Why the Law Degree Is Called a J.D. and Not an LL.B.

Professor Greipp’s fascinating post on Lois Kuenzli Collins, an early female graduate of Marquette Law School, made reference to Ms. Collins’ law degree being upgraded to a J.D. in the late 1960s. That was actually a fairly common occurrence at that time, as thousands of American lawyers in the 1960s found themselves the possessors of a newly styled doctoral law degree. Between 1964 and 1969, at the encouraging of the American Bar Association, most American law schools (including Marquette) upgraded their basic law degree from the traditional “LL.B.” to “J.D.,” to reflect the by then almost universal postgraduate status of the degree. For good measure, most also made the change retroactive, subject to the graduate returning his or her old degree for a new one.

An American Bar Association committee had recommended that the law degree be called the juris doctor as early as 1906, and a small number of law schools, most notably the University of Chicago, had long called the basic law degree the J.D. However, until the late 1960s the vast majority of schools used the designation of LL.B. or B.L. which suggested that the law degree was an undergraduate degree (as it still is in most places in the world).

What is much less well known is that in an earlier era, some law schools simultaneously offered both the LL.B. and J.D. degrees. While the original law degree awarded by Marquette was the LL.B., between 1926 and 1943, Marquette offered its students the option of earning either an LL.B. degree or a J.D. degree. This innovation apparently originated with Dean Max Schoetz, but was continued after his untimely death in 1927.

Both of the two law degrees were normally earned in three years. However, to earn the J.D., a student had to (1) have already earned an undergraduate degree in a field other than law–admission to Marquette required only two years of college between 1926 and 1934 and only three after that year—(2) compile an average grade of 88 (out of 100) in all law courses (compared to 77 for LL.B. candidates); and (3) prepare an acceptable thesis on a law-related topic in his (or her) third year. (The student was also required to assign the copyright in the thesis to the law school dean.)

There was no formal advantage to the J.D. degree, at least in regard to bar admission. One did not need to have a law degree of any sort to take the Wisconsin bar examination until 1940—three years of study in or outside of a law school was all that was required. Moreover, after 1933, either degree qualified its holder for automatic admission to the Wisconsin bar under the diploma privilege, which was extended to Marquette that year. The University of Wisconsin, which had had the diploma privilege since 1870, had never awarded a J.D. degree, so there was no basis on which to distinguish between the two degrees. There was also no evidence that law firms placed any special premium on hiring graduates with the J.D. degree.

Given this lack of immediate advantage, few Marquette students appear to have even attempted the J.D. degree. In any given year, only a handful of students met the full set of qualifications, and less than 40 such degrees were awarded in the decade and a half that the option existed. The last of the original J.D.’s at Marquette were awarded in 1939, although the option remained on the books until 1943 (or perhaps a year or two longer as records for the law school for 1944 and 1945 are almost non-existent).

Our colleague Jim Ghiardi, who attended Marquette Law School from 1939 to 1942, recalls that the J.D. degree fell out of favor as students began to realize that the extra work necessary to earn the degree provided them with no real additional benefit, particularly during a Great Depression with a world war looming on the horizon.

Lois Kuenzli Collins was enrolled at the law school when the J.D. option was created, and like most of her classmates she did not qualify for the “higher” degree. However, her recollection of the distinction between the two degrees probably explains her excitement forty years later when her degree was “upgraded” from an LL.B. to a J.D.

As it turns out, there was nothing unique about Marquette’s awarding both J.D. and LL.B. degrees in the 1920s and 1930s. The practice was particularly widespread, it appears, in the Midwest.

As late as 1961, there were still 15 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States which awarded both LL.B. and J.D. degrees. The fifteen included George Washington University, Chicago-Kent, DePaul, John Marshall, Loyola of Chicago, Northwestern, Indiana, Drake, Iowa, Washburn, Michigan, Detroit College of Law, Wayne State, Ohio State, and Willamette. At least by a broad definition, all of the 15 were located in the Midwest except for George Washington (D.C.) and Willamette (Ore.).

In all of the listed schools except Northwestern and Iowa, the largest number of graduates received the LL.B. degree. (At Northwestern and Iowa, the J.D. degree was the more commonly awarded.) The practice was not exactly dying out either, as the following year both the University of North Dakota and the University of Oregon joined the list of schools awarding both degrees. Duke adopted the J.D./LL.B. distinction after 1961, and the two options were listed in the Duke Law School catalog as late as 2007, although the school apparently had not awarded an LL.B. degree since the 1960s.

As the number of law students who entered law schools with college degrees increased in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of institutions apparently used the J.D./LL.B. distinction to encourage would-be law students to complete their undergraduate degrees before beginning their legal studies. (If they failed to do so, they got the bachelor’s degree, not the doctorate.)

