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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 16, 2016
Question

I’m an in house lawyer (JD ’05) from a fourth tier law school. Should I get an online M.A. in Legal Studies from Harvard or Stanford to boost my marketability?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

If you wound back the hands of time 25+ years, the legal profession and its members would look quite a bit different than they do today. Back then, attending law school created a predestined career where the path for advancement was just about as predictable as the sunrise. The vast majority of freshly minted lawyers joined a law firm – and billed hours for an average of seven to eight grueling years until Judgment Day. Competition was stiff and entry level and lateral job options were few – creating the ultimate buyers market. Not many variables were used to judge young lawyers, but the predominant measuring stick used to determine the cream of the crop was academic achievement: Law school rank and grades. This practice not only applied to new grads, but to lawyers at every level. Pedigree made lawyers easy to categorize…and label according to what the profession knew best: risk. So a high…or low ranked law school would create a lasting imprint a lawyer’s professional worth.

As we approached the millennium, rapid technology innovation created an exploding technology sector, which strongly influenced all other global industry sectors. As a result, a barrage of new companies emerged and old companies morphed and grew – and the need for dedicated legal counsel became a priority. So execs hired their own lawyers and the In House Legal Department became its own force. Its emergence created new…and attractive career options for lawyers, which changed the game for the profession: Associate attrition increased, law firm rate pressure grew, law firm layoffs ensued and lawyer mobility was at an all time high. But at the same time, salaries continued to rise, career options multiplied and in house legal hiring exploded. Supply could not keep up with demand and the playing field began its historic transition. The criteria with which employers assessed legal candidates also changed. No longer were creds THE hiring criteria. Other factors garnered key importance including the quality of relevant experience and “culture fit”.

Today we work in a profession where top academics still pack a decent punch, but they are only one of several factors that define the Modern Day Legal Candidate. As a result, those from lower tiered law schools with great experience and personalities are provided more opportunity and are experiencing more success in both the in house and law firm worlds.

So now that our trip down Memory Lane has provided a context for the role academics have played in assessing candidate “marketability” up to the minute:

Will an online masters degree in Legal Studies from Harvard or Stanford enhance your marketability?

Not really.

Given the current legal landscape and your background/seniority, the quality of your experience and personality fit/cultural alignment will outweigh your law school cache at this stage of your career. And a Harvard/Stanford online Legal Studies degree will not create the impact you might hope or expect. The Legal Studies degree is intended for professionals in other fields (without a JD) who want to learn about the law to enhance their current professions. You already know about the law and have not only earned your JD, but have practiced law for 11 years. So from a practical perspective, this degree will not meaningfully enhance your substantive skill set (if you were maniacally determined to secure another degree, an MBA or LLM in IP or Corporate would be more valuable).

In addition, the reality is that hiring managers who almost exclusively base their hiring decisions on platinum creds (a market minority by the way) will not be persuaded by an online degree from a top university if your law school JD is not up to snuff. And the employers who do value a broader array of factors will care more about your relevant experience and ability to fit in with your colleagues than the tier of your law school.

Given the above, my recommendation is that you do not pursue such a degree, but rather spend your time enhancing the real world skills that today’s corporate employers value. If you are seeking a new job and are experiencing rejection in the market, your law school is not likely the culprit and an online degree from a top law school won’t solve the problem. So take inventory of your work history, substantive skills, interview prep, your overall effort, quality of your network and how you present yourself…and improve the deficiencies this exercise uncovers.

Hiring managers of yesteryear relied heavily on academic credentials to rank and measure the viability of a candidate. But as the profession has evolved, so has its hiring criteria – and today’s hiring managers today take a more sophisticated view of what makes for a marketable and qualified candidate. This market reality has opened career doors for those from lower tiered schools who otherwise would have been locked out. So take advantage of this new norm and instead of picking up another degree, focus on other aspects of your professional self that matter the more. By doing so, you’ll not only increase your options but you’ll maximize your odds of landing the job that every Ivy Leaguer will envy.

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