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The well-dressed Canadian lawyer of the future will be sporting a new set of initials. The time-honoured tradition of the LL.B. is quickly being replaced by the more contemporary, and globally accepted, J.D.
Two factors are spurring the desire for a name change: perception and reality. The former reflects impressions left by the word “bachelor.” “LL.B. means first degree. We became concerned that that designation actually understated the level of education our students had,” said Mayo Moran, dean of law at the University of Toronto, which, in 2001, became the first law school in Canada to switch from the bachelor of laws to the juris doctor.
That concern is widely shared among students and educators across the country. In the U.K., Australia, Hong Kong and a number of other centres around the world, the LL.B. is a first undergraduate degree. The J.D. degree, on the other hand, is clearly recognized as a second degree, especially in the United States where it is the most common designation for law graduates.
“We want a level playing field for our graduates,” Al Lucas, dean of law at the University of Calgary, said in a letter to all alumni following the faculty’s passing a motion this March to change the degree conferred on students from LL.B. to J.D.
It’s a logical conclusion to reach, said Philip Bryden, dean of law at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton. “I think that most Canadians understand that an LL.B. is not a conventional ‘undergraduate’ degree, but some people feel that in an environment in which international mobility is more common among lawyers it is useful to signal that the Canadian degree follows the U.S. model rather than the traditional English or Australian model,” he noted.
That signal will be picked up by law firms south of the border, many of which are actively recruiting in Canada, as well as firms in Europe, Asia and a myriad of other global destinations that are all potential places of employment for fresh, young Canadian lawyers.
It’s an alluring reality. “I think students are interested in having a J.D. rather than an LL.B. because they perceive that it will increase their job opportunities in the United States,” said Mary Jackson, chief officer, legal personnel and professional development with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto.
Already the initials are making their presence known on home turf. “At McCarthy Tétrault LLP, we are seeing an increased number of applications from J.D. recipients, which is consistent with the trend towards a more globalized legal services marketplace,” said Robin MacAulay, director of professional resources for Ontario with McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto.
As a result, more law schools are looking closely at what’s in a name. And students are letting their preferences be known loud and clear. Last year, Queen’s University’s senate unanimously approved a motion to replace the LL.B. with the J.D. designation — for both students and interested alumni. “Of the current approximately 480 students in our program, all were given the option to graduate with a J.D. or an LL.B. Only seven chose an LL.B,” said Queen’s Dean of Law Bill Flanagan.
A similar response was resoundingly heard from students at Dalhousie University, which held a plebiscite on the issue earlier this year. More than 65 percent of eligible voters trudged through the cold to have their say. Thirty-one students opted for the LL.B.; 33 had no preference; 243 wanted to graduate with juris doctor after their names.
“As the results of the plebiscite were so staggering, the [Law Students’ Society] decided to declare our support for the change,” said Adam Picotte, past vice-president, academic of the student law society at Dalhousie in Halifax.
That support was shared with Dalhousie faculty, and in March, a motion was passed for an academic committee to consult with stakeholders and report back to faculty council by the end of 2009. Picotte senses resistance. “I don’t think it would be unfair to state that at the very least the faculty has been unsupportive of making the change, and it has appeared to me and many of my colleagues they have been antagonistic,” he told The Lawyers Weekly.
Such resistance does not appear to be typical. In the last two years, four law schools in addition to Dalhousie — University of British Columbia, Queen’s, University of Western Ontario, and Osgoode Hall Law School of York University — have passed resolutions and have either completed or are reviewing adopting the J.D. designation. Plebiscites or discussion has also occurred at University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba.
A lack of discussion does not indicate resistance. “When students at UNB have raised the issue with me, my response has been that the faculty has no interest in changing the name of our degree from the LL.B. to the J.D., but if the students were interested in proposing the change I would not personally oppose a change either,” said Bryden.
Many schools are now moving forward with caution. That may be most apparent at McGill University, which walks a unique path in the academic legal community in Canada. Students here receive both a B.C.L. (Bachelor of Civil Law) and an LL.B. “If it were to change to a J.D., we would be taking away from the civil law degree by making it look inferior to the J.D.,” said Rachel Sévigny, outgoing president of the law students’ association at McGill in Montreal.
“The B.C.L. would still be a bachelor’s degree while the J.D. signifies a graduate degree. It would thus create an unequal balance of Canada’s two legal systems — both systems that this faculty cares so much about,” she added.
There seems to be virtually no debate about the impact of the switch in letters in practical terms. “The change in law school degree conferred has not impacted the Canadian law school curriculum or our provincial licensing processes,” said MacAulay. “The J.D. designation principally benefits those law students who wish to pursue U.S. or other international employment opportunities.”
“Obviously,” said Sévigny, “the way the Canadian J.D. can be ‘compared’ to the American J.D. is enticing but most students realize that at the end of the day we will still get the same education for the same price regardless.”
Interestingly, it may be Canadian law firms that need to be most alert to the new spelling of law graduate. “It may result in some slight changes in U.S. opportunities for some law students at schools which have historically not been targeted by U.S. law firms,” noted Jackson.
“It just means,” she added, “that we will have to continue to work hard to retain our best prospects from law schools in Canada.”