JD vs MPA: Part 1

The MPA program recruits students with varied academic interests and backgrounds. One of these academic areas is law. We meet students who started law school and decided it wasn’t for them. We hear from people who thought they wanted to go to law school until they found us. And then we see people in our program who actually completed law school, worked for a couple of years, and then came back for the MPA. Currently, we have at least 5 students with JD’s in our program, and a number of alumni who have a JD and MPA.

This will be a two-part series independently featuring two of our resident JDs. This post will feature, Richard Carey. Rich is currently in his second year of the MPA program. Rich served as a litigator for 7 years in Chicago. His focus was on commercial litigation. His main line of work was representing construction companies who did not get paid for their work. Check out Rich’s perspective on the JD and the MPA.


Photo of Richard Carey
Photo of Richard Carey, JD and MPA Candidate 2020

Why did you choose law?

Rich: I went to law school because, at the time, the market for lawyers seemed very robust. Additionally, I went to law school because it was a career I was familiar with and I did not know about the many other options for graduate education when I graduated from undergrad. Getting either a JD or MBA seemed like my only option after coming out of undergrad and, frankly, I did not consider anything else. On a purely academic front, studying law appealed to me because it combines many of my favorite subjects. Law has connections to economics, history, and political science. The amalgamation of those topics was what I really liked about it.

What made you decide to pursue an MPA? 

Rich: The practice of law is very different from what, I think, most people think it is. It is not like Law & Order or any other show/movie. Lawyers spend a great deal of time working alone, they spend a great deal of time working to find more work and clients, and they spend a great deal of time working on things that are not the practice of law. None of this appealed to me. I decided I needed an MPA to get back to my life’s goal of helping others as part of a community, and to work collaboratively with others to solve complex problems.

What is law school like vs the MPA program? 

Rich: Law school is incredibly competitive and by its very nature, zero-sum. If you get an A in a class that means someone else got a B because of strict rules regarding grading curves. That makes it seem more like a competition and less like a journey towards learning. Graduating in the top 25% of your law school class literally decides your career for the next 30 years, so the pressure is intense. The MPA program is far more collegial and welcoming. Professors know your name, and they reach out to you as a student. Law school classes can have 100 people in them, no MPA class at UNC-Chapel Hill has more than 25 and many electives have less than 10.

What do you hope to do with your MPA degree after graduation? 

Rich: I want to work for a small- or medium-sized local government in the manager’s office as a policy analyst or budget professional. My end goal would be to work as a city/town manager for a community of 10,000 people or under.

If you could do it all over again, would you still get your JD? 

Rich: With perfect hindsight, I would have made several different changes. I think if I could have done it all over, I would have tried to do a JD/MPA joint degree at Northern Illinois University. If I had known what I know now about what the practice of law really entailed, I would have tried for a career as Town/City Attorney. I am very proud that I got through law school, passed the bar exam, and did some very good work for my clients. That being said, if I had picked the right graduate program for me back in 2005, it means I could have 12 years’ experience in local government work. But also my current path brought me to meeting my wife, my cohort, and a nice house in Chapel Hill, so I don’t know if I would change that if I could. 

Any advice for someone contemplating between a JD and an MPA? 

Rich: I would encourage anyone who wants to go to law school to spend a day or two with someone who is actually practicing law. And not a senior person, someone a year or two out of law school. And not on a special day where they are on trial or something, a regular Tuesday. People applying to law school need to know that it could be years (or a decade) before you have your own clients, before you can choose which cases you work on, and even when those  two are true, you are going to be spending the majority of your time working on things that are not legal-related. You will be looking for clients, helping to run a law firm, and chasing down clients who owe you money. Ten years out of a UNC-Chapel Hill MPA program, you could be the city manager of fairy large municipality.

The MPA offers a bunch of advantages for the right person. It is a two-year degree instead of three. They are usually cheaper than law school, especially private law schools. You will start helping your community while you are in graduate school through research and coursework. When you graduate you will be ready to start helping in your community immediately and you will find that there are plenty of employers looking to hire you. You will be working on actual policy for actual people right away!


Thanks, Rich for providing that insight! Be on the lookout for next’s responses from Lori, our other resident JD who is in her first year of the program. 

2 Replies to “JD vs MPA: Part 1”

  1. I’m contemplating a MPA degree myself. I live in Clinton Township Michigan. I’m looking at the University of Michigan Dearborn. I’m 50 years old. I really like the MPA degree format. Should I go for it?

    1. The MPA is all about leadership and decision making. It’s a great catapult for advancement in the public/private sector, a career transition, or for those just starting out in public service.

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