JD/MBAs: Who’s Crazy Enough To Get Both Degrees?

Tim Hsia photo

Tim Hsia, a former military officer, will graduate from Stanford with a JD/MBA in 2014.

This spring Tim Hsia, a former military officer, will accomplish something that precious few can ever brag about: The former military officer will graduate from one of the world’s top law and business schools simultaneously.

The JD/MBA candidate at Stanford University will complete a four-year intellectual boot camp that is among the toughest educational journeys a student can undertake. It’s also among the most expensive: JD/MBAs pay one year of law school tuition ($50,580), one year of first year MBA tuition ($59,550), and the “remaining quarters at the combined JD/MBA tuition rate”–which roughly translates into paying whichever tuition is higher that year.

Throw in living expenses, and the yearly cost for single students living on campus winds up being somewhere between $80,340 (the law school estimate) and $93,866 (the business school estimate). For the record, Hsia is married and has two kids.

The West Point grad signed up for the experience after confronting a less than welcoming job market when he left the military during the Great Recession. “I actually didn’t want to go back to school,” Hsia admits. “My thoughts were like, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t need an extra degree.’ But the more I went out and tried to find some jobs coming straight from the military, people were not interested in potentially hiring me.”

You wouldn’t expect someone who couldn’t find a fulfilling job to get into two of the most competitive professional schools in the world. But even for those who know law schools and business schools fairly well, JD/MBA programs can be full of surprises.

Derrick Bolton, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, notes that great JD/MBA applicants don’t always come from places like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. While companies like that might pass on applicants like Hsia, universities are in a better position to recognize their potential. “Schools have the luxury of being able to look more deeply at each applicant,” he says.

Bolton believes that whether applicants have excelled in the military, in an internship, or in a club—every year, there’s at least one JD/MBA who comes right from college—that excellence is transferable. “[Business and law schools] are professional schools, but they’re still schools,” Bolton explains plainly. “They’re still part of universities, so I think what enables you to succeed is that notion of intellectual curiosity.”

So far, that philosophy has worked. Bolton says that JD/MBAs are almost always at the top of their classes, and faculty members love them. It shows when he talks about Hsia. “In 20 or 30 years, he’s going to be running for President,” Bolton raves. “He’s going to be running for Senate or something.”

A program off the beaten path

GMAT Exams Taken by Potential JD/MBA ApplicantsTesting Year 2009Testing Year 2010Testing Year 2011Testing Year 2012
Non-US Citizens943805529629
US Citizens2454224118221735

Hsia had initially planned on law school alone, but while visiting Stanford’s campus, he spoke with a dual-degree student who changed his mind. “It was the pure luck of meeting another JD/MBA guy,” he says. That conversation sealed the deal; he applied to the Stanford Graduate School of Business within the first month of his 1L year.

The fact that a chance encounter led him to a JD/MBA is telling. Getting both degrees hardly qualifies as traveling down the beaten path. Nationally, JD/MBAs are few and far between. In the 2012 testing year, the GMAC found that only 2,364 people took the GMAT with the intention of pursuing a JD/MBA—down from 3,397 in 2009.

That number doesn’t even account for the people who didn’t go through with it. It’s one thing to consider the option, but actually enrolling in a JD/MBA program is a serious undertaking. First, the program usually takes three to four years to complete. Second, the price tag can be prohibitively high: Northwestern’s program, the largest in the country, costs $76,809 year in tuition. (At least it only lasts three years.)

Keegan Drake, Duke JD/MBA ’14, is the kind of person who can stomach that level of commitment. Asked how much debt he’ll be in by graduation, the University of Oklahoma alum laughed and said, “A good chunk.” Upwards of $50,000? “Oh, yeah.” To put things in perspective, in 2010, MBAs at Duke graduated with an average of $92,827 in debt. Drake, who’ll work as a corporate lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York City headquarters after graduation, is not exactly cavalier about his student loans—but he’s definitely confident. “Maybe this is the mindset of the person applying for the JD/MBA, but just in general, I think things always kind of have a way of working out,” he says. “I just sort of always trusted myself and my ability to figure something out on the tail end of the program.” Not everyone is willing to take the plunge.

The size of the top JD/MBA programs varies widely. Northwestern has 27 JD/MBAs in the Class of 2016 and 70 of them on campus. Stanford has about 21 total, the biggest group since 1976. Penn’s JD/MBA count, with 14 in the Class of 2016 and 45 total, is slightly higher than Harvard’s, which is 10 in the newest class and 35 overall.

But at many schools—even elite schools—JD/MBAs are about as rare as unicorns. Drake says there are four other JD/MBAs in his year at Duke. An admissions representative at UC Berkeley says there might be one JD/MBA in this year’s incoming class, but she wasn’t sure; she estimates that the school gets about 20 JD/MBA applicants a year. Columbia doesn’t formally track the number, though the estimate there is slightly higher: 15 JD/MBAs in the Class of 2016.

