When Bill Flanagan hit the send button on an e-mail message last Friday, the dean of law at Queen's University knew there was a pretty good chance he would get some angry replies. What he didn't anticipate, however, was that reaction to his message would flood e-mail inboxes around the planet with embarrassing anti-American sentiment.
"There was a very emotional reaction. This is really clogging up people's inboxes," said Jo'Anne Strekaf, a Queen's alumnus and Calgary partner with Bennett Jones LLP.
"I opened up my e-mail Sunday night and I couldn't believe my e-mail box was so jammed," said Michael Smith, another alumnus and New York-based corporate lawyer with Patton Boggs LLP.
What on earth did Prof. Flanagan say? It really boils down to two letters: JD. As in Juris Doctor. That's the law degree introduced by U.S. schools in the 1960s to certify that graduates had successfully earned both a law degree and an undergraduate degree in another discipline.
Canadian law graduates typically spend the same seven years in school before they are granted an LLB but, because of its commonwealth roots, the degree is often confused by international employers with the British LLB. Unlike in Canada, British law graduates are not required to earn an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite, and can head straight to law studies from high school. As a result, global law firms typically pay law grads with JDs substantially more than Canadians packing LLBs.
In a bid to rectify the discrepancy, Prof. Flanagan sent an e-mail to Queen's University law school alumni on Friday afternoon to advise them that the Dean's Council of eight alumni lawyers had agreed to support a recent student referendum in favour of switching the school's law degree to a JD designation.
Within hours of the e-mail, some furious alumni were dashing off scalding retorts. Apparently, the irate lawyers believed they were privately replying to Prof. Flanagan. But instead, some e-mail writers hit the "reply to all" button and about 3,000 former graduates of the university found themselves on the receiving end of furious messages, many blasting the "Americanization" of the school.
"Never has the importance of remaining distinct from the U.S. legal market been of more value," wrote Robert Amsterdam, a Queen's alumnus and prominent litigator practising in London.
Gerald Thomas, a barrister practising in Kobe, Japan, warned the move would "draw us closer to a country that is increasingly at odds with the global community."
Prof. Flanagan said the angry outpouring has been "a bit of a tough spot for me." He says the school has since fixed the e-mail chain so that writers respond directly to him and not to all alumni. What he has yet to fix, however, is the very thorny problem of Canada's globally undervalued law degree by adjusting it to meet the demands of a growing percentage of students who want to practise outside Canada.
University of Toronto's law school was the first in Canada to shift to a JD degree in 2001 and the move was so controversial with alumni and students that former dean Ron Daniels was vilified for, in the words of some, "selling out" to American interests.
An overreaction? Probably. But for many practising lawyers who have parlayed their LLBs into successful careers, it is hard to accept that their degree may not cut it with some of the world's top global law firms. Throw into the mix lawyers' inherently combative nature and you have a big fat professional flap that is threatening to engulf the country's top legal schools.
"You know lawyers," said Queen's Prof. Flanagan. "They are not a shy bunch."
The Senate at Queen's will decide early next year whether to approve the proposed shift to a JD degree. Other law schools, such as those at University of Western Ontario and University of British Columbia are also being urged by students and some faculty to make the move and they can expect similar resistance from their alumni. These moves echo recent or planned shifts to the JD degree in Japan, Australia and South Korea.
Despite the global shift, Lerners LLP partner and Queen's alumni Ian Leach said most law graduates continue to work in Canada and the university should not be "rebranding its historic degree" to meet the needs of a minority. "It is frustrating how this has evolved with little input from the alumni," he said.
Mayo Moran, dean of law at University of Toronto, said she is puzzled by lawyers' emotional attachment to the LLB designation that stems back to Canada's days as a British colony.
"Sometimes we prefer our old colonial masters to our new ones," she said.
Prof. Flanagan said he appreciates that "a degree designation is a very personal thing and there are strong feelings about this change ... but if the alumni had listened to the students talk about their issues they might not have had the same reaction."
Last year, 75 per cent of Queen's law students who voted in a referendum favoured the change to JD. Jeff Fung, president of the Law Students' Society at Queen's, said the vote reflects that a growing number of graduates are seeking international jobs. These students are frustrated that they are not seen to be competing on an equal footing with U.S. graduates, who are typically offered higher starting salaries.
"The JD degree provides students with the opportunities and tools to succeed in international law firms," said Mr. Fung, a third-year student who has accepted a job at Toronto's McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP.
Mr. Smith said that, when he graduated from Queen's in 1990 to work in London with leading British law firm Clifford Chance, new hires from the United States carrying JDs were paid twice as much as he was.
"It really makes a big difference; why wouldn't we give the same advantage to our graduates?" said Mr. Smith, who is a member of the Dean's Council at Queen's.
Added the council's chairman Steven Trumper, who practises law in Bermuda: "Anything that we can do to help these students get a better job is something we should be supporting."