The 3-Year JD-MBA

Northwestern University generated extensive discussion recently after announcing a program to let students complete legal studies in 2 years instead of 3, also done at University of Dayton. Less discussed, Northwestern has for a decade offered an alternative that lets students get both the JD and MBA in 3 years instead of the usual 4 or 5. Although analysis applicable to the speedy JD may likewise apply to the speedy dual degree, there may be some differences warranting a separate look.

We considered adapting the fast track dual degree, also done at St. Thomas University, when I was Academic Dean at Boston College . A modicum of reverse engineering was required to connect Northwestern’s bulletin description to the driving regulatory requirements. And special tailoring for specific attributes of BC was necessary. In the end, the BC faculty opted to forego the step. Yet it may work well for some schools in some locations and be of interest to many more students than Northwestern or St. Thomas can accommodate.

Demand. Not all students will find a 3-year JD-MBA program appealing, but many likely will. Northwestern, for example, reports receiving about 160 annual applications for about 25 spots it allocates to this program (compared to about 5,000 applications for 240 spots in the 3-year JD program). Other schools may infer probable demand according to their recent history in granting both degrees, either under a 4- or 5-year program. Not all schools will enjoy requisite demand or be able to meet it, but some will.

General. In general, US law school requires 3 years and MBA programs require 2, so 5 years are required to obtain both. But many universities have long allowed students to earn JD and MBA degrees in 4 years by each school recognizing a semester’s worth of credits (12-14) from the other’s curriculum. Universities can enable students to earn the 2 degrees in 3 years by increasing the level of mutual recognition and adding a summer program between a 1st year at the law school and a 1st year at the business school.

Law School. A traditional 3-year law school program meeting minimum ABA rules requires 82 credits, with 78% of these (about 64 credits) taken from instruction in regular classes held at the law school. (See ABA Standard 304(b)). Most law schools prescribe about 1/3 of these in required 1st year courses and ABA rules effectively prescribe about 10% of them from upper level courses (Professional Responsibility, Skills Training, and Legal Writing). So, under ABA rules, about 18 credits may be recognized from other sources.

Business School. A traditional 2-year business school MBA program may require about 55 credits. This often includes a 1st year of mostly required courses and a 2nd of mostly electives.

Overlap. A considerable number of business school and law school courses overlap, at least substantively and sometimes analytically. From the business school curriculum, examples of staples are accounting, economics, finance and tax, and more tailored courses like securities, international business transactions, and real estate. From the law school curriculum, examples are accounting, antitrust, bankruptcy, corporate finance, corporations, economic analysis, hedge funds, mergers & acquisitions, mutual funds, quantitative methods, secured transactions and securities regulation.

Model Details. The following model should meet formal requirements of both. Year 1 is taken full-time at the law school (with full law school credit awarded and no need or basis for business school credit to be awarded); Year 2 is taken full-time at the business school (with business school credit awarded and a need for the law school to recognize about 7 credits).

Between these years, a 10-credit summer program is taught at the law school. Three business-related law school courses are offered (say corporations, securities regulation and corporate finance or mergers & acquisitions). Ideally, these are taught by 1 faculty member from the law school, 1 from the business school (probably a JD member of the business law faculty) and 1 adjunct law professor, or various combinations year to year. All would earn law school credit; it is not essential that they earn business school credit but they would be cognizable.

The 3rd year is split between the two schools, with students taking (a) ABA required law school courses, amounting to about 8 credits, (b) 13 credits of elective courses in the law school (for which the business school could award credit) and (c) 14 credits in the business school, allocated between electives and any prescribed courses according to business school academic policy (for which the law school would recognize some 11 credits).

Financial. Students receive some 24 additional credits of instruction compared to those enrolled in the JD program alone (about 106 instead of 82). In exchange, students may be charged the equivalent of 4 years of tuition. For example, if JD students pay $34,000, then JD/MBA students in the 3-year program may be charged $43,000. Students thus pay an additional $27,000 while saving in opportunity cost a significant multiple of that (essentially equivalent to 1 or 2 years of professional compensation). Other direct program costs are summer faculty compensation, which could be paid in cash (say $15,000 per course for full-time and $10,000 per course for part-time, a total of $40,000) or teaching credits. Additional indirect costs include housekeeping and coordination of inter-school services, including admissions, placement, records, alumni and financial.

Advantages. Program advantages include: (1) intensify interdepartmental instruction and inquiry between the law and business schools; (2) meet some student demand and help students financially; (3) attract an interesting and highly-qualified pool of applicants; (4) add an innovative program in terms of time and focus; (5) add a summer dimension to a law school program; and (6) provide specific kinds of training that can aid students with specific professional and career objectives that, in turn, may satisfy employer and client demands.

