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Canadian law degrees – LL.B. vs. J.D.

I’ve noticed a number of news items in recent weeks about the emerging trend of Canadian law schools making a switch from the LL.B. to J.D. degree designations. U of T has been doing this for some time already. UBC has recently received approval from their Board of Governors to make the switch. Western is currently mid-stream on the same debate and I’m given to understand that Queens and Osgoode Hall are also exploring the possiblity. There appears to be a groundswell of support from student ranks who feel the move will make the degrees (and their holders) more attractive in the international legal marketplace.

Clearly, old age is creeping up on me because I find myself falling squarely into the camp of the traditionalists on this one. Despite the apparent popularity for the switch, I personally find it hard to believe that the types of international firms that are hiring significant numbers of Canadian lawyers have any confusion regarding an LL.B. degree. Indeed, as quoted in the Lawyers Weekly article on the topic, both Western Dean Ian Holloway, and Osgoode Dean Patrick Monahan acknowledge that the change is unlikely to have much impact on international hiring. As aptly stated by Dean Holloway, such firms “don’t just hire Canadians. They hire graduates from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India. These are global firms. Regardless of the degree designation, they know just what they’re getting.”

Setting aside the international marketability question, part of the impetus from the student ranks might also be explained by the fact that in some universities, such as Western, law students are deemed as undergraduates within the university community, thereby precluding them from graduate-level perks such as parking privileges. That, however, is in my view a university-specific glitch that can be easily rectified without changing the degree designation. Indeed, harking back lo those many years to my own law school days at UVIC, law students were recognized as graduate students and had access to the grad student lounge, etc.
Call me squarely behind the times on this one. I say long live the LL.B.!

2 Comments to “Canadian law degrees – LL.B. vs. J.D.”

  1. R M says:

    As UVic Law graduate, I am glad to read blog-post of another UVic Law alumni.
    I remember there was a great push from the students to grant J.D. around 2003, at the time I was in UVic. I guess, it was the old-school nostalgic feelings of many professors that thwarted that attempt.
    About LL.B. or J.D. debate, I will not take any particular side, but I would relate some of my experiences.
    During and after graduation, I had many questions like, “Is your degree a graduate degree? I know you already have a bachelor’s degree.” I have tried answering this question in many different ways – “It is a professional degree”, “Almost all the students in the program have a prior bachelor degree, and having few years of college level education is a pre-requisite”, etc. Anyway, the puchline comes after this – “but the degree itself is called LL.B. or Bachelor of Laws.” Almost certainly this is what follows, “Oh, it is a bachelor degree!” This has been a uniform experience in Canada, and in many other countries. Of course, people in Canadian legal community know the reality, but outside that I have never seen a person who did not conclude that LL.B. is a bachelor degree (and it is foolish to get a second bachelor degree).
    Experience at UVic: (1) Dorm assignments are in undergraduate houses, not in graduate house. (2) No access to graduate lounge. (3) Central library only gives books according to undergraduate quota. Etc.
    Western Dean Ian Holloway, and Osgoode Dean Patrick Monahan acknowledge that the change is unlikely to have much impact on international hiring. As aptly stated by Dean Holloway, such firms “don’t just hire Canadians. They hire graduates from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India. These are global firms. Regardless of the degree designation, they know just what they’re getting.” I should add a note with this comment that Dean Holloway only speaks about big law firms, and most law school graduates do not end up working at big law firms. Small firms, regional firms, sole practices, etc. seldom have knowledge about what does on in other jurisdictions. It is a hard sale in a U.S. firm a degree called LL.B., if that is not J.D. Similarly, it is hard sale in U.K., Australia, and New Zealand that Canadian LL.B.s all have a prior bachelor degree, because in those countries most students go to law school after high school and get their LL.B. without any prior bachelor degree.
    As I mentioned before, I am personally neutral about this LL.B. v. J.D. debate, but the experiences I have faced so far in many different countries (I had the pleasure of living and working in many countries after graduation) gives me an impression that many people arguing on this topic argue from theoretical perspectives, and a bit of touch with reality would help them a lot.
    A concluding note, in the 50s and 60s U.S. law schools also had similar debate about LL.B. v. J.D., as some schools switched to J.D. while others were staying behind refusing to change. Now, all the law schools award J.D. degree.


  2. S.Smith says:

    I agree with the previous post. I’m a Canadian with a BComm and a CA, and have in the past found it very difficult to explain the depth of my credentials to US employers. After working for a big 4 firm in Toronto, I went to work on Wall Street with all those Harvard and Wharton grads. I eventually decided to obtain a JD from a top US school in part due to my perception that I needed something more recognizable to compete at the highest levels of business.
    Any debate surrounding the superiority of one or the other misses the point. While recruiters may be able to distinguish between international credentials (IMHO, this gives recruiters more credit than they deserve), interviewing practitioners cannot be counted on to equate the two degrees. Why would an American HLS grad practicing in NYC know or care that a Canadian LLB is a parallel degree? And since it is the professionals that a potential employee will be working with who will ultimately decide who gets hired, why make life more difficult? Highly credentialed people tend to be suspicious of anything that might even appear to be inferior. While this may be said to be short-sighted or perhaps ill-informed, it is still a reality.
    As a further point, I do think it is unreasonable to treat LLB students as undergrads. If the reality is that it is virtually impossible to gain admittance to a law program without already having a bachelor degree, why would schools continue to treat students as undergrads? I can’t speak to Canadian law students (although I have a number of friends who attended law school in Canada), but the law school I attended was clearly at a graduate level. It was simply too intense to be otherwise. Law schools in North America (not necessarily including some of the lower tier American schools) have their own fiercely competitive culture and are filled with highly intelligent and educated people. To debate THAT fact seems silly to me. If we really want to argue about calling a degree a “graduate” degree, let’s talk about the MBA.
    And finally, to circle back to my original point, I’d like to say that I appreciate some of the differences between Canada and the US, and am a big believer in a Canadian identity. But only insofar as we don’t do ourselves a disservice in the process. A Canadian LLB already looks a lot more like a US JD than its UK LLB birthright. To the extent that small changes can make our graduates more marketable on an international stage, well, why not?


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