Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

SJD Programs: Worth It for a US JD?

An aspiring law professor writes:

I'm a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, generally interested in the academic teaching market, and a fan of your blog.  To the extent you have not covered this issue on your blog in the past, I would like to suggest that you address S.J.D. programs.  Among the questions that I (and perhaps other readers of your blog) have are the following: Is an S.J.D. the law school equivalent of a PhD?  Or is it more for foreign law students (as the website describing Harvard's program implies)?  What value does an S.J.D degree bring on the law school teaching market?  Would it be more productive for someone interested in improving his or her credentials to obtain an LLM -- perhaps via a specialized aspiring law school professor program like the one offered at Georgetown? 

Here are my answers:  (1)  An SJD is a bit like a PhD in law, but these days it is aimed almost entirely at foreign lawyers.  The strong interdisciplinary turn of law schools over the past thirty years means that the credential of real value to an American lawyer is a PhD in a cognate discipline, not a "PhD" in law.  (2)  It is relatively rare to see American lawyers with SJDs, far more common to see very good foreign-trained lawyers with SJDs.  (3)  The LLM isn't much of a credential for aspiring law teachers; its real value is the opportunity to be in a scholarly setting and have the opportunity to do research and writing and perhaps gain some teaching experience.  These days, the multiplying VAP-style programs meet that need as well.  (See our earlier discussion on this.)

Comments are open; signed comments strongly preferred. 

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Comments

Brian, I think you are right in all of your observations as to how things are perceived right now. But I also think that the actual value of an SJD can be tremendous and that things could have looked differently if historically a phd in law was institutionalized for most legal academics, just like in most any other field. An SJD, at least where I did mine (yes, as a foreigner) is not just "a little bit like a phd"), it was a full fledged serious doctorate, undertaking of multiple disciplinary studies, alot of structured one on one reading with multiple advisors, staged oral exams and dissertation defense, and all along the way, significant writing. Some of us also had the opportunity to actually teach mini courses structured around our dissertation in addition to regular teaching possiblities. I think that if you are already sophisticated about directing you academic career, than a VAP can serve as a substitute, but an SJD can be so much more that just a visit.
still, pragmatically as a matter of advise to prospective job candidates, i agree with your realistic description of how the market currently values various experiences. foreigners and americans still very much have distinct paths.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Sep 24, 2008 9:26:02 AM

A Ph.D. is better than an SJD for the graduate of an American law school not only because it has greater cachet in the law teaching market but also because it is better training. Why not learn something fun from people who take seriously the training of graduate students? Plus you can teach in a college as well if things don't work out in the law teaching market.

Posted by: Miguel Schor | Sep 24, 2008 12:18:27 PM

A few comments: 1) While historically an SJD has been primarily obtained by foreigners, in recent years a growing number of such foreigners have landed on respected teaching jobs in American law schools, so it's possible that overtime pursuing an SJD might be perceived differently by American hiring committees.
2) Even if, all things equal, a PhD is preferable to an SJD (not an obvious assumption; it depends on what one is interested in doing), a different advice may be given at different points in one's career path. Many law professors who hold PhDs obtained them prior to or concurrently with their JD, so the PhD clearly bolstered their JD. But the aspiring law prof who asked the question already has a JD, and at this point leaving law and spending a few years in a graduate program of another discipline, may not necessarily be the best way (in terms of developing a publication portfolio and professional networks) back into the legal academia. At this point, the choice might be between a VAP and an SJD, and the latter may have various advantages: it is more structured, the student have supervisors who are committed to her academic growth, a network of fellow graduate students who provide various types of support, etc.)
3) It is essential in any graduate program that one is supervised by people who take seriously the training of graduate students (as Miguel Schor) points out. But there are SJD programs who perform this task very seriously (see Orly Lobel's comment).

Posted by: Ariel Katz | Sep 24, 2008 2:19:50 PM

I agree with almost all of your comments, but with one exception, that being an LLM in taxation. I think for someone interested in teaching tax, an LLM at NYU (or an equivalent school--I'm not sure what schools are in this category at the moment) is probably useful in obtaining a law faculty position--maybe not at one of the top twenty schools who view themselves in the top ten, but at most other law schools.

Posted by: Paul McKaskle | Sep 24, 2008 3:16:55 PM

Just a quick note to say I agree with Professor McKaskle, and it was a clear mistake in my original posting *not* to note that the LLM in tax is an exception to my generalization. The LLM in tax (esp. from NYU, though occasionally from Georgetown or Florida) is a common and often valuable qualification for aspiring tax teachers (though some very distinguished tax scholars do not have the LLM).

Posted by: Brian | Sep 24, 2008 3:33:38 PM

I can't speak so much for today, but when I wanted to enter the Academy, a JD from USF was not going to open any doors in 1970. The preferred route at that time, and through the 1970's, was to earn a LL.M. from one of the top law schools. Ph.D-JD combos were rare then. Yale was especially effective in placing its LL.M.'s into teaching positions.

My own LL.M.-S.J.D. at Michigan included interdisciplinary work, both in the School of Natural Resources and the Economics Department.

Indeed, the Chair of my Committee was not a traditional law professor, but Professor Peter Steiner, an eminent economist, who held a joint appointment in the Law School and in LSA. He was a Ph.D. only.

Of course, most schools today, including Michigan, no longer offer the program I was in. The dual Ph.D-JD has won out in the marketplace.

