In a little over a month, about 44,000 law school graduates nationwide will don ceremonial garb and anxiously await receipt of their hard-earned diplomas.
Among them will be a handful of students on whom will be conferred the rarified and little known degree, the S.J.D.
Although the S.J.D. has been conferred in the United States since as early as 1912 and is described by many universities as the “highest” or “most advanced” degree in law, few lawyers (let alone non-lawyers) have even heard of it.
As one pseudonymous blogger put it, “an S.J.D. sounds like a doctorate in Jesuitology to me,” apparently referring to the letters “S.J.” that Jesuits sometimes place after their names to indicate membership in the Society of Jesus. Others nearly believe me when I tell them that the “S” stands for “Super.”
Less tongue-in-cheek, the former Assistant Dean of the graduate program at Harvard Law School notes that “[the S.J.D. is] a degree most U.S. scholars have either ignored or deprecated.”
In part, the S.J.D’s mystery results from the fact that only about 42 of the 199 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) confer the degree.
Even within the hallowed halls of S.J.D.-granting institutions, few are aware that the ABA, which accredits law schools based on their J.D. programs, does not formally approve any S.J.D. programs. Nor does it approve any LL.M. programs, for that matter.
Equally unknown is the fact that while almost all of today’s S.J.D. students hail from foreign jurisdictions, the degree was originally created to train Americans for law teaching careers in the United States.
This lack of awareness is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that the S.J.D. degree is almost exactly 100 years old (depending on whether you count from the date the first program was initiated or the date the first student graduated), making it older than all but a handful of J.D. programs.
Surprisingly, the degree has actually declined in popularity in the last half-century, bucking the general trend of ever greater academic study.
During the 1950’s, as many as one in five faculty members at some United States law schools held an S.J.D. In the 1970’s, that number was about 1 in 13. Today, studies show the number to be between 1 in 20 and 1 in 40.
In part, the decline may be attributable to the switch from the “LL.B.” to the “J.D.” that swept the nation during the 1960’s, making the S.J.D. appear redundant, or at least confusing its significance.
In 1975, a professor named Herman E. Taylor memorably labeled the resulting confusion as the “double doctoral dilemma,” a state of affairs that he decried as leading to both discrimination in professional compensation and a general “disparagement of legal education.”
Taylor was not entirely off-base in pointing out the oddity. It is not immediately obvious, for example, why one would pursue an academic doctorate in law (the S.J.D.) if one already holds a professional doctorate in law (the J.D.).
The answer, in part, is that very few do. Another part of the answer is that many S.J.D. students hold not the J.D. per se, but its foreign equivalent, which, despite nominative status as an equivalent, usually does not qualify its holder for either law practice or law teaching in most U.S. jurisdictions or law schools, respectively.
Conversely, it can be a bit awkward to point out the obvious: if the 1-in-40 figure cited above is accurate, then most of the nation’s J.D.-holding law faculty, the same faculty who supervise S.J.D. students, do not hold the degree themselves.
The confusion has not abated much, if at all, in the 36 years since Taylor’s article. Today law schools do even not agree on what to call the academic doctorate in law.
A group of about 28 schools including Duke, Georgetown, Harvard and Notre Dame confer the “S.J.D.,” while another group of about 14 schools including Yale, Stanford, Cornell, and Chicago confer the “J.S.D.”
Ask what those letters stand for and you will find yet more diversity.
Cornell translates its J.S.D. as “Doctor of the Science of Law” while both the University of Chicago and the American Bar Association call the same degree “Doctor of Jurisprudence.”
This latter translation is particularly confusing, since “Doctor of Jurisprudence” is the same name used by other schools in connection with their J.D. programs.
The S.J.D. is also variously translated as “Doctor of Juridical Science” (Southern Methodist University) and “Doctor of the Science of Law” (Michigan).
None of these, of course, should be confused with the J.D., which is variously translated as “Doctor of Law,” “Juris Doctor,” or as just mentioned, “Doctor of Jurisprudence.”
Despite these curiosities and inconsistencies of form, few will pause during commencement to consider the rich history, diversity, and even occasional controversy that underlie the S.J.D. degree.
As thousands of parents, families and guests traverse freshly manicured lawns to hear luminaries speak and preserve special moments on film, this year’s graduates will likely be very grateful to finally be done with what has almost certainly been a long and rewarding process, regardless of its name.
About the writer: Jonathan J. Darrow holds a J.D. from Duke University, an MBA from Boston College, and an L.L.M. from Harvard Law School, where he is currently a S.J.D. candidate. His scholarship on intellectual property has appeared in publications including the “Stanford Technology Law Review,” “the NYU Journal of Legislation & Public Policy,” “the Northwestern Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property,” “the Albany Law Review” and the “Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.” His textbook Cyberlaw: Text & Cases (Cengage 2011) was recently published.