A law degree by any other name

Proposed change from LL.B. to J.D. ‘consistent with international norms,’ dean says

Dean William Flanagan says a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree more accurately describes the level of legal education at Queen’s.
Dean William Flanagan says a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree more accurately describes the level of legal education at Queen’s.

Queen’s law students will soon graduate with a J.D. (Juris Doctor) law degree, instead of a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B.) if a recommendation to the University Senate is approved in early 2008.

In October, the Faculty Board, a committee of students and staff which looks into academic issues within the law school, passed a motion recommending Senate change the law degree designation from an LL.B. to a J.D.

According to the Queen’s Law website, J.D. is a law degree designation originating in the United States that’s now recognized internationally as a professional degree in law. Although in Canada an LL.B. is awarded for the completion of a three-year post-graduate education program, in most common law countries the LL.B. indicates an undergraduate program. Some suggest the LL.B. designation is a disadvantage for students because employers will assume they don’t have another degree.

A referendum held by the Law Students’ Society (LSS) in February 2006 asked students if they were in favour of changing the Queen’s Law degree title to J.D.

Seventy-five per cent of voters responded in support of the motion. Sixty-eight of the 322 voters said they weren’t in favour of the idea and 10 people abstained.

The University of Toronto is the only Canadian law school to offer a J.D. degree. Several other schools, including the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Ontario are considering making the change.

When Jeff Fung, Law ’08, was elected as president of the LSS last year, he was put on the committee looking into the J.D. proposal.

Fung said that since the referendum in 2006, the LSS has held town hall meetings and discussions through a listserv to talk with students about the degree designation change.

“The vast majority are onside with this,” he said. Among the students who disagree with the proposal, he added, most say as long as they can graduate with an LL.B., they’re okay with the change. Once the change goes through, all current students will have the option of graduating with an LL.B. or a J.D.

Fung said one of the biggest benefits of the change is that the J.D. designation will better communicate the value of a Queen’s Law degree.

“I think one of the problems with the LL.B. is the program isn’t clearly communicated to employers when you go abroad,” he said.

Fung said he has heard from some alumni who said they’ve faced difficulties finding a job due to their LL.B.

“That people can be affected negatively is, I think, reason enough that we should ensure that we change it to a J.D. so that none of our graduates ever have to face a loss of opportunity,” he said.

Jean-Marc Leclerc, Law ’98, said he doesn’t think switching from an LL.B. to a J.D. will afford Queen’s law graduates more opportunities in the U.S., as has been suggested.

“I do know that schools in the U.S. have been hiring Canadian graduates for years, even before U of T made the switch [to offering a J.D.] in 2001,” he said.

“The large New York firms that I think we’re all talking about that are hiring Canadian law school students are certainly sophisticated enough to understand what an LL.B. degree is and to understand that that means a law degree.” Leclerc, who works at Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt in Toronto, said he thinks law firms are more interested in an applicant’s abilities, whether they have an undergraduate degree.

“I don’t think a law firm is going to care very much if you have an undergraduate degree if at the end of the day you’re a fantastic lawyer who can make the arguments and explain things clearly to a client.” Queen’s Law Dean William Flanagan said a J.D. designation doesn’t necessarily signify the completion of an undergraduate degree, but that it’s seen as a more sophisticated legal education. “The Americans and Canadians, long ago we developed a very different model of legal education, one that’s a second-entry program,” he said.

“The LL.B. programs in England and Australia are basically 18-year-olds just out of high school. Instead of studying English, philosophy or history, they’re just studying law, and it’s not a very sophisticated legal education.

“The product that we offer is an entirely different product.” The second-entry professional program, like the one at Queen’s, is increasingly recognized internationally as a superior form of legal education. Schools in Australia and Hong Kong are revising their law school programs to offer a J.D., Flanagan said.

