Nixing Law School in Favor of a M.U.P?
April 2, 2008 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering urban planning as an alternative to law school. Do any planners/lawyers have feedback/advice on this?

I've decided that in case I don't get into a top tier law school, I'd rather take a Masters program in something that will allow me to get a decent job at graduation while I wait for a few years and perhaps re-apply to law school when my GPA/experience is stronger. (I'm graduating in December with a degree in political science.)

I'm interested in urban planning because of the aspects of design and technology that really appeal to me as well as the analytical rules/working with the public side which appeals to the poli sci/law dork in me. Does this seem like a good fit? I'm mostly interesting in sustainable communities and transportation planning with a focus on bikes/pedestrian friendliness.
posted by youcancallmeal to Education (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a lawyer, but I know a ton of lawyers socially. I can say that most of them are not happy with the day-to-day work and the hours are unbelievable. I have another good friend who works with sustainable community project that he really enjoys, but the monetary benefits aren't there nearly as much. I think for overall live happiness go with urban planning, but if you want a big bank account - law's definitely the answer.
posted by heywilliams at 8:10 AM on April 2, 2008

Where are you hoping to work, youcancallmeal?

I work in transit, that's why I'm asking...
posted by waylaid at 8:15 AM on April 2, 2008

Response by poster: I'm honestly not sure. I'm currently in Baltimore by way of NYC, and am thinking of heading back there, but I recently fell in love with Montreal and am from Austin and have thought about heading back that way and I hear Portland is nice...
posted by youcancallmeal at 8:19 AM on April 2, 2008

If you plan to reapply to law school later, another option would be to work for a while. I know that having work experience is good for your application, good for deciding what you actually want to do (either what kind of law or whether you want to do law school at all), and good for taking a break from school and seeing the real world. Plus, you'd be making money instead of paying tuition, if that's a factor.

You could try to work on the Hill (maybe for a member or committee related to your interests), for a NGO related to your interests, or so many other things.

My experience (my own and my friends') is that those with some time in between college and law school were happier and more motivated.
posted by Pax at 8:47 AM on April 2, 2008

Response by poster: I've already had years of work experience, both related to law and not. I'm graduating college at the age of 27, so don't really want to waste more time working shit jobs, especially shit jobs in politics. (I like law and planning, I don't really like legislation and politics.)
posted by youcancallmeal at 8:54 AM on April 2, 2008

The APA jobs page will give you a sense of what an entry level planner might earn in a traditional planning job. Of course, just like lawyers, a lot of people with planning degrees work in other kinds of jobs (city administration, neighborhood organizing, international development, etc). Glancing at a few of the ones labeled entry level, it looks like salaries commonly range from about $35k into the 60's; I have known people to earn more starting out in the private sector. And you will have two years of student loans instead of three years worth for law school (and some programs offer tuition remission, partial TA-ships, and other support, so you might make it out with less debt than you think), so financially it is not a terrible decision.

Additionally, law degree plus planning degree is, professionally, a really powerful combination, and if you went that route you'd have lots of options.

That said, a masters degree (in planning or any other subject) is expensive, a lot of work, and represents a pretty big commitment on your part. I certainly wouldn't recommend it as a place-holder while you wait to get on with your real life. Better to travel, work some crummy jobs, get an entry level job in a related field, or something else that doesn't involve student loans and all the rest of it -- save that for something you are really committed to.
posted by Forktine at 8:57 AM on April 2, 2008

Because you are from Austin, I thought I'd point out that UT has a dual degree program in Law (JD) and Community and Regional Planning (MS). I have my MS in CRP from UT and was bummed that I didn't find out about the dual degree option until I was a year into things. Then again, the dual degree thing is a four-year program. I don't work in the field, though, so I can't speak to the rest of your question. Good luck, I loved planning but graduated at a time when cities weren't really hiring so I ended up finding work elsewhere.
posted by misskaz at 9:22 AM on April 2, 2008

I may not be adding much here, but like you I'm kinda a poli sci geek, though not so much a law geek. I work in municipal government and find it really rewarding. I just finished an MPA in December, but if I had it to do over again, I probably would have gone with Urban Planning.

Also, we need good people in government!
posted by Shohn at 9:25 AM on April 2, 2008

Hi, planner here.

If you want a well paying job right out of school, planning might not be the best route for you. Most gov't employed planners are going to start in the 30's, which isn't bad, but isn't going to get you rich. All the jobs I have seen recently require a master's in a related field, some job experience and you still start mid 30's. Its a labour of love, but if you stick with it, it can work out well in the long run.

It is very fullfilling and fun if you work for the right kind of organization. I work in the "Office of Planning and Quality Growth" for my state, so I not only review plans for for cities and counties, but also help write model code if they are having a particular issue they need help with or bring a gaggle of consultants down for the week to write a report on how sustainable development can work for their community. Its pretty cool.