Demand for the program has been curbed by what Bolton calls the “balkanization of educational interest.” Though the JD/MBA used to be the gold standard for people who wanted to work at the intersection of the public and private sectors, Bolton explains that growth in other joint degree programs—like Stanford’s MA Education/MBA, for example—has led some of those people down alternate paths. (It’s worth noting that at Stanford, the MA/MBA takes two years to complete. The JD/MBA takes four.)

  • Nathan

    Anything with management experience will help. Sales or entry marketing roles will help you boost into a brand management position post mba. Entry level finance positions will help you boost into banking or corporate finance if you want to go that route. 3 years is all you need generally but 5 years will make you even stronger. JD doesnt require work experience, and then you can backdoor into the MBA once your in law school.

  • Nathan

    You are ignoring the possibility of scholarships to both programs. The total cost of my jd/mba in tuition will be ~30K and our school’s starting median MBA salary is 95K.

  • CPO_C_Ryback

    Yes, the individual matters .. no matter what the neo-Socialists in WashDC say.

    The writer could have noted that Mitt Romney is an MBA/JD (Harvard). Who, as an individual, worked like crazy, got lucky, and got rich.

    Which, IMHO, does not mean that every MBA/JD will have the same outcome.

  • Mike

    I’m an engineer. I’m also doing my MBA right now. IMO both are challenging but not an apples to apples comparison. I will say that an engineering undergrad is tougher than a business one because I switched over because there was no challenge. However an a AACSB accredited MBA program is no easy thing and here is why. In engineering you put a lot of up front energy into learning tools that you can apply over and over to new situations. Its not exactly fair to say that engineers are more creative people its just they are so into the specifics on a topic the tools they have been trained to use point one to new opportunities. In terms of how the MBA is different. It does give you rote learning steps and strategies to help with decision making but these have all been proven by some deep level PHD somewhere as a “best practice” when situations are ambiguous. The MBA, for me anyway, focuses a great deal more on making sense out of ambiguity and then optimizing it for a given situation. Love logic so would love to see what law is about. Unfortunately after getting my MBA, working, and trying to raise kids at the same time I am officially as smart as I ever want to be!

  • John

    The world doesn’t need so many businessmen and lawyers. The only reason a company needs so many business people is to try to outdo other companies, who are also arming themselves with business people. Not to even mention lawyers… It’d be great if engineers could have all those resources instead of all the pork and waste in between. Eventually, lawyers and businessmen will be eliminated as technology advances, making things affordable for everybody and lowering the cost to achieve progress in both science and quality of life. But for now, it’s just the sad way the world works.

  • Usually my knowledge students obtaining. Joint degrees you agree were. Either run dept or establish business. USA,Canda,UK and Australia reward top global. Establish order anyhow long dedication. Attend reputed schools immediately hired. Argument shall law firms identify. As lawyer or business manager. In house same in Nordic region. Law firms never touch in house lawyer. Age those enrolling senior management. Percentage companies paying for education. Long process and must be astute. Myself 4 engineering degree no. More reason proficiency different process. I know hardware,database and software. Technology schools popular in EU. American companies seldom hire us only. Subsidiary USA markets increase need for. Lawyers,business development and engineering. Salaries abundant.

  • Anarchy

    Hey Jon, thanks for this article. Can you do an article on the joint MBA/MPA degree too?

  • Sword

    The JD is a bit more than a Masters: It is three years rather than two. Other than that, I have no issues with your statements.

  • Sword

    I’ve got many classmates with engineering degrees from MIT who are finding a Chicago Booth MBA very challenging. Before putting down a program about which one does know not very much, it is helpful to be a bit circumspect and ask: “Is this my ego stroking itself? Do I have sufficient evidence to make an objective judgment on this?”

  • Jonathan R. Zuckerman

    Even I wasn’t that much of a glutton for punishment.

  • qiuyidio

    … they’re both hard. Does it make a difference which is harder? The world needs business people and engineers both.

  • Wallace Rose Investments, LLC

    Well done!

  • Wallace Rose Investments, LLC

    Agreed 🙂

  • Wallace Rose Investments, LLC


  • Pedro Vargas

    I have another question, What is your current position?

  • Pedro Vargas

    Thank you very much for the reply. Right now i currently work as and Instructional Aid Bilingual at a school District. I have been working for the school district for 4 years. I will obtain an AS in Business Admin and will start working for my BS in Business in the spring. What job do you recommend that will help me gain experience and help me for when i am ready to apply for the MBA/JD program?

