It was William Shakespeare who advised that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, this age-old wisdom does not seem to apply to a law degree. In the United States and many other countries, law graduates get a JD, but in Canada, it’s called an LLB. It’s the same thing, except for one problem — in some circles, an LLB has a slightly sour stench.
In 2001, the law school at the University of Toronto became the first to try and fix this. They stopped calling their degree an LLB (a bachelor of laws) and renamed it JD (juris doctor). The curriculum didn’t change, but the new name sounded a heck of a lot better. What would you rather be: a bachelor of something or a doctor? More importantly, the rationale behind the renaming was to help law graduates avoid job-market disadvantages.
The basic problem is that, in international terms, LLB signifies an undergraduate degree entered into immediately after high school. That’s what an LLB is in England and Australia. Whereas in Canada, uniquely, the LLB cannot be embarked upon right after high school. You need at least some prior university study, and pretty much every law student in this country has already earned a bachelor’s degree. The bottom line is that the Canadian LLB is not an undergraduate degree, but some international job recruiters are ignorant of that fact.
That means Canadian law grads toting an LLB can get lumped in with the English or Australians whose LLB is an undergraduate degree. There are horror stories of Canadians being screened out of job competitions or getting paid less. This might seem a bit odd. After all, what’s so bad about an LLB grad from England? He or she may well have attended the prestigious Eton school and then done law at Oxford. Whereas a JD grad from the U.S. might have majored in keg parties in college and then gone on to law school in some remote American backwater.
Nevertheless, job discrimination appears to be a real problem for some Canadian law grads who get tarred by the undergrad LLB brush. Bill Flanagan, the dean of Queen’s University’s law school in Kingston, Ont., describes the tortured saga of one of his colleagues who has an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School and an LLM from Harvard University to boot. “He applied for teaching jobs throughout the U.S.,” explains Flanagan. “But he got surprisingly few interviews. Later, he talked to a number of these schools and asked why. They told him, ‘We don’t even look at LLBs.’ He was starting out his career. If he’d gotten a job in Tennessee, he might have taken it. But what does that school in Tennessee know about a Canadian LLB? Precisely nothing. And he never got the chance to put his foot in the door and explain it.”
Then there’s Queen’s grad Michael Smith, who went to London to work at Clifford Chance, one of the world’s largest law firms, in the early 1990s. He discovered that his newly hired colleagues from the U.S., who had JDs, were being paid a lot more than he was. “The firm had to pay U.S. lawyers the going rate for the JD, which was nearly double the going rate for an LLB.,” he recalls. Smith went on to have a successful career and is now a partner with the New York office of Patton Boggs LLP. “I’ve done it with an LLB,” he says, “but it would have been easier with a JD, frankly.”
To address absurd situations like these, Queen’s — at the behest of its students — will rename its degree. “I definitely believe that adopting the JD as our degree designation is in the best interest of all students, especially those who choose to seek international opportunities,” says Jeff Fung, president of the Law Students’ Society at Queen’s. “In a referendum held in 2006, over 75 per cent of students voted in favour of adopting a JD. Today, the support is the same, if not more.”
Moreover, Queen’s alumni will be able to retroactively change their degrees to JDs, if they wish, just by filling out a form. Their reaction to the whole thing has been mixed, though, with plenty of opposition. Here are some excepts from a flurry of disgruntled alumni e-mails:
“There is little substance behind the reasons for this change, and the effect is to draw us closer to a country that is increasingly at odds with the global community.”
“I have never met an employer who looks down at an LLB from Canada. All employers look at the education of an applicant and recognize the years in university before the LLB was undertaken.”
“I know of no Hong Kong law firm that would pay a qualified Canadian lawyer less because of an LLB than a JD. It is a ridiculous argument.”
“Never before has the importance of remaining distinct from the U.S. legal market been of more value.”
“Suffice to say that if this change is made, I will certainly not be changing my degree designation, but will be reconsidering my financial support of the law school.”
Queen’s alumnus Erik Penz is with Macleod Dixon LLP in Toronto and is on the board of governors of the Dominion Institute, a Canadian history think tank whose mission is to “build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story.” He feels the consultation process on the JD issue was sadly lacking. “This was basically presented to the alumni as a fait accompli,” he says. “And it’s sad that an august law faculty like Queen’s is not willing to stand up for the particularity of our Canadian legal tradition.
We’re just kowtowing to the Yanks.”
Be that as it may, the trend across Canada is unmistakable. The University of British Columbia law school is also renaming its degree at the urging of the student body. C.J. Liu, the vice president academic for UBC’s Law Students’ Society, has been involved with the process of moving to a JD over the past two years. “I think the switch to JD is a great idea,” Liu says. “It will provide a better reflection of our program in the international market.”