Presumably, the practice of awarding two different degrees was originally related to the argument that it did not make sense to award a second bachelor’s degree to someone who already had one. (A previous undergraduate degree appears to have always been a prerequisite for the pre-1960s J.D.) Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an easily accessible source that identifies when individual schools began to award the two law degrees. The practice started at Marquette in 1926 and at Chicago-Kent in 1933, but it could well predate the 1920s at other schools.

The concentration of the “two types of law degree” schools in the Midwest (and particularly in Chicago) seems likely related to the presence of the highly prestigious University of Chicago which from its founding always required its students to have college degrees, and, beginning in 1902, it always awarded it graduates the J.D. degree.

In contrast, Harvard Law School, which was the first law school to insist on a prior undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for admission, considered the possibility of awarding some sort of doctorate in law in the early 1900s but decided to stay with the LL.B. Harvard also invested heavily in the early 20th century in graduate law programs that resulted in the award of LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees. Given that this graduate degree terminology did not really fit if the first law degree was called a doctorate, Harvard retained the undergraduate designation for its law degree. Given its great prestige, whatever was done at Harvard Law School was likely to imitated at law schools across the country.

It is not clear why a few schools like Marquette and the University of Washington once awarded both LL.B. and J.D. degrees but decided to stop doing so long before the 1960s. Washington eliminated the J.D. degree in 1938 and, as mentioned above, Marquette followed in the mid-1940s. The Marquette experience suggests that the decision may have been related to a lack of student interest in the more demanding degree, as well as to a general revamping of the law school that occurred immediately after World War II under the leadership of Dean Francis Swietlik.

There were a few other variations on the J.D. degree as well. At Georgetown in the 1930s, one could earn a J.D. degree, but only after earning an LL.B. degree, which made it more in the nature of an LL.M. or an S.J.D. degree. Another variation occurred at William & Mary where, for much of the 20th century, graduates received a B.C.L. degree rather than either the LL.B. or the J.D.

By the end of the 1960s, the variations in terminology had been eliminated and the letters “JD” are now synonymous with the words “law degree”. However, we live in a time when many of the assumptions of contemporary legal education are being reexamined, and the legitimacy of much of what has been long taken for granted is being reconsidered.

Perhaps one result of the current anxiety will be a movement away from the one-size-fits-all J.D. degree of the late 1960s to something more akin to the multiple-degree model embraced by Marquette in the 1920s and 1930s.


This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Tom Kamenick

    That’s really fascinating, I had no idea! It does seem counterintuitive that despite the fact that students who were given a choice seemed to vastly prefer the bachelor degree, the law schools (perhaps through pressure from the ABA?) switched solely to the doctoral model (while apparently ditching the doctoral component of a thesis).

    I think the legal profession could be vastly improved with the re-introduction of bachelor degrees or other options that would allow lawyers to graduate more cheaply and offer their services more cheaply. Perhaps by getting a certificate to practice one particular area of law, which could probably be done in a (calendar) year with some internship/apprenticeship work in that field.

  2. Ken Gourdin

    Hear, hear, Mr. Kamenick! My law degree is worse than useless, but that doesn’t mean I’m not required to pay back my loans!

  3. Peter Lindahl

    I am starting an LLB at the U of London int’ll programmes, and I’m comparing them a bit with the American system. You’ll find the same tendency in the other professions. LLB became JD in the US. BDS became DDS, and MBBS became MD. Bachelor’s degrees become professional doctorates in the U.S. I’m a Denmark-trained dentist. In Denmark the law degree is called cand. jur., which is short for candidatus juris. The dentistry degree is called cand. odont., short for candidatus odontologiae.

  4. Alexis Gage

    Nice read. The profession evolved and it would seem that industrial standards were in place to better the practice of the legal profession. I think I would want someone with a JD over someone with an LLB if I needed representation for a death sentence. If one is willing to complete a Bachelor’s degree, take the LSAT, and complete 3 years postgraduate studies in law (JD)… then I’m willing to pay for those services.

  5. Robert D Kaplan

    I received an LL.B. in 1961 from the University of Pennsylvania School of law. In about the late ’60s, Penn switched to awarding the J.D. as the standard degree after completion of law school. I always understood that the reason for this was that American lawyers felt they were at a disadvantage to European lawyers in not being able to insist on being addressed as “Doctor.” At my advanced age, I finally decided to exchange my LL.B. for a J.D. My brand new J.D. diploma finally arrived today. So from now on I shall insist on being addressed as “Doctor.”

  6. Anthony Tuboku-Metzger

    I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but lawyers in the U.K. are not addressed as, “Doctor.” It’s absurd! I hope you’re joking.

