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How to Use the JD/MBA Degree in Business and Entrepreneurship

We spend a lot of time discussing the dismal employment outcomes for JD grads. Things aren’t so rosy for MBA graduates either. To talk about a dual JD/MBA degree in this context seems like a double fail—a one-two punch of more work and potentially more debt in exchange for the same sad outcome.

Enter the panelists of How to Use the JD/MBA Degree in Business and Entrepreneurship: all JD/MBA graduates who toted the usefulness of a dual degree during a discussion hosted by Duke Law in conjunction with other peer law schools. The panelists centered their advice on four main areas: what to focus on while pursuing the dual degree, how to select a good mentor, how to interview well and how to stop being risk-averse.

1. Maintain the Right Focus as a JD/MBA student.

That class in early English case law will leave you painfully ill-equipped for the modern practice of law. But there are some courses you should be paying attention to, both on the JD and MBA side.

Anything IP, contracts or M&A-related will probably come in handy in the future, especially if you think you may want to start your own business. Curt Goldman, CEO of Cadre Noir Imports and a former Shearman & Sterling attorney, emphasized becoming familiar with the “anatomy of a deal” and becoming well-versed in all the related legal terms in order to be better prepared for entrepreneurial opportunities that may arise in the future.

On the MBA side, courses in finance, accounting and negotiations also proved vital for several of the panelists’ business ventures. Jessica Faye Carter, founder of Toour.com and a former corporate attorney, encouraged JD/MBA students to take a class in “Power and Politics” or any course on organizational dynamics, especially if they imagine themselves working for a large corporation in the future. A leg-up on the nature of company politics can mean the difference between making or breaking a fledgling career, whether at a large firm or a Fortune 500 company.

Finally, “half the value of a JD/MBA is in the network.” Divya Narendra, CEO of SumZero (and, perhaps most famously, former partner with the Winklevoss twins in the creation of ConnectU), emphasized how the JD/MBA track puts students in touch with a vast network of lawyers and other professionals who would normally charge hundreds—even thousands—of dollars in fees for their advice. If you network heavily and navigate the social scene gracefully, you’ll have access to a well of valuable insight that can be tapped into in the future.

2. Find a Good Mentor.

If you’re a JD/MBA student or recent grad, you’re going to need help navigating the current job market. If you’re currently at a large company or law firm, you might just need a Gandalf to help you get out of Mordor.

Don’t settle for being the “wide-eyed mentee” waiting to absorb all of the knowledge showered upon you by that one professor/partner/boss. Carter described how her informal relationships with many “peer mentors” have been invaluable over the years. This sort of mentorship allows for an exchange of ideas that you can access as needed for inspiration, for legal/business advice or to assess the viability of your entrepreneurial vision.

Goldman encouraged everyone to seek out mentors who live a balanced life, are good at many things and are passionate about what they do. Your mentor could be a Starbucks barista or a CEO. The value in the relationship is in seeing their passion at work and emulating their ability to balance work, life, family, hobbies and other interests.

3. Learn How to Interview.

Media and tech executive John Saroff shared Google’s hiring criteria and compared them to the strengths and weaknesses of a typical JD/MBA grad. According to Saroff, Google has moved away from its use of brainteasers and focuses its interview approach on four areas:

1. Role-related knowledge

2. Entrepreneurial leadership

3. Cognitive ability

4. Culture

The weak point for many JD/MBA graduates is often role-related knowledge. Think: ex-lawyer interviewing for a job at Google who doesn’t understand how AdWords works. JD/MBA grads who jumped directly into law and are now looking to transition into business need to make an extra effort to really understand the products associated with any company they want to hire them.

Culture is another potential weakness, especially when interviewing at a smaller company. In law school, the focus is on reasoning rather than learning to communicate with others in their own language. Navigating business opportunities requires the art of persuasion and knowing who you are talking to much more than reasoning in the typical lawyerly style. Curt Goldman encouraged lawyers to get rid of their “entitlement aura,” since it simply won’t serve you in a start-up environment.

If you’re looking for a job at a Fortune 100 Company, Bruce Johnson, CEO and President of Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, says that the interview is the perfect time to sell your intelligence, negotiation skills, writing skills and presentation skills. Any soul-crushing hours put in at a Biglaw firm can serve as testimony to your impeccable work ethic.

4. Stop Being So Risk-Averse.

Law school and the very nature of practicing law often gives rise to a risk-averse mentality. The predictable Biglaw employment track and old familiar salary rungs make it all too easy to slip on the golden handcuffs. Couple that with the human tendency to upgrade your lifestyle with every raise, and it’s no wonder the entrepreneurial route seems downright scary. But, you aren’t necessarily not taking a risk by staying at your big company or law firm.

Narendra pointed out that many lawyers are entertaining a “false sense of job security,” with the recent Weil layoffs serving as just one supporting piece of evidence. Take the long view about compensation. While you may experience a cut in salary if you decide to move from a big company or firm to a start-up, you will be moving to a place where you have equity and a sense of ownership. Furthermore, if you utilize your MBA background correctly, you’ll be giving yourself the chance to make future gains that will dwarf any losses you took in salary. It’s a chance that doesn’t come within the familiar groove of Biglaw life. There are hardly any practicing lawyers on the Forbes 400 for a reason.

Finally, the age of a one-career life is over. Seraff argued that, rather than looking for the “safe” thing to do, getting used to jumping around and landing on our feet is what business and entrepreneurship in the 21st century is all about. Being risk-averse is no longer an option. Even if you are currently employed at a firm or large company, pretend you aren’t comfortable. Thinking like a person who needs to eat what they kill might just motivate you to take that final leap.

Kristina Tsamis is the Research Manager at Above the Law.

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