The J.D. vs. LL.B degree

Why are schools switching to J.D.? What’s the difference, anyway?

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When law students convene at the University of Calgary this month to slog over case studies and legal precedents, they will be working toward a different degree than their predecessors: a juris doctor (J.D.) rather than the traditional bachelor of laws (LL.B) degree.

On Sept. 1, Calgary joined an ever-lengthening list of Canadian law schools to stamp J.D. on their degrees instead of those other letters. But the thinking behind the switch seems as much about politics as it is about education.

The J.D. designation is common in the United States, where students must complete an undergraduate degree before attending law school. Meanwhile, the LL.B. designation has reigned supreme in Canada and other Commonwealth countries such as Britain. The difference is that in Canada—like in the States—most students have already completed an undergrad degree before entering law school; across the pond, students can attend law school straight out of high school.

Proponents say that the J.D. signals to foreign—read American—employers that a Canadian law grad isn’t just a “snot-nosed kid barely five years removed from high school,” as Toronto litigator David Cheif­etz put it on the Canadian law website Slaw. The J.D. is now seen as “more prestigious than the LL.B.,” explains Simon Fodden, professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall law school at York University, which offers the J.D.

Indeed, the University of Toronto became the first law school to make the switch in 2001 because it was concerned that the LL.B. “understated the level of education our students had,” dean Mayo Moran told Lawyers Weekly last year. Since then, many Canadian law schools have held plebiscites and debates, and switched to the J.D., including the universities of British Columbia, Western Ontario and Queen’s.

But critics say the change amounts to “juris envy,” as Vancouver lawyer Tony Wilson quipped in a Canadian Bar Association article. More serious criticisms abound: that this marks the “Americanization” of Canadian law.

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