MPP/MPA vs. Law School

Students thinking of applying to MPP/MPA programs often wonder if their careers might be better served by going to law school. Overall, the resounding answer to this is, “No!” The questions and answers on this page explain why an MPP/MPA may be the superior option to law school for launching a professional career in public service.

Q: Isn’t public service in the United States organized around the making of law?

Lawyers and the law certainly have their place in the policy process, but so do many other professionals with training and background in other fields. The majority of persons in public service are managers at all levels who make policy real through their implementation efforts — they are the “boots on the ground.” In most settings, lawyers serve rather narrowly defined advisory roles related to ensuring that policy and management choices comply with legal restrictions. This means that there actually are not that many career opportunities for lawyers in public service.

Q: But isn’t legal education the best preparation for professional public service?

Not necessarily, and for many career options, not at all! The primary mission of all law schools is to prepare students to be attorneys in private practice. The legal curriculum includes very little public policy content, and must meet the needs of persons seeking to work in everything from personal injury litigation to bankruptcy. A majority of the students attending law school do not intend to work in public service upon graduation, and the competitive focus within law schools is on placements with the most successful private law firms.

Q: What are some of the key distinctions between MPP/MPA programs and law school?

MPP/MPA programs differ from law school in many important ways, including the following:

  • Program Duration: Most full-time MPP/MPA programs are 21 months in duration (two academic years + one summer) while nearly all law schools are 33 months in duration (three academic years + two summers). Attending law school means foregoing an additional year of working income relative to completing a full-time MPP/MPA program.
  • Program Flexibility: Many MPP/MPA programs have flexible requirements to tailor the curriculum to each student’s needs, and they allow students to attend part-time as well as full-time. Many MPP-MPA programs offer night and weekend courses to meet the needs of working students. Few law schools have any other options for students than the common curriculum and full-time enrollment.
  • Program Cost:MPP-MPA program offer financial aid and their tuition rates often are much lower than law school tuition. Few law schools offer any financial aid to their students, and it is increasingly common for law school graduates to have large amounts of student loan debt to repay early in their working careers.
  • Placement Options Upon Graduation: Earning an MPP/MPA opens up employment opportunities in many sectors and there are affordable degrees that limit the financial constraints on salaries for new graduates. Many first jobs in public service pay well but not extraordinarily well. Law school graduates find that their degree closes as many doors as it opens because employers may not offer sufficient salaries to compete with private law practice or many not want to pay the salary premium to fill a position with a lawyer.

Q: All that said, don’t lawyers run the government in the United States?

This is an excellent question because it offers an example of the educational potential of the MPP/MPA. Certainly in the case of the federal government and especially our top elected officials, there are many lawyers represented. A graduate of an MPP/MPA program might ask the following question to get a deeper insight into this: What percentage of law school graduates actually achieve such careers, and how does that compare with the track record of the MPP/MPA? The data on this is very clear. The pool of all lawyers in the U.S. is huge, and only a small percentage of them ever get involved in public service or are elected to public office. On the other hand, nearly all MPP/MPA graduates work in public service because that is the intended career trajectory behind the design of the degrees.

Q: Is it possible to combine an MPP/MPA and law school?

Yes it is. Many MPP/MPA programs have joint degrees with local law schools, allowing students to finish both programs in four total years of study rather than the five years it would take to complete both separately. One reason for this time savings is that the third year of law school generally is available to overlap with one year of the MPP/MPA program. As noted above, the third year of law studies makes the law degree far more expensive than an MPP/MPA in terms of both time and student tuition dollars.