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July 19, 2010


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Doug Richmond

As a former hiring partner at a large law firm, I would say that you should pursue a joint degree or certificate program for whatever intellectual value or pleasure you derive from the additional course of study. As a general rule, these programs are unlikely to materially enhance a young lawyer's employment prospects.

Matt Lister

Thanks Doug- that's interesting information. I wonder if the same thing holds true in other areas- would legal aid look more fondly on someone with a certificate (or a degree) in social work? I don't know, but would be interested to hear.

I should add that I can imagine ways that such programs would indirectly make students better off- by making them better lawyers. That won't always happen, of course, but it might. That doesn't mean that firms should automatically give credit for such programs- they probably don't have enough information to evaluate them most of the time- but if such a program makes a student a better lawyer in one way or another, we could hope it would have a long-term pay-off.

Kevin Jon Heller

Thanks for the interesting post, Matt. At the risk of sounding like I'm shilling for my school, it's worth noting that there are joint degrees with non-US law schools, as well. Melbourne Law School (where I teach) and NYU Law School now offer a joint JD/JD degree -- after four years of study, two in Melbourne and two in New York, a student earns two complete JDs. The advantage, of course, is that a double-JD student will essentially be able to practice anywhere in the common-law world -- something of increasing interest to both US and other English-speaking students.

Rick Bales

I think it's important to note that Doug's perspective is not necessarily representative. He works at a large law firm that probably hires primarily based on academic credentials, and whose firm likely has a varied practice such that a promising candidate can be plugged into any of several practice areas. Many smaller firms, however, hire for specific needs. A certificate program gives students a way to signal their interest in a specific area of practice, and gives the firm an assurance that the candidate has more than a passing familiarity with that area of practice and is not just feigning an interest because that's what the job posting says the firm is looking for.

Matt Lister

Kevin- that's good to know of. And it's great to have you mention your specific program! (If I recall NYU might have a similar program w/ a school in Canada, too- York or Toronto- but I might be mis-remembering.) That type of program does sound like it could be very useful for the right person. Rick- that's a good point, and one worth keeping in mind. I imagine that might be especially likely with an environmental studies certificate or something like that.

Doug Richmond

My firm was large but not a behemoth, and given our hiring structure it was common for me to know of particularized needs for junior lawyers, e.g., labor and employment, tort litigation, corporate, health care, etc. If we were looking for a labor and employment associate, for example, was it interesting to see that a candidate had earned a certificate in the field and thus had more than a passing interest in or familiarity with the subject? Sure. As Rick says, a certificate has signalling value. But at the end of the day, that person still was in competition with many other bright, motivated candidates, who might have better grades, superior personal skills, relevant pre-law work history, etc., and who were genuinely open to learning many areas of the law. Things such as seemingly top-flight intellect and great personal skills, to name just two, mattered more than a certificate, especially when you consider that a certificate is no substitute for learning in practice. So, I do not mean to bash certificate or joint degree programs, but I remain unpersuaded that they have the employment value that law schools think they offer. Students who have genuine interest in joint degree or certificate program subjects should pursue consider pursuing them for all sorts of good reasons, but they should never be led to think that they are some sort of magic bullet from an employment standpoint. And please, let's not kid ourselves--there are all sorts of certificate programs that exist solely because of professors' interests and desires.

Orin Kerr

As a general rule, I think students should not do a joint degree unless (a) it's just for their own intellectual interest, (b) they can identify some job that they want but likely can't get without the joint degree, or (c) they want to stay in school an extra year for some reason. My sense is that (b) is rare if not nonexistent, which means that the main issue is (a) and (c).

As for why schools offer joint degrees, I think the main reason is to to differentiate themselves from competitors and attract students. Some law school applicants perceive joint degrees are valuable, and therefore a reason to favor one school over another: The more unique the combination of joint degrees, the more it differentiates the offering school from other schools.

Of course, that's not to say joint degrees aren't helpful. Life is short, and if you really want to study something, go for it. I just suspect they're helpful to a smaller number of students than the group that *thinks* they'll be helpful.

Orin Kerr

Oh, and I should probably have said "rare "rather than "rare if not nonexistent": There are so many different joint degree programs surely many students apply for reason (b).

Matt Lister

That sounds pretty reasonable, Orin. When I've advised students on what or where to study (mostly undergrads deciding what sort of programs to apply to) I always suggest that they have a plan and then see what might help them achieve it. If someone were to ask me about your option (b), I'd want to know a fair amount about what their plan was and why they thought the certificate or joint degree would help them achieve it.

I.G. Cohen

One type of joint degree I think is particularly helpful is the JD/MPH, since I think many of the skills needed to successfully operate in the public health world (e.g., epidemiology) may not be as easy to pick up in the workforce. I also think many public interest employers in the public health world, at least, want someone who has both sets of training.

To be sure, most of my positive experience with JD/MPH programs has been with Harvard's, where the law school (anchored by the Petrie-Flom Center, but also by parts of our Human Rights Program has particularly close relationships with a number of cognate groups at the public health school (Michelle Mello and others at the Program in Law and the Public Health,the FXB center, and the university-wide Program on Ethics and Health that has significant public health membership, etc), and thus we are able to give students a true integrative experience. As with all of these programs, students should try and find out as much as possible about how well the faculties play together before determining if the experience will yield more than the sum of its parts.

Matt Lister

Glenn- an MPH does seem like a plausible candidate for a degree that could add real value for the right person. And, you're absolutely right that it's important to see how well the two programs are integrated. (Unfortunately, I think it's not always extremely easy to get that information.) In my case, the strong integration and cooperation between the law school and the philosophy department at Penn were one of the reasons why I went to the JD/PhD program there.

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