I warn grad students that grad school is not something to "half-do" - if you can't fully commit then you need to get out, immediately - you're wasting your time and lost salary (a whole other thread of discussion). Also, done correctly, grad school is not a cake walk or a place to hang out; 60+ hours a week is not an unreasonable work week to expect (again, done right) and life as an assistant prof isn't that different (again, done right, many do not). That said, there is a lot of good to academic careers. I'd be happy to elaborate on the upsides and downsides of academic life if anyone is interested.

Anon - you, again, raise fair points. I suppose my message is for a broader group and having a couple years of experience might be helpful in a number of ways - I also imagine that a number of newly unemployed attorneys might be reading. Debt is no fun, that's for sure. I often get a lot of dropped jaws in class when I let them know that I am still paying off debt from law school (I must look really old). It's a drag, but I just think of it as paying for a new car and I don't get the car.

I imagine that this is a bitter pill - was the JD a waste of time? I think that having a JD helps in teaching and in research, but to be frank it only helps at the margins in marketability. If in fact you did go to a top 10 JD or PhD institution, then it does open up a new market in law school placement. It also provides a back up plan if the PhD situation does not work out (I still keep up my TN license).

To be fair to me, I'm not really selling the bitter pill - we get more than enough applications to sort through and depending on your circumstances Binghamton may not even be a good fit for a given applicant (and I certainly don't need competition from other JD/PhDs). I just remember being unemployed (for an extended time) and think that this option ("getting a Ph.D. on someone else's dime") would have sounded like a good offer during that miserable time. Of course, each person has to weigh trade offs and risk according to their own set of preferences and responsibilities - this option no doubt makes more sense for a single person with no kids than it does for someone who may not have as flexible of a situation.

disappointed recent jd

I took a T10 JD w/ honors and 90th+ percentile GRE scores to several political science graduate admissions committees and didn't get a single offer last year. I think it's a little harder these days to grab onto other people's dimes.

Jeff Yates

disappointed recent jd - I hear ya. While I didn't have these scores/pedigree, I did do fairly well on the gre and had pretty good grades and two years of legal experiences. Since none of the 10 or so programs that I applied to were even in the top 20 I assumed that I would get a good number of offers - I got just two. I was astounded and for some reason a bit offended (although I dont know why). Some of the programs were also somewhat rude in their dealings with me. But I digress. I'm guessing that you applied to top 15 programs - the competition is incredible at these programs and many of them are not necessarily that eager to get a law and courts student - especially when they are more interested in developing other fields and have apps in those fields that are equal to or better than yours.

Obviously, I encourage you to shoot me an email and apply to Binghamton. If that's not your cup of tea, then here are some schools that, while not in the top 15, have traditionally done quite well in placing graduate students in law and courts:

Washington University
SUNY -Stonybrook
South Carolina
Ohio State
Michigan State

best of luck.

coach outlet stores

Such a great speech, thanks for bringing it to my attention!*

Debt Guru

This is great information. I wish I would have had information like this after graduation. During my college years I gained a mountain of debt from loans and credit card debt. After graduation I could not jump right into a career. I had to seek assistance from for credit counseling. They did a great job and now I have moved into my career and I'm debt free.

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