Monday, January 12, 2015

LLB, LLM, JD, oh my!

The other day, I was reading the biography of a long practicing lawyer which noted that when he'd graduated from law school (from another state) in the early 1950s, he'd received a LLB degree, which is a Bachelor of Legal Letters, a now extinct degree.  When the US uniformly went to JD's, i.e., Juris Doctorates, his school allowed that holders of LLBs could exchange them for JDs, which he did.  I probably wouldn't have, but that's just me.  Still, that there were other degrees, and now are not, is an interesting fact and it actually says something about the history of the practice of law, and maybe something about where we are today.

Law degrees, as a professional degree, date back to the 11th Century in Europe, which is stunningly early, and they were actually doctorate degrees at the time.  This certainly doesn't mean that every practitioner of the law held one, but such degrees did exist.  Indeed, as sort of an interesting and peculiar aside, you can find quite a few references in the lives of various Saints to their having studied or obtained a law degree. St. Francis de Sales provides such an example (and you can read about him here, in the They Were Lawyers page on this site).

We in the United States, save for Louisiana, use a Common Law system, so we're heirs to the 1292 decree of King Edward I that lawyers actually be trained for their professions, but that didn't mean that they had to be university trained by any means.  Indeed, that gave rise to the "reading the law" system which predominated for most lawyers in the Common Law countries for eons.  However, even as early as the 1700s in both England and the American Colonies there were those advocating for university education for lawyers, with such a significant figure as William Blackstone taking that position.

In both England, and the United States, the first law degrees were bachelor's, not doctorate, degrees, something that set us apart, for good or ill, from continental Europe.  In England, the LLB became the common degree, while the first degree offered in the United States was the Bachelor of Law, which soon became a LLB, but without the training in classical liberal arts that the degree included in England.

J.Ds started to appear around the turn of the previous century, and they reflected the fact that law school had already become a post graduate degree. Therefore, people in the US graduating with LLBs already normally  had one bachelor's degree, and it was felt that medical degrees, such as the MD and DDS degrees were sort of unfairly elevated by title, when all the post graduate degrees of that type were in fact doctorate degrees. And the fact that Germany at that time (but no longer) had a practice that required a doctorate in law influenced American academic thinking.   However, not every school changed, and so it was still the case in the mid 20th Century that there were LLBs, LLMs, and JDs, all of which were basically more of lest the same, even if they bore "bachelors", "masters" and "doctorate" titles respectively.

Meanwhile, in England, things went the other direction and things evolved to where law was a bachelor's level course of study, but one of a more traditional nature mixed with other disciplines.  A more academic degree than that in the US, it's none the less one that a person can simply go to university and major in.  Canada and Australia, on the other hand, have followed the US post graduate model.

JDs became the US norm, indeed absolute, at some point in the late 1950s, as the bodies that concerned themselves with law, such as the ABA, pressed for that to be the universal degree.  While already mentioned, there was a certain pitiful aspect to this in that the profession's bodies felt cheated that physicians had doctorates and lawyers didn't, which is a rather odd concern.  At the same time, the same bodies pressed for the elimination of "reading the law" or admission to the bar by people without JDs, which of course raised their importance.  At some point by the 1970s the old practice of allowing people to simply take the bar had died off, and in most, but not all states, a person is required to have a JD from an ABA approved law school before being admitted to the bar.

Ironically, perhaps, the US JD is the least difficult of any of these degrees to obtain, contrary to what American lawyers imagine.  Indeed, law school has increasingly become a sort of trade school in the United States, but not in the other Common Law nations.  Given the origin of the law as a "profession" in the Common Law, this is truly ironic, and probably not good.  On the other hand, its no surprise that JDs are not as "broad" as English LLBs, as American law school students already have a BA or BS, and therefore (hopefully) obtained that broad education there.  Indeed, looked at that way, American lawyers, by the time they graduate with their professional degrees, probably have a broader education than English lawyers do.

And they'll be a bit older as well, rather obviously, as they're in school longer than their English counterparts.  Indeed, as I've often wondered how well suited any person is to find a career just out of law school, I've wondered how many English lawyers really knew that this was their career aim, accurately, when they started off and then later completed their degrees.  It would seem to be the case that American lawyers, maybe, would have accessed their career goals somewhat more accurately by being older when they entered a post graduate program.

Or maybe not, based upon what little I've read about it, as it shows up in bar journals and legal websites, career questioning is pretty high in both the UK and the US in regards to the law, so perhaps being 22 instead of (presumably) 18 when a person enters law school isn't that big of difference, although it would be hard to see how it wouldn't be.  Or perhaps that says something about a legal education in both countries.  I'm not that familiar with it in other countries, but at least here in the US law schools have been criticized for being divorced from real practice to some degree, and therefore poorly preparing their charges for the practice.  Of course, if they did focus on that more, and they are indeed working on it, they risk become more of a trade school than they already are, which would not seem to be a good thing.

Added into this odd mix the various bodies that so concerned themselves with raising the standards of practice have seemingly passed their prime and their relevance declines.  The ABA still certified law schools, and is still a power, but not like it once was and membership is not nearly as universal as it once was.  A quick look at the organization is telling, as its clearly a left coast liberal entity that many lawyers do not really subscribe to in terms of views and its taken up bothering itself with social concerns that lawyers are really no more qualified to spout off about than anyone else.  JDs, that doctorate degree, became increasingly easy to get over the years and more lawyers were produced in recent years than there was work for.  Bar exams, which didn't even exist in some state's mid 20th Century, are now universal but they've gone from featuring a nationwide Multistate exam combined with a state exam to, in at least ten or so states, including mine, to a "Universal Bar Exam" which removed examination on the state's own law completely.  One state, Iowa, has returned to no bar exam for local law school graduates.

Not that much of this matters to the average person.  In the end, people in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, etc., all have a common law system that works pretty much in the same way, and in all those locations practitioners schooled in that system have little concept of changing it to any other, which of course would seemingly raise the question of whether competing systems, and there are others, deliver justice more, or less, efficiently.  Or maybe it does matter, or at least in the US perhaps it matters.  With a general perception that the quality of a college education isn't what it once was, which may or may not be accurate, and law schools that are perceived as not being as rigorous as they once were, combined with a trend towards bar admission without even a state test being administered, the "doctorate" and "professional" quality claimed by lawyers will start to mean less than it currently does, and already doesn't mean what it once did.

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