“I have no doubt that in five years the LL.B. will be phased out in Australia and it will be replaced with a J.D.” Although larger international firms will recognize that an LL.B. from a Canadian university is awarded for a higher level of education than an LL.B. from other countries, Flanagan said not all firms or businesses are aware of the distinction.

“There’s a whole range of employers who won’t be familiar with Queen’s and won’t understand that a Queen’s LL.B. is the equivalent of the internationally understood J.D.” Flanagan said tradition is one of the main reasons it has taken Queen’s until now to re-evaluate its degree designation.

“A degree designation is a sensitive issue. ... It’s one that’s intimately connected to not only your educational experience but also your professional qualifications.”

Flanagan said alumni response to the proposed change has been mixed and there’s a small but vocal minority of alumni who are upset about the proposed change.

Flanagan said some alumni who oppose the switch have raised concerns that it signifies an Americanization of Canadian legal education because the J.D. designation originated in the United States.

“It’s not,” Flanagan said. “The J.D. is now internationally understood as indicating a second-entry professional program, which we already offer and have for a very long time. I see this as a move that is bringing us to be consistent with international norms around this degree designation.

“I’m thinking much more about Hong Kong, Sydney and Singapore than I’m thinking about the United States.” Flanagan said the degree designation switch won’t affect admission requirements or the curriculum. Although tuition will increase next year by eight per cent for incoming students and four per cent for current students, the increase isn’t related to the proposed change but is in line with provincial policy for tuition increases.

Jordan Palmer, Law ’09, opposes the proposed change because he believes it’s Americanizing the degree. He’s also not convinced about the level of legitimacy attached to the J.D. degree.

Even though Queen’s will distribute the same degree designation as in the United States, the law school won’t be American Bar Association-approved, he said. This is because Queen’s doesn’t offer the requisite number of American law courses.

“It’s like a J.D. here is something like a high school giving away degrees.”

Palmer said he was also unhappy with the way the 2006 referendum was portrayed as an overwhelming majority, because only upper-years could vote in the referendum.

“The ’06s, ’07s and ’08s voted,” he said.

Another concern he has about the degree change is the sudden break from the tradition.

“I’ve spoken to one other [alumnus] from U of T. I thought he may be in favour of the J.D., but he just sounded off that it’s silly, and how Canada is insecure about its degrees.”

The apparent inferiority complex shouldn’t warrant a degree change, he said.

Palmer said the argument regarding the accuracy of the degrees—where a Juris Doctorate would more accurately denote the secondary nature of a law degree—is almost irrelevant, as long as a student can present his or her education history on a resume.

“I’d think that putting your degrees like a BAH first would be enough,” he said. “If an employer can’t read that, I’m not sure if I’d want to work for them.

“I think to some extent that law firms around the world understand that in Canada, an LL.B. is a second degree.”

Cloudesley Rook-Hobbs, Law ’09, thinks the change is needed.

“Even in Canada, the general populace thinks that you have a bachelor’s if you have an LL.B.,” he said. “A J.D. is an internationally well-known degree, not just an American thing.” Rook-Hobbs said he found himself explaining what his LL.B. was when he was contacting law firms outside of Canada.

“My sister’s [an Assistant US Attorney for the federal government]. Meeting with her and other members of the law firm, they said they’d never heard of the LL.B.,” he said.

After explaining the degree, there was still some confusion regarding the degree’s postgraduate status.

“They definitely were under the impression it was a preparatory program.”

Comparing admission requirements

University of Birmingham (Birmingham, UK)Yale UniversityQueen’s UniversityLL.B: a three- or four-year honours law undergraduate degree

Admissions Requirements: High school diploma with five Grade 12 courses and completion of National Admission Test for Law in the UK. J.D. : a three-year postgraduate degree in law

Admissions Requirements: Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and completion of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).LL.B: a three-year postgraduate degree in law

Admission requirements: Minimum of two years of undergraduate study at a recognized university after completing secondary school and LSAT scores.

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