A class of one: Donya Ashnaei, earns combined JD and MA in economics

May 22, 2024 by Kate Baggott - Department of Economics

Donya Ashnaei is the only person to graduate from the University of Toronto with a combined JD and MA in Economics in 2024. Her convocation ceremony falls in the middle of the two bar exams she must write to practice law here in Ontario.

Luckily, Ashnaei is accustomed to doing two things at once. The JD/MA in Economics program enables students to complete both the law degree and the 8-month MA program in three years of academic study rather than the four years that would normally be required to earn each degree separately.

“The story of my combined degree is that you can make anything out of it that you want, you don’t have to limit yourself!” Ashnaei explained. “It can be hard to be young and be forced to choose between silos. I wasn’t ready to give up economics yet, but I also knew I wanted to pursue law, so I decided to do both! U of T has one of the only programs in the country that would allow me to pursue both degrees. Unfortunately, that meant I had an extremely heavy workload over the past three years, but I think it was definitely worth it.”

Refusing to give up either of her passions was no accident. Like many parents, Ashnaei’s made the decision to immigrate to Canada so that she and, later her younger sister, would have access to educational and professional opportunities.

“After I came here, I always wanted to take advantage of the fact that I’m in Canada and I’m able to do all of these things and a large part of that was law and politics,” she said. “Where I am from, we don’t have strong legal or financial institutions, there’s definitely no rule of law and we don’t have free and fair elections. In high school I was really interested in politics, and I went to Ottawa and worked in Parliament as a parliamentary page. I bounced around different parliamentary offices, and I realized that a lot of what they do has to do with the law. They’re ultimately drafting legislation and so I decided to go to law school. But I did my undergrad in economics, and I loved it, so I was looking to meld the two together.”

That melding means Ashnaei will spend the summer articling with a law firm in Toronto for ten months before heading to Ottawa to spend a year clerking for a judge in the tax courts. Both experiences, she believes will inform her future as a tax lawyer, hopefully in transfer pricing, a professional specialty that requires both areas of expertise gained through her combined degree.

“Transfer pricing is a process used when entities within the same multinational company buy or sell goods and services from one another,” Ashnaei explained. “They often have an incentive to do so at a price that’s not commensurate with what arm’s length companies would pay,” Ashnaei explained. “And international laws and regulations, as well as well as domestic laws and regulations, inform how we price the transfer of goods and services between related entities. The OECD is currently reforming the international taxation scheme in place, so in the coming years, there’s going to be a lot of work for tax lawyers and transfer pricing lawyers because we’re going to have to restructure and rework everything we know!”