Today’s Law Degree Takes on a Broader Meaning

It can be awkward for law school deans to talk about: As the number of law graduates continues to decline nationwide, more are getting jobs that don’t require a law degree.

That’s not such a good look for law schools, where many students attend with high hopes of earning a place at a prestigious law firm, or, at the very least, practicing law after they graduate.

Now, some deans are trying to embrace the change rather than fight it, launching training programs for students in areas outside of law — like technology — and speaking publicly about alternative career paths.

At the heart of the shift is a term used by schools known as “JD Advantage,” which refers to a job that doesn’t require a law degree but where a J.D. is advantageous in the eyes of an employer. Such jobs include compliance officers, paralegals, consultants and journalists.

Organizations that monitor law school performance have measured an uptick in this area of employment: the proportion of law school graduates obtaining JD advantage jobs has steadily increased — from 8 to 14 percent — since 2007.

As a result, deans are reacting — but it’s a delicate issue to address, as schools are under pressure to report their graduates take jobs where people employ their hard-earned law degree.

 

Law Graduates (left to right) Shan Cole, Elizabeth Gilworth Laura Tracey, and Sophie Gallant, celebrate after collecting their degree's from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. (Photo by Chris Radburn/PA Images via Getty Images)

Law Graduates (left to right) Shan Cole, Elizabeth Gilworth Laura Tracey, and Sophie Gallant, celebrate after collecting their degree’s from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. 2011. (Photo by Chris Radburn/PA Images via Getty Images)

 

Change of Curriculum

Suffolk University Law School in Boston is tackling the issue through its curriculum. In 2013, the school created a “legal technology and innovation” concentration for its students.

This includes courses such as “design thinking for lawyers,” “coding and the law,” and “process improvement and legal project management.” The courses aren’t just designed for students who want to enter emerging fields in legal technology, according to dean Andrew Perlman.

Several years ago, Perlman said he received a phone call from Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which was looking to hire a graduate with legal technology expertise. Perlman connected them with a graduating 3L, who now works at the firm as a legal solutions architect.

The firm has since hired several more Suffolk graduates, Perlman said.

Suffolk, which ranked 140th in the most recent U.S. News rankings of the top law schools, has seen its graduates accepting more JD advantage jobs since the recession, according to Perlman. In 2016, 22.8 percent of its graduates took full-time JD advantage jobs, according to its disclosures to the ABA.

Of course, not all law schools are thinking about the JD advantage category in the same way. At the country’s top schools, where most graduates still enter prestigious BigLaw firms or take clerkships, the number of graduates taking jobs in this category has remained flat. Nevertheless, Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, spends a lot of his time thinking about how he can encourage his students to pursue interesting careers in the growing JD advantage category.

 

Buildings stand on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S., on Friday, June 12, 2015. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Buildings stand on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S., on Friday, June 12, 2015. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

 

When Rodriguez proposed adding a page to Northwestern’s career website simply to provide information about the “interesting, eclectic, and valuable” jobs under the JD advantage umbrella, he received push-back from some colleagues.

“[They] said, ‘Don’t do that, because all you’re doing is signalling to the world that Northwestern is nervous about its job prospects and its students,” he said.

His idea ultimately won out, but Northwestern remains an outlier among the top ten law schools in the United States, most of which don’t mention non-legal careers on their websites. Rodriguez said he “proselytizes” about so-called new economy jobs in the JD advantage category because he knows many of his students, who are culturally conditioned to seek traditionally high-prestige jobs, may not consider them otherwise.

“I can ameliorate the feeling that some of them have that, ‘If I don’t go to Cravath Swaine and Moore, I’m a disappointment to the law school.’ Maybe I can get students to be proud of taking these JD advantage jobs,” he said.

 

JD Advantage Defined

The exact nature of JD advantage jobs is impossible to pin down, in part because the category is such a “hodge podge,” according to James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, an organization of legal career advisors.

Included in the umbrella of JD advantage are jobs as different and varied as paralegals, contracts administrators, regulatory or compliance analysts, law school administrators, legal editors, writers or reporters, and management consultants.

The term “JD Advantage” has been around since 2001, when it replaced the National Association for Law Placement’s previous term, “JD Preferred.” It is used by NALP and the American Bar Association to describe the entire category of jobs that don’t require bar passage but for which a JD is a “distinct advantage.”

Nickole Gambrill, a paralegal and 2010 graduate from Towson University with a degree in Law and American Civilization, sits for a photograph at the Towson University library in Towson, Maryland, U.S., on Thursday, July 3, 2014. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Nickole Gambrill, a legal assistant and 2010 graduate from Towson University with a degree in Law and American Civilization, sits for a photograph at the Towson University library in Towson, Maryland, U.S., on Thursday, July 3, 2014. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

For the law school class of 2011, the last time NALP conducted an in-depth analysis on the matter, banking and legal temp agencies were the biggest source of JD Advantage jobs, while the the specific job types most frequently reported were management and consulting.

In some cases, JD advantage jobs may actually be more desirable to law school graduates than traditional law firm roles. “If you’re in a corporation doing compliance work, you’re in a corporation and there are lots of upward career paths,” said Leipold. “In a law firm, it’s up or out, and there’s not an alternate career path.”

Mark Chandler, general counsel of Cisco, said at least 30 percent of the law school graduates he hires take jobs like contract negotiation, legal operations, and even sales, without ever becoming lawyers.

“The people who have a law degree have a leg up in the efficiency with which work gets done and can help to keep down the need for legal escalation sometimes,” he said.

The JD advantage category will continue to grow in the coming years, according to Leipold. “Even law firms are going to be hiring people with a law degree who may not be practicing law,” said Leipold, adding, “As that business climate and [law firm] model continues to change, the number of lawyering opportunities will be flat or going down.”

 

 

The JD Advantage Stigma

Some legal experts argue there shouldn’t be a negative stigma associated with JD advantage jobs.

Bill Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who studies the legal industry, said many of his former students have pursued interesting careers in which they used their law degrees but didn’t need to be a practicing lawyer.

He cited one of his former students, who took a job at a Big Four accounting firm in an employee tax compliance group.

“It seemed very similar to the practice of law in an ERISA type practice,’ said Henderson. “He loved the team-based atmosphere, he loved the training, he loved the hours, and he felt like he had really landed somewhere special.”

In many cases, Henderson said, these students make just as much money as their lawyer counterparts.

In a NALP analysis of Class of 2011 graduates, the median reported salary for graduates with a full-time JD advantage job was $59,000, whereas the median salary for all graduates with a full-time job was $60,000.

Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Even still, JD advantage jobs are sidelined at law schools, according to Henderson. “There’s not a career fair that’s held for a JD advantage job that has its own [on-campus interview],” he said.

Rather than treating JD advantage jobs like outliers, Henderson believes law schools need to “reverse engineer” these kinds of employment outcomes.

But Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a non-profit dedicated to transparency in legal education, said he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

In an analysis of post-graduation figures reported by law schools, McEntee found that JD advantage job-holders are more likely to be seeking a new job than graduates in traditional jobs requiring bar entrance, “a possible indicator that graduates find the JD advantage work less fulfilling.”

“The market isn’t quite where the law schools want it to be where they can say the JD advantage jobs are a reason to go to law school,” said McEntee. “We’re still in that transition period between a law degree that provides for the practice of law and a law degree that provides for these ancillary positions.”

 

Write to the reporter at srussellkraft@gmail.com.

Write to the editor at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com.

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