Law vs Policy. What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between law and policy and the intersections between the two, can be helpful in understanding what kind of career path you would like to take and if additional education (such as law school, a Masters in Public Administration, or both) are necessary. 

How are they defined? From this article, they define these terms as:

“Policy is the outlines of what a government is going to do and what it can achieve for the society as a whole. “Policy” also means what a government does not intend to do. It also evolves the principles that are needed for achieving the goal. Policies are only documents and not law, but these policies can lead to new laws.”

“Laws are set standards, principles, and procedures that must be followed in society. Law is mainly made for implementing justice in the society. There are various types of laws framed like criminal laws, civil laws, and international laws. While a law is framed for bringing justice to the society, a policy is framed for achieving certain goals.”

In many career paths, one may find a lot of intersections of the work between policy and law. Others may find that having a legal background to be beneficial for policy work, while others can do policy work without the legal education. In a U.S. News article Policy Careers an Option for Law School Grads”, the article illuminates the fact that “Although it is not mandatory to graduate from law school in order to work at a policy organization, experts say law school graduates have a key advantage when competing for policy positions”. In another U.S. News article When to Choose a Policy Degree instead of a J.D.”, the article discusses how the “MPA is often referred to as the MBA for the public sector and teaches students about project and program management” and how this may be a better fit for those who have a business-like mindset when working in this sector. 

One way to determine whether one path may be a better fit for you than another is to research the differences between an MPA versus a J.D. degree, their programs, and job outcomes. A way to research the intersection of these two fields is to research Public Policy programs in various law school programs. Other institutions also offer a dual degree in getting a J.D. and MPA at the same time. 

Whether you are thinking between law or policy, or work that intersects the two, there are many different jobs that can be found in these areas at all levels of government as well as in the public or non-profit sector. Some examples of the types of jobs are lobbyist, policy analysts, public policy manager, attorney at a nonprofit, congress, public policy advocacy, law enforcement, and think tanks. Want to find more about these career paths? Consider conducting a career conversation with an UW alumni! 

By Dawn Cheung
Dawn Cheung Career Coach