  • Hanna Hasl-Kelchner

    IMHO it is. But I appreciate that it’s not for everyone. It depends what you plan on doing in the future and also your perspective on education as an investment vs education as merely debt/ liability. I appreciate that short-term cash flow concerns are very real. But please let’s not forget that formal education can shorten the otherwise lengthy learning curve of the School of Hard Knocks. You won’t have all the answers when you graduate, but you’ll learn what questions to ask and that my friend is more than 1/2 the battle.

  • Pedro Vargas

    so a MBA/JD is worth it?

  • Isaac

    While you’re talking about people’s ignorance, you may want to check the definition first. Ignorance is not an indicator of intelligence one way or the other.

  • Isaac

    I didn’t say that it was. I said that you did not offer any valid support for your statement, “[th]e JD/MBA is not even close to being “among” the toughest fields.” You only listed several fields that are, in your opinion, more difficult. No one said anything about intellectual challenge either. There are several ways that “toughest” could be measured, intellectual challenge is only one. As far as that goes, you haven’t offered any support for that statement either.

  • cronos2546

    First off, leave the ad hominems for your mother, they don’t bother me and don’t help.

    All those guys dropped out of engineering programs, and only one (Gates) “invented” anything, the others developed businesses or code that they leveraged as a business.

    Experiments are not inventions. Services are not inventions. A product or design is an invention.

    Also, your obfuscation between engineering and STEM is the fundamental gulf in your argument. I would examine it, but I’m not going to waste any more of my lunch on you.

  • joe

    STEMers invent things all the time at school. New experiments, new products, new services, etc. There are tons of examples of this. Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Zuckerberg. All created something new. Tons of STEMers come up with new research in medicine, telecom, etc..

    Your ignorance is an indication of your intelligence not the state of engineering innovation.

  • joe

    That’s true. But it doesn’t really negate the fact that a JD/MBA is not as intellectually challenging as STEM.

  • Isaac

    You’re using a Red Herring. “Engineering” can refer to either undergraduate or graduate study. The JD and MBA are both master’s level degrees. Saying that “[t]here are tons of STEMers who go on to do JD/MBA programs, very few manage the other way round” does not consider that it is not all that uncommon to earn a graduate degree in a different field than one’s undergraduate area. It is far less common to switch fields after earning a graduate degree, let alone two.

    In addition, the sample sizes are significantly different bring into question your comparison of “. . .tons of STEMers. . . few manage the other way around.” The numbers in this article show that the largest JD/MBA program at Northwestern has a total of 70 students, a school that has approximately 1200 MBAs total. If you are referring to total gross numbers, you are comparing apples to rainbows. If you are referring to percentages, see point 1 above.

  • cronos2546

    I don’t remember the part in school where the engineer comes up with new ideas on their educational journey. I’m pretty sure they took tests just like the rest of us.

  • Nick Onopa

    I’d like to see some analysis on other dual degree programs: MBA/MPA, MBA/MA in International Affairs, MBA/Higher Education, etc.

  • joe

    The JD/MBA is not even close to being “among” the toughest fields. Beyond engineering, there’s neuroscience, organic chemistry, theoretical physics, etc. STEM is much more difficult than the humanities. There are tons of STEMers who go on to do JD/MBA programs, very few manage the other way round.

  • Hanna Hasl-Kelchner

    LOL — and as the American Express commercial says . . . some things are priceless 😉

  • bmp

    If you put the cost aside, a lot of $180k purchases start to make sense 🙂

  • Hanna Hasl-Kelchner

    If you put the cost aside, it’s not crazy at all. Too many lawyers don’t know enough about business to adequately guide clients in making decisions and too many managers, executives, and entrepreneurs don’t know enough about the law to keep their business assets out of court. The 2 fields have much to teach each other. I did both degrees (before it became prohibitively expensive) and not as a joint program either, but as 2 stand alone programs at 2 different schools — a 5 year commitment and well worth it.

  • imfguy

    Wow, an engineer who things his field is the hardest in academia. That’s kind of a cliche, man.

  • Isaac

    As an engineer, 1) “among the toughest” does not necessarily mean “the toughest.” 2) Implying that either a JD or an MBA is simply rote learning shows that you clearly are not very familiar with either. 3) Look at the typical requirements for a JD/MBA, you will see that the workload is mind-boggling.

  • bt

    Calling the JD/MBA among the toughest educational journeys is ridiculous. Try engineering. That field actually coming up with new ideas not simply rote learning.

  • bmp

    I feel like this article only briefly touches on what is IMHO the biggest factor: cost. No advantage conferred by the degree in any particular field seems to come even marginally close to making up for the TREMENDOUS price tag difference (esp for those who would otherwise just get MBAs, as you’re looking at at least 1 more year of lost salary). Every JD/MBA candidate I’ve spoken with can only articulate reasoning tantamount to a ‘gut feeling’ that it’s right for them. Romantic appeal <<<<< dollars & cents, at least for this non-rich applicant.