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A growing advantage to the law school degree

November 4, 2015

Well-documented changes in the legal profession since the economic recession are sending a small but growing number of law school graduates down a new career path toward companies that want employees with juris doctorates but do not involve the practice of law.

These types of positions, called J.D. advantage jobs, are mostly found in the business, financial and government sectors with the law school graduates working in human resources, contracts administration, investment services, higher education and law enforcement. Knowledge of the law coupled with the ability to understand legal documents and interpret statutes is seen as a benefit in these kinds of jobs.

Graduating from law school and not working as a lawyer may seem to be sad commentary on the current state of the legal profession but James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, said these jobs offer J.D. holders a good return on their investment.

The lawyers use their legal education without being strapped to their smartphones around the clock like their counterparts in big law. Also, the salary level is higher than some segments of traditional law practice.

“They are not terrible jobs,” Leipold said.

According to figures from the American Bar Association, 8.1 percent of the class of 2011 was employed in full-time, long-term J.D. advantage positions. Three years later, 11.2 percent of the class of 2014 had such jobs.

The number of students going into this type of employment remains very small compared to the overall number of law school graduates. In 2014, a total of 43,832 students earned their law degrees and just 6,360 went into J.D. advantage jobs.

Tatum Tatum

J.D. advantage jobs enable graduates to stay close to their dream jobs, said Kenny Tatum, assistant dean for career services at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. For example, graduates who want to practice corporate finance but do not find jobs at major law firms can still work in the field by doing compliance work at a financial institution.

Some graduates are taking J.D. advantage jobs as a plan B because they were unable to get a job practicing law, Tatum acknowledged.

Yet once they have the advantage jobs, the graduates may find more opportunity to take their career in different directions, he continued. They could move into other areas of the business, joining the legal department or filling executive positions. In fact, taking an entry-level job in a global company could provide more pathways to advancement than working in a three- to five-attorney firm.

‘Coveted’ knowledge

givens-nadine-mug.jpg Givens
In the past 2 1/2 years, PNC Wealth Management has hired a pair of graduates right out of law school and put them in J.D. advantage jobs.

Usually the new hires coming into the financial institution have backgrounds in economics or finance but, Nadine Givens, senior vice president and team director of PNC Wealth Management in Indianapolis, said the J.D. holders bring a different and much-needed understanding of the courts, the law and legal precedent.

She described their knowledge as “coveted.”

advantage-bars.gifThe bank is careful to set parameters on the work the non-practicing lawyers do. They do not draft legal documents nor are they to take the place of the client’s legal counsel. However, PNC does want its law school graduates to exercise their “J.D. muscle,” Givens said. They are called upon to review financial papers, wills and estate plans as well as advise clients of potential issues and collaborate with the private practice attorneys.

How PNC uses its law school graduates illustrates a typical J.D. advantage job. The ABA defines “J.D. advantage” as a position where a law degree is either required or provides a “demonstrable advantage” in doing the work but passing the bar or having a law license is not necessary.

Growth of government regulations and tech industry are fueling many of these types of jobs.

New financial regulations instituted after the economic downturn and health care regulations brought by the Affordable Care Act have created many jobs in compliance. Law school graduates are especially qualified to handle compliance issues because they can decipher statutes and determine how best to apply them, Tatum said.

In addition, the technology, like e-discovery, that is disrupting the legal profession is also generating J.D. advantage work. Leipold pointed out IT professionals alone cannot design computer programs to do the work of lawyers. Legal professionals are needed to guide the code writers.

Furthermore, the trend toward outsourcing routine legal tasks to foreign-based operations is providing other opportunities to law school graduates. The individuals supervising these operations have to have law degrees, Leipold said.

The market continues to change and the kinds of J.D. advantage jobs being created may be different in the coming years, but Tatum does not expect these positions will decrease even as law firms look to hire more associates each year.

“Unless the regulatory framework goes through significant changes or the legal-tech sector consolidates, I think these jobs are only going to grow,” Tatum said.

Career trajectory

The compensation for J.D. advantage jobs is a bright spot that also makes these positions attractive. Salaries are falling in between the two levels of pay typical for law school graduates, according to Leipold.

On the lower level, entry-level attorneys getting clerkships or taking associate positions in small- to mid-size firms are earning about $45,000 to $60,000 annually. Graduates hired by big law firms are at the upper level, taking home about $160,000 each year. J.D. advantage jobs are in the middle with pay ranging from $70,000 to $100,000.

What is not known is how satisfied lawyers are working in J.D. advantage jobs. Data shows a high percentage of employees in these positions say they are looking or intend to go to another job, Leipold said. The data does not indicate what kinds of jobs they are searching for but they could still want work where bar passage is required.

Jennifer Dempsey Fox is a licensed attorney who is very happy with her J.D. advantage job. With a background in accounting, she was working at Deloitte when she decided to enroll in the night division at Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Dempsey Fox is now the senior vice president and national managing director of wealth strategy for the PNC Asset Management Group in Pennsylvania. Currently, she does not rely on her legal knowledge as much but, she said, without her law school education she would not be in a leadership position.

dempsey-fox-jennifer-mug.jpg Dempsey Fox

Her studies of trusts, estates and tax law in law school made her better at accounting, Dempsey Fox said. She is able to view financial issues through a legal lens and give more sophisticated advice to her clients.

Still, when she was finishing law school in 1999, she considered pursuing a career in private practice. She asked attorneys for advice and considered her career trajectory. In the financial sector, she was already moving into management but switching careers to the law would have likely put her at the bottom as an associate.

“It wasn’t that I was turning away from private practice,” Dempsey Fox said. “It just seemed there were better opportunities for me outside of that.”•

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