“JD Advantage” is bulls#*t (or, Every legal job is a “JD Advantage” job)

I met a engineer in my MBA program who built airplanes for Boeing. He had a master’s in aeronautical engineering. He told me that one reason he was pursuing an MBA because when he was working as an engineer he only used 10% of what he’d learned in his formal engineering training. As a liberal arts grad from a liberal arts family, I’ve always seen engineering as a bit of a dark art. So this revelation was surprising to me. His words have stuck with me and I’ve continued to wonder: if engineers are that over-educated, the same must surely be true for other disciplines.

Like, for example, law.

How much of what lawyers do every day is actually the practice of law? How much of it uses an individual’s law degree? How much of it is applying law to facts or legal research or oral advocacy on behalf of a client? If I were going to guess I’d say 70% at most, in some cases 50% or even 20%, sometimes.

Now, how much does someone with a “JD Advantage” job use the skills that they developed in law school as a part of their job? Is 10% a reasonable estimate? That seems fair. Could it be as high as 50%? On some days, perhaps.

So, if we’re trying to differentiate a JD Advantage job from a legal job in which one uses their law degree, it can’t be done based upon how much of a given thing an individual is doing. Some JD Advantage folks may be doing more lawyer stuff on a given day than their lawyer colleagues.

Well, how about what each of these individuals are doing? Surely the actual work that a practicing lawyer is doing differs dramatically from what their JD Advantage colleagues are doing, right? Eh, not so much. Much successful lawyering has more to do with one’s native or inherent workplace efficacy skills – skills like listening, clear communication, business acumen and collaboration – or skills that are more specific to lawyering but surely not unique to it – like clear and concise writing, effective persuasion, or skillful negotiation – than it does with things that only a lawyer can do (whatever those are).

In fact, one need look no further than the incredibly ambiguous definition of the practice of law to strengthen this point. Back in 2002, in response to a request from an ABA Task Force who was working to more clearly define the practice of law, the FTC observed that statutes that purport to define the practice of law “tend to be vague in scope and contain broad qualifiers.” Little has changed since then. Witness the recent objection in Washington to the LLLT program, ethics opinions related my employer Avvo, or any number of other knee-jerk reactions by lawyers to similar proposals. They all demonstrate that the “practice of law” basically means anything that lawyers want to keep others from doing.

The ambiguity about what the practice of law is, who is doing it, and how much they’re doing it, will only increase as technology plays a larger role in society in the legal system. Legal logic will be captured in code, technology will be taught to draw legal conclusions, and entrepreneurs will find innovative ways to share legal information and connect lawyers with clients on the internet. In this new landscape, lawyers will focus less on applying law to facts and more on context, communication, and all those other skills which are certainly important to the practice of law but which are far from unique to it or taught exclusively in law school.

The term JD Advantage is bullshit. A JD is as much an advantage for practicing legal jobs as it is for jobs termed “JD Advantage.” Many legal professionals with a law degree engage with the legal system in a variety of ways. Differentiating beyond that is pointless exercise.