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Law school vs MPP in Australia for those who have strong verbal skills but are weak at maths

by Douglas_M1 min read23rd Mar 202116 comments

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Dear EA Community,

I am about to complete my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, and had initially been thinking about going to grad school for philosophy. After carefully considering the arguments made by several 80k hours authors, I am beginning to think I might be able to do more good working in government or public policy. 

I know that an MPP is a common recommendation for people in my position. However, there is a massive gap between my verbal and quantitative reasoning ability. I scored in the top .1 percent in the verbal section of my university entrance exam, but only in the 62nd or so percentile for the quantitative section. I am told that quantitative analysis is an important part of an MPP, and I wonder if many of the roles it leads to rely heavily on economics. However, many people in the Australian government (especially elected officials) have law degrees. Law school focuses more on verbal reasoning than an MPP, so I think I am more likely to enjoy law and get excellent grades. Reading law textbooks, I am often fondly reminded of issues that I have encountered in philosophy. Assume for the sake of the argument that I am able to get into a top Australian law school, and that the funding for law is better than for an MPP (I will not bore you with the details). Do you think I am right to consider law school over an MPP given my particular situation? 
If I do study law, will there be a lot of content that isn't directly relevant to the work one would do in public policy? Or do you think the general benefits of law school outweigh this?

Edit: after carefully reflecting on this, and considering the responses you have given me, I think that the decision of whether to go straight into the public service or to go to law school may come down to personal fit. At the moment I just feel so enthusiastic and excited about law, so I think it may be best if I give it a try. If my first semester goes brilliantly and I am enjoying myself, I can probably be justified in continuing. If not, entering the public service one year later as a generalist with a wee bit more debt doesn't seem like such a terrible outcome.

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I have experience as a policy adviser in the public service in Australia, so I can give you my impressions from my experiences there. 

A postgraduate degree is not required to get a graduate job in the Australian Public Service (APS). It is very common for people to be hired with only bachelor's degrees. Once hired, your performance on the job is much more important than your level of degree qualifications, so not having a postgraduate qualification isn’t a barrier to progressing. Even departments that might seem to require specialist knowledge usually also value hiring people who bring different skillsets (for example, the Attorney General’s Department offers positions to some graduates without law degrees, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet hired people with all sorts of backgrounds including engineers, physicists, and philosophy graduates). In general, my impression is that some degrees are overrepresented in policy roles not because they are preferred by the departments, but because more people with that background apply. For example, there are many more law or international relations graduates who are interested in policy careers than there are physicists and engineers. Of course, a substantial proportion of people hired by specialised departments will have relevant specialist skills, but many others will bring different skills.

If you would be interested in a career as a policy adviser in the public service, I would suggest applying to a bunch of graduate programs now and seeing if you get accepted. Once you are in the APS, it is easy to jump around between departments. Even if you don’t get a job exactly where you want to be, just starting work somewhere and building experience might get you there faster. It’s also worth considering state government roles, which can also provide great policy experience. A few years of experience in policy roles will also help you work out which skill gaps you might want to fill with a postgraduate qualification. Most departments will support employees to attain postgraduate qualifications once they’ve been working for a few years, including providing financial assistance for fees and/or leave without pay to complete a full-time postgraduate qualification.

I don’t have as good knowledge of the best way to get a job in politics (e.g. parliamentarian, a staffer for an MP or Senator etc), but again postgraduate qualifications don’t seem key. Instead, a track record working for the relevant party or experience in relevant roles seem more important. 

If you are still keen to get a postgraduate qualification before seeking work in policy, prioritise developing skills that will be genuinely useful in a policy career and choosing a course you think you can excel in. Also prioritise a course that is shorter and won’t land you in lots of debt. I don’t think a law degree vs an MPP would make a big difference to your hiring chances, assuming similar grades. Better grades will help (and many graduate programs require a credit average), but strong grades alone are unlikely to be decisive. In the public service, departments are looking for people who can give good policy advice, so try to build relevant skills and demonstrate competence in them. Try to step back and think: if I was hiring someone to advise a government minister on policy decisions, who would I want to hire? Succeeding in a difficult, prestigious course is one way to demonstrate competence, but even better is doing a great job in a relevant work environment, even if it is just for a few months or a year. For what its worth, my impression is that the most sought-after skillset when hiring policy generalists in the public service is economics. But many other skill sets are also useful. I’m not sure how all of these factors would cash out for you, but a 3 year law degree is a big time commitment, so I would only recommend it if you are passionate about the law and want to work directly on legal issues. Otherwise, as others have mentioned, most of the subject matter that you study in a law degree is unlikely to be directly relevant to policy work.