  7. Juco

    First and second degrees. I think it adds more experience. And purpose for JD was may deffrecient with LLB and recognise efforts put in earning 2 degrees

  8. Dr. Terrence W. Manigault, JD, MBA, ED. CERT.

    Once a person earns a doctor’s degree, whether it is an academic/research doctorate or professional doctorate, traditional customs and courtesies consistent with social norms demand that such a person respectfully be addressed with the title “Doctor”. Whenever offering a written greeting or salutation to another, who has earned a doctorate level degree, it is customary to address them as “Doctor” followed by the person’s last name. Whenever mentioning another’s name, who has earned a doctorate level degree, it is customary to use the title “Dr.” followed by their last name. If one’s degree bears the word “Doctor” or any variation of that name on the diploma, then that individual has earned the right and title of “Doctor/Dr.” Having earned the doctor’s degree, all manner of persons who encounter such an academician shall properly address said person as “Doctor”/Dr.”

    The word ‘doctor’ is a title used to address any person who has attained the highest academic degree in his/her field of study or professional field of practice. It is a word that has been misunderstood by a vast majority of Americans, because many are simply not students of the English language or Latin. The etymology of the word doctor translates into a ‘learned person’ in Middle English and ‘teacher’ or docere in Latin. It is objectively incorrect to assume that the word doctor is rooted in medicine. It is also incorrect to believe that a child should want to become a doctor, if s/he wants to practice medicine! Remember, the word doctor takes its meaning from ‘teacher’, which is a ‘learned person’. In fact, one who practices medicine is more accurately identified as a physician. We address a physician with the title “Doctor/Dr.”, because the person has earned a doctor’s degree in Medicine. However, physicians do not own the copyrights to the word doctor nor are they the only people who are addressed with the title “Doctor/Dr.”

    The word ‘professor’ is a generic term used to describe anyone who professes knowledge or wisdom. Within an academic setting, however, especially at institutions of higher learning, the word may be ascribed to the classroom instructor or teacher. However, an academic professor is a specific sort teacher and is more properly used to describe a college or university instructor, who has not yet earned a doctor’s degree. On the other hand, one who has earned a doctor’s degree and teaches within an academic environment is properly addressed as “Doctor/Dr.” On several occasions, I have observed both undergraduate and graduate students be publicly shamed for mistakenly addressing the instructor as “Professor” instead of “Doctor/Dr.” Therefore, when in doubt, it is always better to address the instructor as the latter.

    By this time, it should be abundantly clear that any person who earns a doctor’s degree, whether it is an academic/research doctorate or professional doctorate, has earned the title and right to be addressed as “Doctor”/Dr.” Also, the difference between ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’ should be abundantly clear. Now, let us examine the application of what has been stated. For example, if a hospital nurse earns a D.N.P. (Doctor of Nursing Practice), then that nurse is to be addressed as “Doctor/Dr.” The fact that a nurse practitioner is not a physician is immaterial, because a nurse is a ‘doctor’ once they have earned a doctoral degree. An attorney, engineer, pharmacist or physician will earn the title and right to be addressed as “Doctor/Dr.”, once they have earned a doctor’s degree in their chosen field of study.

    Now, let us take a moment to understand the real difference between the J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence) and L.L. B. (Bachelor of Law Letters). For some time in America, the distinction between these two degrees has become intentionally blurred, because certain individuals continue to assert that the L.L. B. and J.D. are academically the same degree. However, the assertion lacks merit and those who continue to perpetuate this lie are scholarly brigands. The truth about the J.D. versus the L.L. B. borders on disingenuous, because some within the practice of law would argue that a bachelor’s degree is the same as a doctor’s degree. Consider that the capital letter “D” in any abbreviated degree (e.g. J.D., D.B.A., D.C., Ph. D.) means that the degree is a doctorate. By contrast, the capital letter “B” in any abbreviated degree (e.g. B.A., B.S., B.S.N.) means that the degree is a bachelors. Obviously, the J.D. is a doctoral degree and the L.L. B. is an undergraduate degree. Moreover, anyone who earned only a L.L. B. is correctly addressed as “Mr.” or “Ms.”, whereas anyone who earns a J.D. is correctly addressed as “Doctor/Dr.” In fact, the J.D. is a professional doctorate akin to the M.D. (Doctor of Medicine). By comparison, the L.L. B. was a professional undergraduate degree akin to the B.S.N. (Bachelor of Science in Nursing). While some colleges and universities in the United States offer pre-law tracks to students interested in pursuing law school, the L.L. B. is no longer offered to undergraduate or even graduate students. Anyone who earns a J.D. is a Doctor of Jurisprudence. Therefore, anyone who earns a J.D. also earns the title and right to be addressed as “Doctor/Dr.”

