Should Lawyers Do Masters Degrees?

Should Lawyers Do Masters Degrees?
Tips for Lawyers Podcast

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It comes up quite a lot.  Should young lawyers go beyond their Bachelor of Laws and expand into the heady world of a masters degree?

Of course, there are (as always) a lot of factors to weigh up.

So let’s take a look at this important question, before you go spending a bunch of time and money that might be best spent elsewhere.

Related Resources for your Masters Degree

Happy Lawyering!

Transcript – Should Lawyers do a Masters Degree?

Welcome to the Tips For Lawyers Podcast Episode 52. My name is Chris Hargreaves. I’m from TipsForLawyers.com and I hope you are having a fantabulous day. Last episode in 51 I had a talk about the concept of the hope method, whether it be hope training or hope progression. Today I wanted to drill down a little bit on one subsection of that which is the doing of a master’s degree. Now, I know in some jurisdictions, lawyer’s going to be a post graduate degree. That is not the case in all jurisdictions and many of you will have the opportunity at some point to do a master’s degree. This was really prompted by an article I was reading recently in Lawyer’s Weekly that I’ll link up in the show notes which you can get at TipsForLawyers.com/podcast/52. There you will see what was fairly transparently just an advertising platform for the college of law based here in Australia. They are releasing an applied law master’s degree. I know it’s something a lot of lawyers considered doing and they consider doing it at various stages of their career and they consider doing it for various reasons.

Within the context of hope training, I wanted to give you some thoughts on doing something like a master’s degree. I’m not going to comment specifically on the College of Law program but I did want to mention a few things for you consideration if you were in fact contemplating going ahead and doing a master’s degree. The first and most obvious consideration … We’re going to do it chronologically by career. What we’re going to have is people who have only just finished their law degree whether they should do a master’s degree. Really that depends on what you want to do and this issue is going to come up which is what is the reason you are doing the master’s degree? Is it because you haven’t been able to find a job and so in order to continue getting your income from the government or in order to hopefully be doing something rather than sitting on your hands, you’re going to do a master’s degree because it gives you that sense of actually achieving something rather than simply resting on your laurels or in fact, not feeling like you’re doing anything.

Perhaps you’ve gone through the round of clock office. Perhaps you’ve applied for a few jobs and you’ve been knocked back into thinking, “Wow. I’m really up against it here. I’m about to be graduated and I actually have nothing to do next year so maybe I should do a master’s degree in that circumstance.” To you firstly, I express some sympathies because it is a tough situation to be in but the reality is that doing a master’s degree is probably not going to change your job prospects that much unless the jobs you are looking for are jobs in an academic area because at the end of the day, a master’s degree is an academic program. Your lack of a master’s degree is not the reason that you haven’t got a job yet. Now, the reason you haven’t got a job might be many and varied but the people who are getting jobs are not people who have master’s degree. Your peers are getting jobs despite the absence of a master’s degree. You really need to ask yourself some tough questions. What is it that I’m not getting a job for?

Doing a master’s degree is not going to solve that problem. It might make you slightly more attractive to a law firm at an academic level but it’s not going to help you in the interview process and it’s ultimately not going to help you in practice really at all compared to getting out there and doing some things. Now, this is not a job hunting exercise but for many who are considering a master’s degree as a fallback position, it’s not going to help. It’s going to cost you a lot of money. It’s going to take you a lot of time and all you’re really doing in the long term is increasing your debt. Now, I know you’re in a touch situation but you need to think very hard before using a master’s degree as a fallback position. The next thing is lawyers who do have jobs, who maybe have done their training and who have become admitted as lawyers and are considering whether a master’s degree is going to accelerate their career prospects or potentially allow them a greater degree of specialization. This is I guess where it really starts to become a more difficult decision.

The questions becomes what you should be spending your time on because I come back to this, this is a higher education. It is not easy. If you’ve just come out of a law degree, you already know that. This is not an easy thing to be doing and a master’s degree will put a lot of pressure on you and will add a lot of debt to you. You really need to seriously considering why am I doing this and is this going to help me in a long-term sense or not. Now, I know the competition out there is a lot higher than what it used to be but you’ve got to ask the question why. Don’t give yourself some rationalized airy fairy reason why doing a master’s degree might actually help you in the long run. Drill down. Ask questions. Ask your bosses, “If I do a master’s degree, what will that mean? Will you pay me more? Will you cover the cost of my degree? If so, on what terms? How are we going to go about getting it done?”