Joel Bakan, a UBC law professor who has been involved in the renaming initiative, notes, “We seldom listen to students. They often have ideas about changing the curriculum or the grading process. But on this issue, they were the primary stakeholders.”
There is evidence, Bakan notes, of law grads being “cut in the first cut by employers thinking a Canadian LLB is an undergrad degree, as it is in every other jurisdiction in the English-speaking world. The confusion that the students are concerned about is real.” He adds he “went into this with a bias against the change. It just seemed like more Americanization. But as I looked into it, logic weighed in favour of the change.”
On the issue of Americanization, Bakan says: “We have already Americanized legal education in this country to the extent that we’ve adopted completely the American model of legal education. It’s a postgrad degree, three years long. We’ve basically rejected the British approach of going into law directly out of secondary school.
Having already Americanized the system in effect, and then clinging to the old LLB designation, which now is somewhat inaccurate, seemed to me to be irrational.”
Other law schools that are now looking into renaming the LLB are the University of Western Ontario, University of Windsor, and Osgoode. According to Flanagan, “My prediction is that in five years you won’t have an LLB in Canada.” That remains to be seen, of course. Bruce Elman, dean of the University of Windsor law school, is skeptical of the move to JDs. “I myself have not been convinced by the case made for it,” he says, adding that the evidence of job discrimination is “anecdotal.” Before Windsor law school does anything, he “would want to conduct a very extensive consultation with alumni.”
Interestingly, Windsor has for many years offered a joint program in which students go across the St. Clair River for a summer to the University of Detroit Mercy to study American law, which leads to a combined LLB/JD that is recognized by the American Bar Association. Osgoode and the University of Ottawa offer similar ABA-recognized joint programs that also require a period of study in the U.S. By contrast, the JDs from U of T, Queen’s, and UBC won’t be ABA-recognized, because students don’t go to ABA-accredited U.S. law schools.
Law students at McGill are in a different position, because they study both common law and civil law, leading to a BCL/LLB degree. According to Dean Nicholas Kasirer, the idea of renaming it “doesn’t get much traction” among McGill students. “Our degree is different,” he says. “It shows our students have the dexterity of mind to practise in both the common law and civil systems. They’re not unaware of the debate, but there is no appreciable demand here for a JD that has come to my ears.”
From a Canadian legal recruiter’s point of view, the LLB v. JD issue doesn’t mean a whole lot. “From my perspective as a recruiter in Toronto, it makes no difference,” says Deborah Dalfen, director of student affairs at Torys LLP in Toronto. Interestingly, Dalfen changed her University of Toronto LLB to a JD when she was working in California. “I thought, what the heck,” she recalls. “I’m practising in the U.S.; it might help. So I made the switch.
It didn’t make a lick of difference. I already had a job. It made no difference in my pay. They never asked me to do it. They never wondered what an LLB was when I was applying for jobs there.”
Still, she admits getting a job somewhere other than a law firm in the U.S. might be facilitated by having a JD rather than an LLB. “I thought I might not stay in law forever,” she says, “and I wanted non-legal U.S. employers to not have that confusion.” As for whether renaming the degree makes sense, she says, “If it’s going to mean it’s easier for Canadian law graduates to get jobs internationally, it’s not a bad thing.”
International legal recruiter Lynnsey McCall, who works in the London office of Major Lindsey & Africa, says that, from her perspective, renaming the Canadian LLB to a JD won’t make much difference. Yes, she notes, there can be a pay disparity, but typically it has nothing to do with the name of the degree. “The disparity comes because American JDs are usually hired for specific roles. They can get paid a lot more. Usually they bring a specialist skill set — U.S. securities experience.”
At the end of the day, the whole JD v. LLB issue may seem like a classic case of form over substance. After all, whatever the name, the law school curriculum remains the same. Nevertheless, LLB is a misnomer inasmuch as it means an undergrad degree in the international context. That’s not what a Canadian LLB is. Why not fix the problem to avoid confusion? “It’s my job to open doors for my students,” says Queen’s Flanagan. “I’m convinced the JD degree designation will help them in international opportunities. No question.”
He says he’s not just talking about “fancy firms” in New York or London. “Some students want to go to Dubai,” he explains, “or Singapore, or someplace where — let’s be realistic — Canada is unknown. And the Canadian LLB is completely unknown. In Singapore they know what an LLB is — it’s an undergraduate, first-entry program of highly variable quality. And that’s what it is in Australia, the U.K., everywhere else in the world — except Canada.”
True, the JD moniker started in America in the 1960s. If Canadian law schools adopt it, is that an ill-advised Americanization of Canadian legal education? Many say it is. But not Flanagan. “Nonsense,” he says. “This is the international trend. We need to keep up.”