Probing Question: Is a law degree versatile?

Imagine you're putting $150,000 or more into an enterprise. Could anyone blame you for wanting to know if the venture is a sound one? In today's uncertain economy, the question of ROI -- return on investment -- is on the minds of many prospective young doctors of jurisprudence. With the media churning out cautionary tales about newly minted lawyers coming up empty on the job market, the question is a valid one: Is a law degree still marketable and versatile? And are there career paths open to J.D.s who either don't want or can't find work in a law firm?

"Absolutely," says Steven D. Hinckley, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Library and Information Services at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. "It is a common misconception that a law school education leaves graduates prepared only to engage in traditional law practice when, in fact, a law degree gives students the requisite skills and training to contribute and thrive in many law-related, or non-legal, careers."

Explains Hinckley, "While some have difficulty getting past the idea that law students are specifically trained to understand and apply the law as practicing lawyers, they are missing the fact that a legal education prepares students to think logically and analytically; to apply problem-solving strategies and work creatively; to be precise and articulate writers and speakers; and to understand the interaction of law, government, international affairs, and society at an extremely sophisticated level."

Those who earn J.D. degrees have had their intellectual abilities honed by outstanding educators and are tested in the company of some of our nation's brightest students, he adds, "and they emerge with a variety of skills that are highly valued in our society both within, and outside, the law practice environment."

As a result, notes Hinckley, law graduates are actively employed in politics and government, higher education and continuing education, business, alternate dispute resolution, publishing and research, law enforcement, communications, and the arts.

In a world that seems to demand increasing specialization, many law schools today are offering joint degree programs, he points out. For instance, at Penn State Law, interested students are able to combine legal careers with business, international affairs, agriculture, education, human resources/employment relations, environmental pollution control, information systems, and public administration. This avenue may represent "significant value-added training and career preparation to prospective employers in those disciplines," Hinckley says. "Students choosing the joint degree path are typically focused on a law or law-related career in a field where they hope the relevant specialization earned in the non-law portion of the joint degree will set them apart from other general law graduates."

Given the shifting legal market, are there right and wrong reasons to go to law school?

Says Hinckley, students and law schools must be realistic about significant changes in the legal profession today that are fundamentally altering the way law graduates will seek employment in the coming years. Legal employment opportunities are becoming more competitive, especially for the elite, high-salaried law firm jobs that many law students see as their ideal. "Relatively few students will be hired in those positions directly out of law school and the rest will be best served by keeping their range of employment options as broad-based as possible and taking the long view of their career development over the years to come," he suggests. "Unrealistic expectations of instant and immediate financial success have caused some law graduates to lose sight of the fundamental versatility and value of their law degrees."

As to prospective law students' concerns abut getting a good ROI, Hinckley is quick to point out that the tuition you pay should be seen as an investment in a stimulating and fulfilling lifelong career, not simply one's first job. "A J.D. is still an elite degree that bespeaks a level of intellectual ability and personal skills that are in demand in many law and non-law settings today," he notes. "As with any degree program, it is up to law graduates to capitalize on the training they receive and convince prospective employers that their educational preparation makes them uniquely qualified to excel in the jobs they seek."

Steven D. Hinckley is Associate Dean for Library and Information Services, Director of the Law Libraries, and Professor of Law. He can be reached at sdh14@psu.edu.

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Last Updated June 04, 2013