Challenges. Challenges include: (1) whether a 3-year program provides sufficient breadth of exposure to law and legal analysis (a challenge likewise identified for a 2-year JD program); (2) assuring sufficient student interest and qualifications (it may be helpful to limit enrollment to students having had significant work experience); and (3) assuring sufficient enthusiasm among the schools’ business law faculty, mostly in terms of willingness to teach summer courses and provide student guidance.

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13 Responses

  1. mj says:

    I was admitted to the NW/Kellogg 3 year JD/MBA program a few years ago and ultimately chose not to attend, instead attending another Top 10 b-school.

    I found significant disadvantages with NW’s program: The curriculum did not seem well integrated–for instance I got my b-school acceptance about a week before my law school acceptance and no one would answer questions in the interim about whether I had gotten in to the JD/MBA program or not. Navigating financial aid between the two was a nightmare–complete runaround. Career services questions were handled the same way. My potential classmates came across as immature when compared with other b-school students, who are generally a bit older than law school students. Tuition was charged at the higher rate of the two schools, the law school rate.


    But the biggest drawback was the lack of time to explore–to participate in clubs, find myself, choose whether I wanted to do law or business. As there was only one summer available to do an internship, if you wanted to do law at all, you had to work at a law firm then…no if’s, an’s or but’s about it. The choice was made the minute you sent in your deposit. Missing out on amazing networking opportunities did not seem prudent from a career standpoint–I felt like if I went, my entire three years would be spent in a panic in the library.

    NW’s JD/MBA was not a true program that straddled law and business–it was a 2 1/2 year JD combined with NW’s accelerated 1 year MBA. No thanks. Having done an MBA, there’s enough challenging coursework in the first year alone–combining a 2-year program into one year would be too much.

    It might be the right program for some, but I did my homework and it was not the right program for me. Most telling was that none of the students I contacted once I was admitted even cared to discuss their experience. That said volumes.

  2. dm says:

    I graduated a few years back from the NW/Kellogg JD/MBA program just as it was transitioning from a 4 year program to a 3 year program and had the option to graduate in 3 years or remain under the original 4 year schedule. While I saw advantages to completing both degrees in 3 years, I elected to remain in the 4 year program (one year 100% law, one year 100% business, and two years taking classes at both schools). There were just too many classes in each program that I wanted to experience and that allowed me to tailor my experience.

    I think the program runs the risk of making itself too structured and not allowing enough flexibility for students to really experience what each school has to offer. I agree with the earlier commenter that the program might be right for some. However, I fear that it may lessen the value of both degrees.

    Unlike the earlier commenter, I felt that my classmates in the joint program we more qualified that the typical law school student and right on par with the students at the business school. I also felt that the services provided by the administration were excellent. I do note that, unlike the earlier commenter, I received only once acceptance letter (letting me know that I was admitted to the joint program).

  3. ILinVA says:

    I graduated from the JDMBA program last year and absolutely loved it. In my opinion Northwestern’s program is truly a joint program. I had to submit one application, take one standardized test, schedule one admissions interview, and contact one person to ask more questions about the process. When I was accepted I received one letter from the admissions office. This is completely different from the process at other schools where the admission process is done separately.

    While at the school, we had a “program coordinator” (can’t remember Dean Wilson’s official title) who provided us with guidance as we went through the program. As 1L’s at the law school, we were integrated into the law school and our experience did not differ one bit from the other 1L’s. At the end of the second semester and before the beginning of the summer term, we had a six week vacation which most of my classmates used to do a short internship and in some cases that internship extended through the summer term. This was in addition to the normal 2L (or 2J as we refer to it) summer internship. This was made possible because we had quite a few night classes offered. For more on this, take a look at one classmate’s perspective here

    During our second year at Kellogg we were equally immersed into the Kellogg culture. As JDMBA’s we had the option to take up to 20 classes at Kellogg which is only 4 less than what regular MBa at Kellogg can take in their two years. We were able to do this because we could also take Kellogg classes during our third year in the program. During our third year, most of us took classes at both the law school and business school.

    In regard to employment opportunities, the employers seem to really love us. Most like the fact that they had less time to wait to get us full-time. My classmates and I received some of the best opportunities available to law students and business students. I have one classmate working for a major, major private equity fund, another classmate working for a well established hedge fund, others working for top investment banks, consulting firms and law firms. There is even one doing a federal appellate clerkship.

    I will end by saying that in my opinion my fellow JDMBA classmates were as qualified as any of the regular JD and MBA students.

  4. Jane Raven says:

    This is an interesting discussion to me because I am currently a joint J.D. / M.P.A student at Syracuse University College of Law and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The M.P.A. program is essentially business school for the public sector (government and non-profit management). The program is three years. The first year is full-time at the law school, then you begin M.P.A classes your first summer, and for the remaining 2 years, you take classes in both schools. There is some overlap in the curriculum, (in discussions of social policy and in the finance classes). However, I want to practice law and I am wondering if limiting my law classes is going to hurt me when I apply at firms. (Maxwell’s M.P.A. program is ranked #1, but do firms care?) I think that it rounds out my education and provides me with an awareness of how my (future) firm functions as a business. Firm billing needs to be transparent, much like a public budget; also, the firm’s budget and accounting won’t be an abstraction to me. I think that I will feel a sense of ownership in whatever firm I join. I would appreciate an opinion on whether firms will look down on my joint degree and whether I should consider dropping it if my real goal is to work in a law firm?

