Doctoring the law degree for our times

By Dean R P Edwards


There are many aspects to the legal profession worthy of our scrutiny. Some of the more minor aspects, however, may pass under the radar unless we pay attention to detail.

For instance, what of the Juris Doctor (J.D.)? An invention of Harvard Law School in 1870, the degree is the professional equivalent of the M.D. Yet we don’t refer to our lawyers as doctors. (That is, in Australia or the U.S.: some Europeans, among others, apparently do call their lawyers doctors!).

Given today’s full fee degree goes for the price of a first home mortgage, that oversight, whether purposeful or not, seems to give short shrift to those of us who laboured through three gruelling years of graduate education, on top of three or four years of undergraduate studies.

The Americans, to their credit, allow their lawyers to affix Esquire as a post-nominal title, which seems to flout the traditional privilege of the genteel class. It may also mislead non-lawyers in the belief that their advocates are of gentle birth. But I suppose the American tradition harkens back to the days when lawyers were of the gentlemanly class.

The Melbourne J.D., for example, does incorporate a degree of research work, so what should one make of the doctoral status? Perhaps we should disabuse ourselves of the doctoral status and re-nominate the J.D. to stand for “Degradus Juris”.1 Simply put: the law degree.

And for the sake of plain speech, let’s also tidy up the remaining LL.Bs and their graduate relative, the LL.M.

The “LL” owes to the Latin practice of doubling the abbreviated word to indicate the use of the plural form. Therefore, legum baccalaureus, the Bachelor of Laws, becomes the LL.B. (However, it remains to be explored as to why the Bachelor of Arts, for example, is abbreviated “B.A.” and not “B.AA” or “AA.B”.)

I propose that we dispose of the snobbish, interloping “L”, or instead use the singular “law” in Latin, “legis”, to produce the “L.B.”. Given Latin’s flexibility and, for instance, the custom of putting “B” before “A” for the Bachelor of Arts, we could also refer to the reconstituted undergraduate law degree as the “B.L.”

Some might consider the above proposals as themselves superfluous. However, I highlight only that these proposals are made in the spirit of plain speaking and simplicity that we seek to bring to other, perhaps more important aspects of the law.

Besides, sons could finally placate their anxious mothers: “Look, Ma, I’m a doctor and a lawyer!”

1  Although the new term might call attention to the etymology common to “degree” and “to degrade”: not that one would mean to degrade the profession by simplifying its terminology!