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Law vs. Public Policy: Which Degree Is Right for You? | Education

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Students who want a career in public policy often face the dilemma of choosing between a master’s degree in public policy or a Juris Doctor, or J.D., degree..

Because law and public policy are closely related, many who want to work in policy are unsure whether an M.P.P. or a J.D. will equip them better for that work, say experts, who give reasons for pursuing either credential or both.

“What you get in law and what you get in public policy complement one another,” says Joel Fleishman, a decades-long policy professor at Duke University in North Carolina.

Differences Between Obtaining a Law Degree and a Public Policy Master’s

The Law Degree Route to a Public Policy Career

Earning a J.D. typically takes a full-time student three years, although there are some accelerated options and longer timelines. Law school students take a wide range of courses, with core classes on topics such as constitutional law, contracts, tort, legal research and writing, property law and criminal law.

The cost of law school ranges widely, but the average J.D. degree at a U.S. law school costs about $206,180, according to Education Data Initiative statistics from November 2022. In 2021, 68.3% of law schools applicants were accepted to at least one American Bar Association-accredited law school, according to a 2022 analysis by the ABA and the Law School Admission Council.

After law school, a graduate must pass a bar exam in a jurisdiction to qualify to practice law there. However, there are many jobs for which law school graduates don’t need to pass the bar – such as some public policy positions – to use their legal education.

Holders of a J.D. degree get paid an average of just under $110,000 a year, though earners in the top tier take home an average of $173,000, according to ZipRecruiter. The median annual salary for a lawyer in 2021 was nearly $128,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Master’s in Public Policy Path to a Policy Career

It usually takes full-time students two years to earn an M.P.P. degree, with many programs allowing additional years for part-time students and a few offering accelerated programs. Core courses that students can expect to take in most programs for the professional degree revolve around topics such as urban planning, public finance, economics, data analysis, ethics and leadership.

The cost of an M.P.P. varies depending on the school and other factors, but usually is less than a J.D. Law students with an interest in public policy can take such courses as electives, and vice versa for public policy students interested in law, experts say.

M.P.P. degree recipients earn an annual average salary of about $74,000, with top earners exceeding $124,000 yearly, per ZipRecruiter statistics. People with an M.P.P. hold various jobs in the public and private sectors, including policy analyst, city manager, nonprofit executive director, federal intelligence analyst, grant writer, government relations manager and legislative analyst.

How Public Policy and Law Overlap

Kamilah Mims, who expects to graduate in 2024 from the University of California—Los Angeles School of Law with a J.D. degree and UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs with an M.P.P, wants to advance social justice causes.

“I knew I wanted to help people, including marginalized and oppressed communities of color in the U.S. ,” says Mims, who earned a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from the University of California, Berkeley. “I went back and forth between public policy and the law, but after conversations with mentors, peers and colleagues, I came to the conclusion that I could be the strongest advocate with both a policy and legal education.”

Mims says she believes a J.D. carries more weight than an M.P.P.

“A J.D. is a terminal degree, so you can’t really get a higher-level degree than a doctorate, but this cannot be said for a master’s degree,” she says. “I know lawyers are a very respected group of people in this country, which comes with a lot of power and privilege.”

Daniel Urman, who studied political science and public policy as an undergraduate, earned a master’s degree in politics and international relations and then got a law degree.

“I guess I just look at the two fields of law and public policy as hopelessly intertwined,” says Urman, director of both the Hybrid and Online Programs and the Law & Public Policy Minor in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University School of Law in Massachusetts. “Law is the foundation of our government. It’s the rules we live by. It’s how we settle disputes. And then public policy is about the decisions the government makes about society at large.”

Various factors influence public policy, including public opinion, economic conditions, new scientific findings, technological change, interest groups, nongovernmental organizations, business lobbying and political activity, researchers say.

Urman, who teaches law to nonlawyer audiences and a course called “Legal Foundations of Public Policy,” says he often tries to show people where the law exists behind public policy.

“I also will look where the public policy lurks behind the law,” he explains. “So, for me, that’s a good way to understand everything. It involves competing and complementary priorities that are not purely legal or purely political or purely public policy.”

He cites as examples laws that may support student debt cancellation and police reform. “You know how to change it. You know what the sources of change are, and you know how to analyze it.”

As director of both the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Heyman Center on Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions at Duke, Fleishman says he has been teaching a specific cross-listed course – “Philanthropy, Voluntarism and Not-For-Profit Law and Management” – since 1965 and has always had law students in it alongside public policy students.

“The overall number of students taking the course has gone down, but the law students taking the course has remained stable,” says Fleishman, who also teaches law courses. “This year we probably have more law students in the class than anything else.”

Fleishman attended the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill School of Law right out of undergraduate school, graduating in 1959 and earning an LL.M. from Yale University the following year.

He obtained a J.D. because he felt a law degree would equip him for anything he wanted to do, “whether it was in law or public policy,” he says. “It has been successful in the sense that I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of things, from working in government, working in nonprofit organizations and working in and leading foundations.”

And although Fleishman doesn’t have a graduate degree in public policy, he was tapped to head what is now the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke when it was founded. His experience at Duke convinced him that it’s wise to earn both a law degree and a public policy degree.

Other Considerations When Deciding

Urman notes that someone doesn’t have to have a J.D. to work in public policy. But he believes it’s helpful.

“You are always going to deal with law and law is always going to touch on public policy,” he says. “If you work in public policy, I can see the argument for (a Master’s of Public Policy), but you should also study law in some way.” 

Students seeking both degrees should weigh the cost and the benefits, he adds. “When I say cost, I mean time and money. Oftentimes a dual degree is an extra year. It could be five digits, a lot of money, or it could be six digits.”

For those interested in going into the for-profit sector, “a law degree could be good or a graduate degree in business may be appropriate for them,” Fleishman says. “It all depends on what they want to do.”

His advice to undergraduate students interested in public policy is to study law as well. “Law school teaches a number of different skills, particularly analytic skills,” he says. “I have always felt it’s a safer decision to get a combination of law and public policy.”

Mims says public policy is a career path that focuses on helping people and improving the common good, whether it’s in employment, criminal or environmental policies.

“So, make sure you are going down this career path for the right reasons,” she says.

Those who choose to pursue only an M.P.P. degree should not feel confined, Mims adds.

“You can be a legislator, work in a think tank, become a policy analyst, a lobbyist, a politician in the segments of government, a nonprofit, a private agency or advocacy group. So if you are interested in policy, but you aren’t sure exactly where you want to end up, know that you won’t be locked into anything with an M.P.P.”

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