The most advanced law degrees at elite law schools in the United States are the J.S.D. (Doctor of the Science of Law) and the S.J.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science). These degrees are primarily awarded to foreign law students. Meanwhile, most U.S. law professors do not have a J.S.D. or S.J.D., but rather a J.D. and sometimes a Ph.D. from another field. Why is it that the J.S.D. and S.J.D. are offered primarily to foreigners, not Americans?
To answer this question, Gail Hupper, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, is undertaking a fascinating exploration of the history of the J.S.D. and S.J.D. in her article “Educational Ambivalence: The Rise of a Foreign-Student Doctorate in Law,” which was recently published in the New England Journal of Law.
The J.S.D. and S.J.D. started in the late 1800’s at top U.S. law schools like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia to train U.S. lawyers for the domestic teaching market. The rise of these degrees corresponded with that of full-time law teachers and the view of law as a standalone science. Students who were interested in a career in teaching would pursue a J.S.D. or S.J.D. at elite law schools, which frequently conferred a Master in Law (LL.M.) as an interim degree. By World War II, 20 to 25 percent of professors at top U.S. law schools held a J.S.D. or S.J.D., as did many professors at other law schools around the country.
The realist shift in the legal academy meant that perspectives from other fields, such as economics and political science, became more prized for those interested in graduate study before pursuing law teaching.
After World War II, however, the degree went out of favor for those interested in the U.S. law teaching market. Within law schools, many LL.B. students (the precursor to the J.D.) began taking many of the same classes as J.S.D.’s or S.J.D.’s. Moreover, legal practice, particularly clerkship experience, became more valued by law school hiring committees. At the same time, the realist shift in the legal academy meant that perspectives from other fields, such as economics and political science, became more prized, heightening the advantage of a Ph.D. from another discipline for those interested in graduate study before pursuing law teaching.
Instead of fading away, the J.S.D. and S.J.D. became dominated by international students. By the 1970s two-thirds of S.J.D. and J.S.D. graduates were not U.S. citizens. Today almost none are. Immediately following World War II, the United States emerged as a world power, including in legal education. State Department and Ford Foundation grants fueled a push for foreign students in the postwar environments, and cold war politics and a sense of missionary altruism led top U.S. law schools to encourage students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At first these students populated LL.M. programs, but they quickly became integral to the J.S.D. and S.J.D programs as U.S. students became less interested in those degrees.
J.S.D., S.J.D., and LL.M. programs are now one of the primary ways through which U.S. law schools extend their global reach, with graduates returning to their home countries to teach and practice after being exposed to American legal pedagogy and understandings of law. The metamorphosis of these advanced degrees from a tool for training U.S. law teachers to a tool for training foreign lawyers was organic. Today, and in many ways as a response to the devaluation of the S.J.D. and J.S.D. in the U.S. legal academy, Yale Law School recently began a Ph.D. in law to train U.S. students for the U.S. teaching market. Given the history of the J.S.D. and S.J.D., it remains to be seen how this new program will evolve.