I hope this is useful and good luck with your decision!

This is a really fantastic post Hamish, thank you for writing it.

I certainly am applying for many APS graduate programs, but I do wonder if this round will be especially competitive due to economic circumstances. I've never applied for a program like this before, so I am not sure how prepared I am for their style of interviewing. It's also the case that as a philosophy major, I have less empirical knowledge about politics than many of my peers, so if they ask me content based questions I may struggle (I am of course trying to read and catch up). If for som

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I figure law is usually more competitive than MPP, so would be a better signal of capability, if university quality is held constant. Since they seem similarly relevant for policy.

Good point, Ryan.  Whether it is warranted or not, I have heard that people seem to attach more prestige to law degrees than to MPPs (especially if you get good grades in law). Part of that might be because many more people want to study law, as you say.

Unfortunately I'm not sure I have great answers to this question given my lack of knowledge about the Australian law ecosystem. I would defer more heavily to those who, like Michael, know much more about that.

As Michael pointed out, law is not very well tailored to policy careers generally in the sense that it both teaches you much more than you need to know for policy in some areas (e.g., the minutiae of contract law) and much less in others (e.g., how to analyze proposed policy changes, economic/fiscal policy). However, it's also true that, for whatever reason, lawyers tend to be very overrepresented in lawmaking AFAICT.

Nevertheless, the prudent assumption in pursuing a law degree would be that you will be doing traditional lawyering for a while (maybe at least a decade) before being able to branch out into areas like policy or politics. This is the modal career path for lawyers and so you should assume it would be yours, too. For commercial law, this can entail grueling hours—you should be very clear-eyed about that. Opportunities within government can be both more livable and higher leverage, while still prestigious and good career experience (at the cost, of course, of lower pay).

Lesser quantitative skills are certainly more common among lawyers, though in many areas of law (e.g., tax, securities) they are important. It's also true that philosophers tend to do well in law due to similar skill requirements. So overall, I tend to agree that law is the better option here (as opposed only to an MPP). However, I'd only pursue the law degree if you're comfortable working as a lawyer in some capacity for a while, before pursuing things like policy or politics.

Hope this helps!

Hey Cullen, I'm a bit confused about why you should assume that you would do traditional lawyering for so long. The fact it's the modal path could just mean most law-schoolers want to be lawyers—which seems probably true. So maybe if you want to do policy, you can jump in straight away. 

4Cullen_OKeefe12dFair points. My impression is that it's actually just hard to get into those lines of work without substantial experience. US law school is also just structured to make getting traditional law jobs much easier than policy jobs. I also think it's often prudent to model oneself as the median person in the reference class, even if there's good reason to think that one is not. Finally, empirically, most EAs that I knew in law school did in fact end up working as traditional lawyers.
3Alexis Carlier10dThanks for the clarification!
1Bluefalcon18dIdk about Australia but in America politics is patronage-based and you're not getting a political job without connections. You might get lucky and have those connections right out of school, through professors, work on a campaign, etc., or you might not. And if your boss leaves office you're probably out of a job. So a lot depends on how long it takes you to get connections that have a job opening you want. Also, if you're not in DC, your state capital, or some other policy hub (i.e. major cities where federal agencies have regional offices), your only route into policy may be running for office yourself, which requires being established in your community. There is the civil service in theory but even that is political, just in a different way. You won't get a civil service job without experience, and getting experience requires connections. But it's less about having helped your Congressman get elected and more about knowing the DA's cousin so you can get a job as an Assistant DA and then go to work as a fed in 5 years once you have the experience.

Thanks a lot for your response, Cullen!