  5. Rechtsanwalt says:

    This is an informative post for the students who are to take admission in MBA. I think it as good featured guide.

  6. JB says:

    First of all, I just wanted to say that this is a great article and the comments have been extremely informative. I’m currently contemplating the JD/MBA at NW and also the new 3-year JD/MBA at Wharton that was just launched a few days ago. My background is in Economics and Public Policy and I can honestly say that all throughout college I thought of myself as a pre-law student. The only thing I didn’t do was take the LSAT. After college I started working in banking for a few years and got a lot of exposure to the business world. I have since taken my GMAT, but plan to continue working for at least another 2-3 years before I apply for any program (and perhaps take the LSAT as well).

    My question for you all is this: what exactly does one do with both a JD AND MBA degree? I mean, I know how powerful having both degrees would be in terms of one’s intellectual development, but from what I gather it seems like the career path would be no different from someone with just a JD or just an MBA. I mean does someone who gets a great Private Equity, Venture Capital, Hedge Fund, IB, or Consulting job out of the JD/MBA program later go on to practice law? I’m just confused as to where the career “sweet spot” lies in terms of utilizing both degrees.

    Sorry for the long email, but this is something that I’ve been wanting to ask for a very long time. I have a feeling that because I’m not certain of this answer, it would be hard for me to even apply to a JD/MBA program since I’m sure that the “Why the JD/MBA program at our school?” question would be one of the biggest determining factors for admissions. Any thoughts/comments/advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. — JB

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  8. Eduardo Velasquez says:

    I would like to echo JB’s post (#6) above from two years ago. My profile is almost exactly the same: I have both a BA and MA in economics, have been working in banking for two years now, and am very intrigued by NW’s JD/MBA program.

    My question is the same: what is the “career path sweet spot” for those with both a JD and MBA?


  9. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Eduardo (and JB):

    I don’t know.

    People with a JD but no MBA who work in major law firms doing deals can glide over to the business side with ease, no need for an MBA.

    People with an MBA cannot move the other way, but usually they don’t want to anyway.

    Those interested purely in ideas and knowledge might benefit from both, but people interested in both a JD and MBA aren’t usually the same sort that wish to puruse MPAs, MPhils or PhDs.

    At Boston College, we decided the whole idea wasn’t worthwhile, after careful study. That may be the correct answer, at least from a strict career perspective, and maybe even from a pure knowledge perspective.


  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    Especially for JB: I have only a JD, not an MBA, but I have been a VP at a global company purely on the business side. I’ve also worked as an in-house lawyer, and began my career at “Big Law” firms. My personal observation/anecdotal sense is that JD-MBAs are most useful for kids who are in the successor generation in large family-run businesses (in which case Dad or Mom thinks they’re getting two for the price of one), or possibly for entrepreneurs who want to enter into a heavily-regulated or patent-intensive business (figuring, not always wisely, that they can save money on legal expense).

    The business point of view and the legal point of view are VERY different. Taking a law school course about hedge funds or M&A will not teach you about the hedge fund business or the business aspects of M&A — or any other kind of business. Actually, handling that kind of work at a law firm usually won’t teach you much about the business point of view, either. I’d been a transactional lawyer for 13 years before I went in-house, but I soon realized I’d been a mere child in my understanding of business til then. Later in that job I became a client of three of the biggest Silicon Valley firms for M&A work. Uniformly, the top M&A partners there understood nothing about the business considerations for a company like mine (semiconductor equipment) when acquiring companies; we had to educate them on every deal.

    I’m agnostic, for the sake of politeness, about how much an MBA will teach you about business. I’m sure it has nothing to teach you about being a lawyer. In that sense, the law degree is more versatile, if you have some luck — e.g., a client offers to bring you over to the business side (my case). If you’re just applying cold, your degree will probably pigeonhole you into one role or the other. BTW when I ultimately went over to the business side, my undergrad physics background proved far more useful, on a daily basis, than my law background.

    So the key question is, what are you really interested in? If you’re really interested in business and not law, then why not just cut to the chase? In my case, I had considered an MBA briefly, but I decided that a career in law per se seemed more interesting; the idea of switching back and forth never entered my head back then (30 years ago). If law isn’t your main interest, why spend the time on it? In particular, it sounds from this thread as if the Northwestern program is a lot of law school with a little bit of B-school; if that’s correct, and if business is your main interest, that program sounds like it’s not the right balance.

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