The master’s degree program depending on the program that you’re looking at is probably not going to make you a better lawyer. I know that’s a bit cruel but it’s probably not going to make you a better lawyer. Master’s programs or doctorate programs or whichever it is you’re looking at are not necessarily going to add to your skills in any way shape or form. In fact, they might have a negative impact because they are highly academic programs. This is where the College of Law article I referred to before was trying to distinguish itself from other programs and that it tats itself as being particularly practical. At the end of the day, these are academic programs run by academics at academic institutions with academic conditions on passing and failing. You need to think very carefully, “How is this going to make me a better lawyer,” because the time investment is considerable compared to some other things you might be doing. What are some other things you might be doing? Let’s say a master’s degree takes a thousand hours of your time across a year to 2 years. That’s a thousand hours of your time. A thousand.

What could you do with a thousand hours of time? How much could you build your network if you had a thousand 1 hour coffees in the space of 2 years? What if you have 500 coffees, 250 hour long seminars and 250 phone-to-phone chats with potential new prospects? You’ve got to compare that opportunity cost. Don’t just look at what am I doing and what might it do for me. Have a look at what could I be doing if I wasn’t doing that thing because you are making a massive commitment and you are losing a huge amount of opportunity in the formative years of your career to do some really compelling and meaningful stuff that in the long-term you might see far greater financial career based and academic rewards from. Look at the time investment not just from the perspective of what it might get you which at the end of the day is a piece of paper and a certification. What could you be doing if you weren’t doing that? Then of course, if you make the decision to go in the other direction, you need to be able to commit to doing that.

That again is not the subject of this. I’m giving you food for thought. What would you be doing if you weren’t doing that master’s degree particularly in those earlier years. If you can give yourself an expanded network and some great platform to build your career off, my view, that’s going to be far better for you in the long run than investing in a master’s degree in the early years. Now, what about that time though where you hit 5 or 6 years? You probably have a better idea of what specialization you want to do. You may want to refine your academic knowledge in a certain area. Maybe it’s intellectual property. Maybe it’s commercial litigation strategy. Maybe you want to expand into a new area and doing a master’s degree as a good springboard to be able to do that into some international area or something where you just don’t necessarily have the ability to generate work at the moment but want to start to do so. This is probably the only time where a master’s degree is starting to become a more attractive option.

I still maintain the things that I said in relation to the previous category which is you need to consider the opportunity cost. As you’re coming up to 5, 6, 7, 10 years post admission, you really have a pretty good prospect of looking at partnership coming up soon and one of the things you need to think about is again, if I’m doing a master’s degree, what am I not going with that time. If you have a family, then that comes at a cost too because the financial and time investment cost of a master’s degree or other forms of higher education is significant. I would think that if you are looking at specializing in a particular area and you really want to expand your knowledge in that area and you can utilize that knowledge, then it’s worthwhile considering a master’s degree but only if those things are correct. If you’re just doing a master’s degree because you think it will bring you clients, it won’t. No one ever got a big client because they had a master’s degree. If you think doing a master’s degree will make you particularly more talented in a particular area, it won’t.

That is up to you. Doing a master’s degree is not necessary and in some cases, it might be destructive because of the way master’s degrees are structured academically. If you think doing a master’s degree is going to accelerate your job prospects and make you a partner, it probably won’t. That depends on your firm. By in large, no one was made a partner because they had a master’s degree. They’re made partner for very different reasons. If you’re considering a master’s degree, have a look at those core elements. Have a look at the opportunity cost. If you weren’t spending the money and the time on a master’s degree, what else would you be doing and what is the comparative risk analysis on what would be better for you career and what would be better in the long-term. What is it that you are losing by choosing to do a master’s degree? The next one, of course, is then to have a look at will it actually offer you value or are you rationalizing it to yourself. Don’t commit to 1 to 2 years of tertiary education because you think it might.

This is where we come back to hope training. You hope it might have some impact because you can’t think of anything else to do. That is a terrible reason to get into such a massive commitment. Terrible. People sometimes spend more time investing in what DVD player they’re going to buy next or what online service they should use to get their videos than what they actually invest in whether or not to do a master’s college. You need to look at the benefit it’s going to give you rationally. Don’t look at it with rose colored glasses. Look at it rationally. What benefit will it offer you because you are investing a massive amount of time and effort. Those are my thoughts on the master’s degree program. For that matter, any form of higher education beyond your law degree as to whether it’s going to do you any good. It could but you need to make sure you’ve look the cost. You need to make sure you’ve looked at the research paper if it’s a research paper.

You need to consider reasonably whether the benefits of doing that are outweighing the benefits of doing something else with your time. That has been the Tips For Lawyers Podcast Episode 52. As always I would be grateful if you would use the time available to you to head over to iTunes and leave a review and a rating and a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe to. Don’t miss out on future episodes. I will see you next time.

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