One thing that I would like to do more research on is the question of how valuable legal research and legal policy work is overall, in comparison to the work done by generalists.
80K hours seem somewhat pessimistic about law,  so reading your more optimistic perspective (and things like the Legal Priorities Project) is really fascinating to me. It's really hard to know whether one could do more good doing either, A: improving policy as a generalist in The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, The Australia... (read more)

Hi Douglas,

I'm currently studying law at Usyd with the intention of going into policy. Very happy to have a call if you think that would help! Just send through a message :)

I don't have work experience in government, nor do I have much sense of what an MPP involves or how they are viewed, but I do have a few thoughts/bits of information that might help:

  • For going into policy, most of what you study in a law degree will not be relevant. It does help develop a general sense of how the law works, what some of its difficulties are (from a policy perspective) and how legislation and regulations are interpreted by courts. I'm not sure how helpful that sense is, but my sense is not particularly.
  • It's particularly difficult to get good grades at a top law school (e.g. most students received ATARs of 99+ and the median marks are often 65-70), though my impression is it's easier in second tier law schools. Of my friends who studied law and economics, even those who were far stronger verbally, had significantly higher marks in econ than law (85 avg econ seems comparable to 70 in law for those with similar aptitudes). I don't know how comparable econ is to an MPP.
  • For policy careers, the advice I've received is that your experience is more important than your educational background. Good grades/degree might be a threshold requirement, but the predominant interest is in your ability to be able to discuss relevant work or extra-curricular experience. 
  • I'm not sure how to think about going into politics! I agree that law backgrounds seem common, and I imagine being involved in party politics and student politics at a prestigious uni might be helpful. 
  • I suspect even with lower aptitude for maths, the basic statistics and economics subjects should be manageable (if they are introductory) and at least I personally regret not having been able to study them as my sense is they are actually relevant to a significant amount of policy work.

I hope that helps!

Thanks for the feedback Michael! I think that your points are very helpful.

1: I thought this might be the case. Legal education seems very broad, with many subjects primarily intended to prepare students for the practice of law.

2: You may indeed be right, because the cohort I've been competing with in philosophy (largely those studying a Bachelor of Arts) generally don't have strong ATARs. On the other hand, I feel like philosophy is one of the better majors for enhancing one's analytical skills, so I think I have a leg up on the other members of the JD co... (read more)

3Michael_Townsend21dNo problem :) Again I'll just flag I'm happy to have a call to discuss this with you! 2: I think it varies between law schools and my impression is Usyd might be just particularly harsh marks wise. For what it's worth, undergrad and JD students are marked together at Usyd. 12% getting HD's seem high to me (I think Usyd is minimum 1% and max 5%?) but sounds like that's just an exception to the norm. Also, I agree that philosophy is a great background (it is also mine!) though I have found I personally work about twice as hard for law and receive a grade on average marks 10 lower. 3: Yep, I'm in undergrad. I've always aimed to work in the US/UK and have only recently been looking into Aus options, so my views aren't very informed/considered. For what it's worth, I have applied to a few jobs (e.g. UK Fast Stream) with the intention of not finishing my law degree if I was accepted. I probably would at least consider the APS grad streams in the situation you suggest. As for your last question, I think that it's very likely that if you're particularly suited for law and enthusiastic about it (which it sounds like you are) that there will be ways of using the vocation to have an impact in your career. Within Australia, for example, working for the ALRC seems very promising. I personally doubt those options would be in corporate law (aside from earning to give) or criminal law. Given those are the standard paths, I'd strongly encourage having a think about what the more impactful careers might be so that you can plan for them early on and not get swept up by the conventional route.

I am told that quantitative analysis is an important part of an MPP

 

I recently heard of an MPA at Columbia that has a non-quantitative economics stream:

http://bulletin.columbia.edu/search/?P=SIPA%20U6300

http://bulletin.columbia.edu/search/?P=SIPA%20U6400 

Thanks Hauke,

Some of the MPPs at the top policy schools in Australia also offer specializations in non-quantitative aspects of public policy. However, they still have core topics in economics and statistics, which I believe may drag down my GPA relative to what I could achieve in law. I'm also a bit worried about the idea of studying an MPP and applying for policy roles with my weak aptitude for quantitative reasoning. Might it be better for people who are more quantitatively talented to take those positions? I am trying to think of my comparative advantag... (read more)