There are many reasons one might choose to pursue a graduate degree in social work or law. These can include the desire to make a difference in the world. Either degree on its own can provide a pathway to achieve this goal. However, the approaches that lawyers and social workers take can be vastly different. For students who aren’t sure which road they want to take, or for those searching for a way to bridge the gap, some schools offer a third option, a dual MSW/JD degree.In this guide
- Dual MSW and law degree
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Admission requirements
- Choosing the right program
- Career paths
- Salary and outlook
What is a dual MSW and law degree?
A master’s in social work degree is a graduate level degree in the field of social work. Anyone who wants to be a social worker must hold a social work degree. People in many other roles often misrepresent themselves as social workers. However, to hold the title of social worker, one must have a bachelor’s (BSW) of social work, master’s (MSW) of social work, or doctorate (PhD or DSW) in social work.
Conversely, to earn the title of lawyer or attorney one must pass the bar exam. In most states earning a graduate degree in law, a juris doctor (JD), is required. As of 2020, a few states still allow people to take the bar exam after completing an apprenticeship without a formal legal education. However these lawyers will not be able to practice in states that require a JD.
Students graduating from a dual MSW/JD degree program will graduate with their master’s in social work and their law degree. They will be eligible to practice as a social worker immediately, and as an attorney after passing the bar exam.
Advantages and drawbacks of a dual MSW and law degree
If you want to focus on direct social work practice with clients, you may feel that having a strong basis in and understanding of the legal system will help you advocate for your clients. There is definitely some truth to this assumption. However, from a cost perspective it is probably not worth it. There is a tremendous additional financial cost involved with pursuing a law degree, and you will not be able to recoup this investment on a social worker salary. If you are planning to work in a clinical or case management social work capacity, it would probably be better to take some additional courses or training in social work and the law.
However, if you are planning to work on a macro or policy level, in the legal system, or as an advocate, for example, the dual degree may make more sense.
Remember that in order to receive both degrees you will be adding one to two years to your post-graduate education and incurring significant additional cost. It pays to closely examine your needs and desired outcome to determine if it will ultimately be worth these investments.
How to get a MSW/JD degree
Students wishing to pursue a dual or joint MSW/JD degree will need to take courses from both the school of social work and the school of law at their university. They will need to complete the standard coursework and internships/field placements from both programs. In some cases, one course may fulfill a requirement of both programs, but for the most part, each program’s elective courses will be filled by the courses of the other program.
Standard MSW programs take two years to complete. Standard law programs take three years. So, to complete each program separately would take five years. Most dual MSW/Law degree programs can be completed in four years, shaving a year off of the total.
Admission requirements for MSW and law dual degree programs
Students applying to a dual degree program of any sort typically need to meet the admission requirements for each individual program.
In the case of a law program, students will need to have a bachelor’s degree and a competitive score on the LSAT as a minimum. According to US News and World Report, the average LSAT score in the 2019-2020 academic year was 151.88. Many schools will also require an essay. Schools will also be looking for relevant experience. For students who do not have any direct work experience in the legal field, related volunteer experience will be important.
In the case of a master’s degree in social work, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement. If the degree is in a related field, this will give the applicant an edge. If not, relevant work and volunteer experience are also highly valued. Most schools will also require applicants to take the GRE and submit an essay.
Letters of recommendation will be required for both programs. Some schools may require an interview as well.
Choosing the right MSW and law program
There are many levels to consider when choosing a graduate program. The most important one is accreditation. In most states, eligibility for both the bar exam and social work licensure is limited to graduates of accredited institutions. The reason accreditation is so important is that it ensures that schools are meeting a certain educational standard, and that when you graduate, you will have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to practice in your field. When researching a dual degree program, you will need to ensure that both programs are accredited by their respective bodies. For social work, the accreditation board is called the Council on Social Work Education. Law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association.
Another way to narrow down the search is to focus on post-graduation goals. This would include the desired client population, as well as level of involvement, i.e. micro, mezzo, or macro. Other considerations include the type of job, i.e. advocacy, litigation, management, etc.
It is particularly important to find programs that provide the focus you are looking for in the case of a dual degree program, such as the MSW/JD degree. Most of your electives will be filled for you already, and you won’t have much time to explore. So make sure you will be able to take the classes you want and need.
MSW and law dual degree requirements
Dual MSW/law programs typically require 90+ credits. Some programs will allow courses from each discipline to count towards the other degree, but this will vary from school to school.
Students will also have to complete all of the internship and field placement requirements of each individual program. For a master’s in social work this will include 900 hours divided between a foundational field placement and a concentration based field placement.
For a juris doctor internship hours will vary from school to school.
Social work courses may include but are not limited to:
- Foundations of social work practice
- Human behavior
- Social welfare
- Social work research methods
Law courses may include but are not limited to:
- Constitutional law
- Contract law
- Civil procedure
- Criminal law
- Property law
- Tort law
- Labor law
- Federal law
The course work provides students with the knowledge, skills, and insight to work with clients who are facing difficult legal and social challenges. Graduates will have a strong understanding of policy and advocacy as well as enhanced communication skills. This education can provide a strong framework to pursue jobs on a micro, mezzo, and macro level.
Career paths for MSW and law dual degree holders
There are several career options for MSW/JD’s. These include:
- Social service administrator
- Public welfare administrator
- Juvenile court representative
- Family court judicial personnel
- Public policy official
- Planning official
- Nonprofit manager
- Guardian ad litem
- Family law attorney
It is important to note, however, that none of these positions require a dual degree. For many, either degree on its own will be sufficient.
MSW and law salary and career outlook
The salary and career outlook for a MSW/JD will vary depending on what type of position you choose. In a broad sense, if you are working for a service based nonprofit, your salary will be on the lower end of the spectrum. If, however, you will be working for a private law firm, your salary will be on the higher end. Government work will likely fall into the midrange.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the job market for social workers will grow thirteen percent between 2019 and 2029. This growth strongly outpaces the four percent growth predicted for the overall job market. The BLS outlook for lawyers is predicted to be on pace with the national average of four percent growth in jobs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in May 2020 the median salary for lawyers was $126,930, ranging from a low of less than $61,490 to a high of more than $208,000. For social workers with a master’s degree, the BLS reports the median annual wage was $51,760 during the same time period. Earnings ranged from a low of $33,020 to a high of more than $85,820.
Given this large range and difference in salary and outlook, it may make more sense to whittle down your area of interest and look at the outlook and salary that way. For instance, if you are interested in becoming a mediator, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an eight percent job growth between 2019 and 2029. This is double the expected job growth for the legal profession as a whole. The median salary for mediators in May of 2020 was $66,130, with a range of less than $38,330 through more than $131,210.
If you are considering a future in a judicial capacity in family or juvenile court the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth over the same ten year period will be slightly lower than the national average for lawyers, at two percent. The median salary reported in May 2020 was $124,200 with a range between less than $40,270 and more than $208,000.
There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding whether a joint MSW/JD is right for you. Be sure to do your research wisely before making this investment of time and money.