A cascade of new dual-degree programs, where students top off a JD with enough coursework to earn academic standing in another discipline, reaches a highwater mark this autumn: Stanford Law School will offer 27 joint degrees, up from the mere 6 it offered a few years ago. "The interest has been enormous," says Dean Larry Kramer. "Law students recognize this is a better education for them."
Not everyone hiring or recruiting lawyers goes along with that thinking, however. Market enthusiasm for such degrees is often mixed and can depend on the specialty involved. Some even doubt that such degrees offer any value at all. "In my 25-year practice, I've never seen the case where an extra degree helped anybody," says Nancy Haffner of Los Angelesbased legal-search firm The Haffner Group. "And I have had people tell me 'I wish I had talked to you before I got this extra degree.' "
Nevertheless, nearly all of California's ABA-accredited law schools now offer at least one dual-degree program-most in business, economics, or a humanities discipline, and sometimes in conjunction with other institutions. Expanding beyond the traditional JD/MBA, they range from Cal Western San Diego's JD with a masters of social work degree, to an international water resources law degree offered in Sacramento at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. The UCLA School of Law even lets students tailor-make a specialized degree they earn concurrently with their law degree.
But Haffner says her career of filling jobs at large law firms has taught her that clients value top grades from a reputable law school over most dual degrees. Prospective employers may even suspect that some dual-degree holders are "career students" or have only a fleeting interest in law. Plus, more time spent in academia can mean less time learning the ropes as a summer associate. What seemed like a leg up can become a step aside.
"You could get a master's in psychology to go along with a law degree, but I don't know how much value that would bring to the table-or to the client, more importantly," says Daniel Herling, a partner at Keller and Heckman in San Francisco. Herling, who's on the advisory council at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, says the interdisciplinary trend reflects growing rivalry among law programs.
"Law schools have it tough, with a lot of competition," Herling says, "but for students-marketwise-does the client really care about a dual degree?"
Of course, some dual degrees have more value than others. Currently, those including science or technology studies-say, a JD with electrical engineering or computer science-are quite popular. As they tire of paying piecemeal for consultants, law firms are instead hiring headhunters to find staff lawyers for casework in specialized fields.
Maggie Hazelrig, the San Francisco based division director at legal recruiter Robert Half International, notes that this has been particularly true in the past five years. In fact, she recently was asked to find a patent attorney with academic credentials in genetics.
Even the standard JD/MBA-while less sought after-can open avenues to business, teaching, or specific areas of interest. After earning such a degree at Stanford in 1995, Miriam Rivera found that her training in financial statements and quarterly reports helped her excel past other first-year associates. After stints in consulting and at a start-up, Rivera went on to become vice president and deputy general counsel at Google. When hiring, Rivera says, she sought lawyers with diverse professional and educational backgrounds. "We liked folks with 'special sauce,' as we called them," she says.
Still, "people shouldn't hide out in school," counsels Rivera, who has since left Google and now serves on various nonprofit and private boards. But she says the benefits of a dual degree become clearer "as you become more senior in practice. And any place that doesn't value what you've done is probably not a place you want to work."