Posted by: Denis Binder | Sep 24, 2008 8:14:34 PM

Would this same advice on LLM and SJD degrees (i.e., not so good as a credential for academics compared to a Ph.D.) apply to something like an Oxford BCL? I imagine it has some of the same drawbacks as an LLM or SJD as a matter of education (not the same depth of education as a Ph.D.). But would the fact that the BCL is from a foreign school make a difference compared to, e.g., an American getting an SJD from an American law school?

Posted by: LW | Sep 28, 2008 11:46:15 AM

I think some of the commentators on the SJD vis a vis a PHD lack an understanding of the current structure of a good SJD program. In terms of content or substantive training, it is not just like a PHD, it is as good as a PHD and actually better than many a PhD program. A high end SJD program these days necessarily has an interdisciplinary focus and candidates are supervised by professors drawn across disciplinary boundaries. As such the perceived interdisciplinary advantage of the PHD is largely a myth. The SJD also provides good opportunities for teaching, networking and other attributes of a decent PHD program. In my experience I have known students who went for a PHD only after being turned down by an SJD program. I will admit however that in a JD dominated legal academy (where most professors hold no graduate qualification besides a JD) there is perhaps a vested interest in denying the value of the SJD: To concede that the SJD has value at par with a PHD is to more openly acknowledge the oft-ignored reality that the JD holder per se is a pretender to doctoral standing. So there may be some wisdom in advising a US candidate to go for a PhD so as not to encounter this suppressed hostility.

Posted by: George Nona | Jan 30, 2009 11:10:23 PM

I am planning on entering the legal academia and am deciding between a PhD and an SJD program. I found the discussions on SJD programs in your blog extremely useful. I had a related question on SJDs and PhDs which I think is a point of concern for fellow aspiring SJD candidates as well. I apologize if this has already been covered in your discussion on SJD programs. I find that most universities offering SJD programs do not also offer funding to the same extent as the funding provided for PhD programs. Is this correct and if so, how do SJD candidates fund themselves apart from taking loans?

Thank you.

Posted by: Shilpi Bhattacharya | Apr 7, 2009 3:16:26 AM

One caveat: an LLM and/or SJD may not do much for you in the states, but at least one of them is an absolute necessity in Canada (and, based on my more limited knowledge of other English speaking countries, pretty close to a necessity in those as well).

Posted by: Mike | Nov 4, 2009 2:04:06 PM

While I agree that most JSDs are being pursued currently by foreign students (and this was repeatedly pointed out to me by the director of the JSD program I am attending), I think the degree can certainly be what you make of it. In my own legal circles, as an American lawyer, I agree that most employers (law firm or law school) do not know much about the degree.

I have an absolute fascination with jurisprudence - the subject of my JSD - and I have aspirations of teaching someday. While I have been told (and read opinions by others) that a JSD is not the key stepping stone to teach law in the US, I felt that being able to describe this program, my interest, my research, and dissertation will give me the credibility to teach jurisprudence in the United States, or elsewhere. Of course, whether I have a JSD or PhD (or a JSD, PhD, MD, and four other doctorates), if my ability to research, write and publish is not on par with where it should be, I will not be a viable prospect for a professorship.

I chose the JSD over the PhD specifically because of the ability to narrowly focus the program. Like most JSD/SJD programs, mine is fairly unstructured, lead by a professor in the field, and personally tailored for my interests. If thoroughly researched PhD programs, and I did not want to pursue a PhD in philosophy (although I understand why some do, so this is not a slam against them). Most of those programs were very structured and required much classroom time spent on topics of philosophy in general which wouldn't pertain to jurisprudence. The closest specialization I could probably get would be political philosophy at most schools (save, for example, UC-Berkeley), and while the topics overlap, as the phrase goes "close but no cigar."

True, JSDs may not have specific classroom requirements, and the opportunity for teaching is not always the same as in a PhD program, so the opportunity exists to make this degree academically less rigorous than a PhD. However, it doesn't have to be that way. I studied a great deal of philosophy as an undergraduate student, including the philosophy of law. I took jurisprudence in law school, and unfortunately the law school I attended didn't offer a wide range of jurisprudence classes. While working as a lawyer, I continued my interest in jurisprudence by constantly reading articles and cases that I thought were pertinent and interesting in the field. I obtained an LL.M. in Taxation (because I have a concurrent interest in tax) a few years after law school. I gave the JSD serious consideration for 4 or 5 years before finally applying. I study and read and read and read (and read) voraciously. I have to write a book-length dissertation of original work that must be accepted and orally defended. In order to get into the JSD program, I had to have a bachelor's degree, a JD, and an LLM, so the JSD will be my third law degree and second doctorate. I used to think of it as the equivalent of having an MD/PhD, but then a friend pointed out that MD/PhDs do not have a PhD in medicine, but rather, in biology, chemistry, anatomy, neuroscience, etc. I still am confident I made the right choice.

So, I guess in a nutshell, I agree with the overall tone of the article that the JSD is a mixed bag for American lawyers who think that it will bolster their chances of getting a better attorney position or getting a professorship. However, for those of us pursuing it, I think we have a duty to be able to make the most of the degree we can, make it academically rigorous, and be able to confidently and clearly explain to those who ask what the degree is and why we have it (or are pursuing it). As any student in a first year jurisprudence course can explain, just becuase this "is" the current state of opinion of the JSD does not mean that it "ought to" be that way.

John Bruegger
JSD candidate
Washington University in St. Louis

Posted by: John Bruegger | Jul 11, 2010 8:33:43 AM