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What Is a Doctoral Law Degree, and Should You Get One?

Nikki Bossert


  • This article explores the pursuit of further legal education for young lawyers and the unique paths available to deepen their understanding of the law. It highlights two individuals, Monica Victor and Tom Chambers, who took different routes to enhance their legal knowledge.
  • In law school, success is often equated with nabbing that coveted on-campus interview and retaining a high-paying summer internship. Such a path isn’t intended to foster a love of learning but rather encourages students to covet high-paying jobs in which burnout is the likely result.
What Is a Doctoral Law Degree, and Should You Get One?
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After graduating from law school, the pursuit of further education may sound like an indulgence to those young lawyers who are pressed for time, deep in student loan debt, and short of billable hours. Yes, you may take required continuing legal education (CLE) or work trainings, but are you actively seeking a deeper understanding of the law? For one legal veteran and a recent law school graduate—both in the pursuit of achieving a deeper understanding of the law—there are unique paths to further knowledge of the law.

The Allure of Teaching

After 17 years as a litigator for Brazil’s Ministry of Economy, Monica Victor was ready for a change. She wanted to pursue an academic path, but in Brazil, she says, there are barriers to entry. Despite having earned an academic master’s degree in constitutional law and a master’s in economic law, Monica was told she wasn’t “academic” enough to be a professor. In response, she applied to the University of Florida’s Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) in Taxation program. She was motivated to leave Brazil and study in the United States because she considers the United States to be the world’s leader in taxation and wanted to study the differences between taxation in Brazil and the United States.

An SJD is equivalent to a PhD, but the focus is on a field of law. It is also referred to as a JSD or Doctor of the Science of Law. American law schools require students to have earned a JD and an LLM to apply for an SJD program. US SJD programs are primarily populated by foreign students, and most law schools offering an SJD program highlight each of their current and former SJD candidates on their websites. Most non-US students start on a legal undergraduate path (e.g., earning a Bachelor of Law or LLB) and then advance their careers by taking master- or doctoral-level coursework. If they want to practice in the United States, an LLM or an SJD can make it possible for them to sit for a state bar exam. Often non-US students earn the SJD for the same reason as Monica, to pursue a career path in their home country that is not open without achieving this credential.

An American Abroad

But some US students may opt to take the road less traveled. Tom Chambers is a one-of-a-kind if there ever was one. His approach to law school would likely be too rigorous for even the most dedicated student. His path to a JD took him across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, first to the University of Edinburgh to earn an LLM in history and philosophy and then to Northern Ireland to earn his JD. But his JD is not like the one I (or likely you) received. Every course he took, whether it was torts, contracts, etc., was taught at a doctoral level, and he ultimately had to defend his dissertation, “The Emergence of the English Deferred Prosecution Agreement.”

Tom is one of only 31 students to earn a doctoral-level JD at Queen’s University Belfast. Students in this program are not graded on the bell curve, as is common in American law schools—and this is precisely why Tom says he wanted to experience this program. He wanted to interpret the materials he was assigned and develop his own original thoughts before he learned the black letter law that is commonplace in American law school classrooms. Tom recently sat for the New York state bar examination and plans to practice in white-collar crimes and international investigations.

What Young Lawyers Should Know

During her SJD program, Monica experienced a feeling most US-trained lawyers can relate to—loneliness. In Brazil, she was used to a collaborative atmosphere, but in the United States, she noticed that lawyers or law students often did not talk to one another. She pointed out that American academics often take critiques of their work too seriously—and personally—making them less receptive to feedback that could improve their work and learning. A recent article she published, “Dr. Frankenstein’s Conundrum: Teaching Law for the Digital Society,” focuses on how academia is not preparing students for the real world, where working in teams is commonplace. She also pointed out that law schools are not teaching their students how to work across disciplines, another tool all lawyers will need as they encounter problems not within their area of expertise.

When Monica applied to the SJD program, she did so to become a professor. But along the way, she made observations and had opportunities that took her down a slightly different path. She had the chance to mentor other students, and she experienced the joy of being able to agree with other people, a luxury she did not enjoy in the adversarial world of litigation. She soon found herself bringing her knowledge to developing countries, where taxation regimes are nonexistent or not working effectively. She believes many American lawyers are missing opportunities to work with nongovernmental organizations and the public sector in solving problems because there is such a strong push toward private-sector employment. She noted that many professionals are needed to work on these problems and encourages young lawyers to look for opportunities on the “other side” of the legal profession.

Commitment to Higher Education

During my conversation with Monica, she was very open about her passion for education. “When you decide to be a graduate professional, you commit to a life of reading and studying—not mechanical work—work with the mind, always in the pursuit of knowledge.” Monica’s commitment to learning is inspiring. She spent six years working on her SJD at a time when she could have simply retired. She credits her family for her love of learning—and frequently referenced her “special relationship with knowledge.” But the quote that has most stuck with me from our conversation was when she said that “knowledge is freedom.” I don’t know that lawyers always appreciate the access to knowledge that we have been given. Our legal education is designed to give us the tools to fact-check so we can discern fiction from reality. In other words, we have the freedom to make educated decisions.

A New Mindset

Reflecting on my conversations with Monica and Tom, I’m struck by my own reticence to return to a law school environment. Although I grew into a passionate law student, the early days were filled with trepidation. In law school, success is often equated with nabbing that coveted on-campus interview and retaining a high-paying summer internship. Such a path isn’t intended to foster a love of learning but rather encourages students to covet high-paying jobs in which burnout is the likely result.

When I was accepted into law school, my dream was to get a high-paying job. But once I was there, I discovered I was more passionate about helping people. I worked in my school’s low-income taxpayer clinic, and that work gave me purpose. The experience made me want to know more because the more knowledge I had about tax law, the more people I could help. Perhaps if the predominant law school culture could shift from a competition to that of a community helping one another, more law school students would want to continue their legal education rather than be relieved when it’s finally finished.