A gentleman started with me that had a law degree and planning masters. He was hired at a tier lower than me because of lack of work expereince, then also had a really hard time finding a better job. It might just be his attitude or our particular market, but his degrees didn't really help him that much even though I think in the long run it will serve him well. We hire lawyers all the time to do the final vetting of our model code and other briefs, so I know there is a market for that kind of expertise, after of course you have loads of experience under your belt.
posted by stormygrey at 9:30 AM on April 2, 2008

i'm about to graduate from an urban planning masters program. i recommend it; you can get a huge skill set out of it that can be transferable to many other fields. i caution that you should really choose a program in a city/county/region/state based on where you would feel comfortable living and working for a few years once you get out of school. most of the connections you make will be local, and most of your in-the-field curriculum will be based in a catchment area of a few surrounding counties. the issues you're interested in studying should dovetail with the issues of the region where your school is, because that region is your laboratory.

once you're there: attend as many extracurriculars as you can (seminars, conferences, networking events, etc). you can only learn a limited amount in a 2-year program and there'll be a ton of important stuff that you should know about but don't have an opportunity to get to. go out and carpe the diem. learn the technology, stay abreast of the policy, and use all the theory you've learned in school to impress people at dinner parties.
posted by mirepoix at 9:31 AM on April 2, 2008

Response by poster: Clarification:

Decent job does not necessarily mean making crazy money. If I were comfortable with my chances of getting into a top tier law school, I know I'd have to work to get into Big Law to make a lot of money to pay off my loans. If the alternative is going into less debt for a Masters and making less money in my job and not working 80+ hour weeks, I'm okay with that.

I'm also not completely tied to the eventuality of getting a law degree. My question is more "This is my original plan, I'm not sure it's going to work out, given my interests and background, is this a reasonable alternative?"

More background: I should be graduating with approx. a 3.2 GPA. I have not yet taken the GRE. How competitive are most Urban Planning Masters programs?
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:38 AM on April 2, 2008

most urban planning masters programs are not THAT competitive because the vast majority of people have no idea what urban planning even is. you'll need the GRE, but if you have a score of around 1200 you'll be fine. i think the top programs (berkeley, MIT, harvard, penn) are harder to get into.
posted by mirepoix at 9:41 AM on April 2, 2008


I have an MPA, which I have found to be very, very flexible. Very much a generalist masters degree that you can bend to different types of jobs.

As for looking for planning jobs - keep in mind that the most exciting places to do planning are in the highest demand. Getting a planning job in say, Portland or New York City can be pretty difficult and highly competitive.

Also, if you want to 'wait a few years for law school', spending tens of thousands of dollars on a masters in planning is not the way to go. Do a MRP if that's what you want to do, but dont use it as a placeholder - you'd be a lot better off just working for a few years, then reapplying to law school.

Seconding shohn. We do need good people in govt (i work for the federal govt, by the way)
posted by waylaid at 9:45 AM on April 2, 2008

Best answer: City planning sounds like a good fit for you and is a great track. Your stated interests -- design, rules, working with the public, sustainable communities, transportation planning, and bikes/pedestrian friendliness -- make me think you'd really like city planning. You can hold public charettes, figure out how to use the community's input to make bike/ped-friendly places, and then figure out how to codify these design ideas through rules, all the while dealing with the politics between the city planning department, the department of public works, the mayor and city council, the planning commission, and so forth. The only interest you had that I didn't think was a great fit was technology. I don't deal much with that. But if you were doing, oh, a green building program or something, you would. The one reality check I'd give you is that honestly, the whole community input thing will lose its idealistic allure pretty quickly if you're on the city side. :) But you could also do community organizing and empowerment work if that was what you were into.

In the Bay Area, city planning jobs seem fairly easy to find. A planning degree opens the door to a lot of different jobs, in the consulting field, in city government, in the nonprofit sector, community organizing, working for a regional park districts. Sometimes, the pay can be quite good (one friend got hired straight outta grad school for $80k or $90k -- though I'd say most people I know started more around $50k right after graduating). I was surprised at the wide array of work my co-students ended up doing. Speaking of co-students, did you read all the complaining about law students in a recent question? I'm not sure I agree with it, but there's a definite stereotype. The people I met in planning school were great. They generally were people who want to change the world. They had been working somewhere in the nonprofit sector for a few years, but they had realized they wanted to have a bigger impact on the community they live in. In general, they were idealistic, smart, fun, ambitious, and friendly. And now that we're all working in the Bay Area, it's a really great network.

As someone who also occasionally considers law school, I appreciate all the exposure that city planning work has given me to land use and environmental laws. You don't get too much exposure to federal laws, but you do get a lot of local and state law, and you get exposed to the general procedural notice-and-comment stuff. The only other thing I'd suggest you consider is a degree in public policy. That's another good track with applicability to planning, state policy, and law.