    In the United States, a doctoral degree is defined as any academic program of study that is ninety (90) credit hours or more beyond a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. There are two distinct categories of doctoral degrees in the United States and they are as follows: (1) academic/research doctorates; and (2) professional doctorates. The most common types of academic/research doctorates are the Ed. D. and Ph. D. By contrast, the most common types of professional doctorates are the J.D. and M.D. Although academic/research doctoral programs and professional doctoral programs offer very different degrees, both types of programs are highly competitive and offer students a unique kind of academic rigor. For instance, both programs require that a doctoral candidate earn at least 90 credits hours in their field of academic study. Additionally, both programs require a doctoral candidate also complete one of the following research documents: (I) a comprehensive lab report for the M.D., (II) a research dissertation for the Ph. D., or (III) an upper-level legal research and writing requirement for the J.D.

    There are also some obvious differences between the two programs. For instance, one must earn a master’s degree before gaining admittance into an academic/research doctoral program. However, one needs only to earn a bachelor’s degree to attend a professional doctoral program (e.g. law school or medical school). In other words, a master’s degree is a prerequisite to earning an Ed. D. or Ph. D., but it is not a prerequisite to earning a J.D. or M.D. Another major difference between academic/research doctorates and professional doctorates is the latter requires its graduates to attain a professional license, if they choose to practice their craft. This means attorneys in the United States must pass the National Bar Exam and a state bar exam to practice law. It also means physicians in the United States must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam to practice medicine. However, a physician does not have to be board certified to practice medicine in the United States. Finally, there is no professional licensing requirement for an Ed. D. or Ph. D. to teach at the college or university level. Perhaps there should be a licensing requirement for college and university instructors, because every state in the United States requires public school teachers to have a professional license to teach.

    In conclusion, the word ‘doctor’ is not rooted in medicine nor has it ever been. To perpetuate the myth that the word is rooted in medicine is to ignore its true meaning. A physician is addressed as “Doctor/Dr.” because they earned a Doctor’s Degree in Medicine; not because a doctor wears a white coat, works in a hospital and prescribes medication to sick patients. A doctor can wear a business suit and represent clients in the courtroom, if they earned a J.D. A doctor can be a nurse practitioner, if they earned a D.N.P. A doctor can teach students at the college or university, if they earned for instance an Ed. D., Ph. D., J.D. or M.D. Anyone who earns a doctoral degree, whether it is an academic/research doctorate or professional doctorate earns the title and right to be addressed as “Doctor/Dr.”

  9. Ken Baumgartner

    I received an LLB from the University of North Carolina Law School in 1963 after having completed three years of study at the University of Wisconsin. In 1969, I received a letter from the dean of the law school saying that I was not entitled to a JD degree because I did not have an undergraduate degree. This, of course, made no logical sense to me because I had successfully completed three years of legal study the same as my college graduate classmates. It is my opinion that law schools decided to issue juris doctor degrees because it sounded more prestigious. The nomenclature made no difference to the legal community in terms of the ability to practice law.

    Law firms made no distinction between an LLB and a JD as long as the applicant had a license to practice law. The assertion that one having a JD degree is more qualified to practice law than one having an LLB degree is ludicrous and without any substantiation. In my case, I passed both the Illinois and Wisconsin law license examinations on my first attempt. At the time, they consisted of 16 and 18 hours of all-essay questioning. Illinois, at the time, along with New York, were considered the two toughest bar exams to pass. I was a sole practitioner in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for just under 40 years. My practice at the time consisted primarily of being a trial lawyer specializing in criminal defense and plaintiff personal injury cases. I represented a number of clients charged with murder and homicide as well as clients with catastrophic injuries. I was given an A+ rating by Martindale Hubbell. Not having a JD degree, of course, made no difference in my ability to practice law. I am now retired and having talked to law school friends who are later given JD degrees to supplant their LLB degrees, it feels hurtful to me that I was discriminated against.

    Today, obviously, this issue will never arise because admission to all law schools requires an undergraduate degree.

    My experience will, hopefully, give another perspective to the issue involving LLB as opposed to JD degrees.

  10. Univ. Assoc. Prof. Dr. Klemen Podobnik, LL.M.

    As for the “professor debate” – in European academic environment an academic doctorate is just one of many prerequisites for a (full) university professorship, which is a tenured post and usually given for life. Usually, individuals will get their doctorates many years before (maybe someday) becoming full university professors. This is why in Europe one is expected to address a university professor as “Professor” and not as “Doctor”, no matter how many doctorates that individual might have been awarded during his or her education.

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