When we graduated, they said, "you are now officially the 'they.'" As in "They should fix these roads. They should build more restaurants around here. They really fixed this neighborhood up." It's a slight exaggeration (the "they" includes a lot of non-planners), but some days it feels almost true. For certain people, who are really interested in why the places they live are the way they are, getting into city planning is like a fish getting into water. That's the way it was for me, anyway. I feel really lucky that I get paid to think about how the place I live should change and then to try to convince others to see it the same way.
posted by salvia at 10:06 AM on April 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

While you're considering your options (and waiting to see which schools you get into), you might want to check out Should You Really Be A Lawyer?.
posted by kristi at 10:34 AM on April 2, 2008

Yet another planner here (why so many on Metafilter?). Go with what Forktine and Salvia say.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:39 AM on April 2, 2008

Would you consider having your cake, and eating it too?

Are you planning on getting into a top-tier urban planning program? If you have a target grad school, and that school has a law school, talk to the administrators and see if you can do some sort of a dual M.A./J.D. program. Getting into "top-tier" law schools isn't all it's cracked up to be; a law school that specializes in the law you want to practice may be on the bottom part of Tier 1 (or top of Tier 2), yet still garner you great respect in your field.

I couldn't tell you the market for urban planning lawyers, but I assure you that they do exist.

I'm not sure if you are trying to get an M.A. in urban planning just to raise your G.P.A. and to make yourself more marketable to top tier schools, or if you are seeking to make urban planning your career along with lawyering.

As far as my experience is as a lawyer, the job is nothing like urban planning. My line of work is very reactive; it is about servicing client interests, and there isn't much room for true creativity. Urban planning seems much more proactive (even if you are servicing client interests). Good luck.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:20 PM on April 2, 2008

As far as my experience is as a lawyer, the job is nothing like urban planning. My line of work is very reactive; it is about servicing client interests, and there isn't much room for true creativity. Urban planning seems much more proactive (even if you are servicing client interests). Good luck.

Yeah well, depending on where you work as a planner, there could be lots of servicing client interests in a purely reactive way. True creativity is not always the goal or the method or attaining that goal.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:06 PM on April 2, 2008

I'd weigh in (I have a MUP) but I haven't had caffeine today and I'm practically braindead.

If you get a MUP, don't come to the midwest. Jobs are not plentiful.
posted by desjardins at 2:17 PM on April 2, 2008

The one reality check I'd give you is that honestly, the whole community input thing will lose its idealistic allure pretty quickly if you're on the city side. :)

I feel like I should second this, because a lot of times, unfortunately, the community at large is composed of idiots.

Also, you would have assholes like me to deal with. In my years at a residential architecture firm, one of my unwritten job descriptions was basically: find every expoitable loophole in the municipal code imaginable that allows our clients to build whatever they want whether the City likes it or not. After a few years of working with the City, people had left the planning department or been promoted or whatever, so that I knew the code better than the people administering it--it's a little disconcerting when planners at the City desk ask for copies of my cheat sheets that distill complicated code language into easily digestible bits because they don't quite know all the ins and outs themselves. There were many times when planners would tell us we couldn't do a certain thing in a project, and we'd come right back with "yes we can, because you've already allowed it here, here, here and here under this code, and that portion of the code doesn't apply to us anyway because of x, y, and z." But, that was part of my job that I hated doing, and it was one of the reasons I left. Also, as someone else said, all that code reading and interpreting really flexes your lawyerly muscles anyway--it's part of your job as a planner to write as loophole-free a code as possible, which is immensely hard to do.

For both of the above points, I should clarify that I was working in the super-rich parts of town, so our clients and the community itself were very "ME ME ME" oriented, and most of the input at community forums reflected that.
posted by LionIndex at 2:40 PM on April 2, 2008

OMG, is this the thread where we get to complain about illogical, incomplete, or contradictory zoning codes?!? I'll be right back with my seven page rant!

Yes, youcancallmeal, please become a planner and use your legalistic mind and desire to serve the community to write clear and complete zoning codes.
posted by salvia at 3:15 PM on April 2, 2008

OMG, is this the thread where we get to complain about illogical, incomplete, or contradictory zoning codes?!? I'll be right back with my seven page rant!

I'm guessing this is directed at me. My post wasn't meant to be a complaint about the code, but rather a warning that the types of "community contact" one could expect as a in their enjoyability.
posted by LionIndex at 3:41 PM on April 2, 2008

LionIndex, sorry -- I should have been clearer -- I didn't mean that as a criticism of what you said. You made clear why you made that comment. I just have plenty to chime in about that particular topic, is all. :)
posted by salvia at 3:55 PM on April 2, 2008

S'alright. Perhaps one of us should post a "what oddities are found in your local planning code?" question and make *that* the bitch 'n' rant post. We'll have to be careful to avoid a "CODES SUK AMIRITE" type post that would surely be deleted.
posted by LionIndex at 4:12 PM on April 2, 2008

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