Whether you dream of going to law school and becoming a lawyer or just have a general interest in the field of law, studying law overseas provides an invaluable opportunity to learn about the legal system of another country firsthand.
It can also provoke a new perspective on your home country's laws and provide a valuable supplement to degrees in political science, international relations, and history, in addition to pre-law.
For anyone interested in topics like human rights, diplomacy, social justice, criminal justice, environmental protection, public policy, healthcare, and of course international and comparative law, a summer, semester, or year spent overseas can be very beneficial.
However, because law is a professional course of study, going overseas has to be done with particular care to ensure the relevancy of the destination and coursework so as not to inhibit graduation and, in most cases, graduate school timelines.
Photo credit: Glen Noble.
As with any study abroad program, you can either use a program affiliated with your university or go with an independent provider like IES, AIFS, or SIT. Using your home university's study abroad office is advantageous because there may be opportunities to carry over your financial aid and less competition for additional scholarships.
Depending on your interest within the spectrum of possible legal studies, international experience is more relevant in some areas than others, and may influence whether or not your focus is better supported by a semester or year-long study, or even just a summer program if your interest in studying overseas is more for self, not career development.
Commercial law, for instance, usually requires working with multinational organizations, so exposure to foreign legal systems is beneficial, although not necessary. Be advised that in cross-border transactions, local attorneys are usually hired to handle the portions of the case involving a foreign jurisdiction.
A US lawyer who happened to have international experience in that region -- or even if they passed the bar in a foreign country -- would be more likely to get on the case, but would not be directly responsible for anything other than American law due to the complexity and specificity of legal expertise required for each jurisdiction.
International Criminal Law and Human Rights
International criminal law and human rights law are also two areas of study that are well supported by study abroad programs. These branches of law are, by their very nature, operated outside of the United States and make logical destinations.
If you are interested in studying law but don't necessarily want to work as a lawyer, then a summer or semester study in comparative law could be beneficial as background for those studying the humanities, business, and international relations.
Direct Enrollment vs. Program Provider
Another difference in program types to pay attention to are the difference between programs that cater specifically to foreign students, or programs that directly enroll you for a period of time in the foreign university.
If the latter is true, the selection of where to go may be even more important because you'll be learning the same material as your peers in that foreign country (which may be a system of law you ultimately wouldn't practice). International law is taught in many countries in English, but local law rarely is.
Whether you choose to participate in a semester, year-long, or summer program, the exposure to living and studying in a foreign country can help prepare you better understand cases -- or perhaps case studies in law school -- regarding that country, or conduct business there if your long-term goal is not to be in the courtroom.
If you're serious about building a career focused on one particular country or region, than a direct enrollment year-long program would be the most serious and immersive way to go. If your goal is simply to have a basic understanding of law in a communist country, for instance, than an 8-week summer program catered to foreign students in China would be sufficient.
Where to Go
Regardless of which type of program you go with, studying law overseas requires attention to a more particular set of requirements than for history, language, or political science. Whether your interest lies in international law, human rights, commercial law, or criminal justice, just to name a few, you want to be sure that your destination is relevant to your longer-term goals and interests.
Even if you plan to practice predominantly on a national or even state or regional level, exposure to international law and different legal systems can make your law school application more compelling and benefit your long-term career.
One huge difference off the bat is whether a country practices civil or common law, because universities will always teach the type of law that governs their country. The common law system is used in the UK, as well as its former colonies including but not limited to Australia, India, and the United States. Many other countries around the world use civil law.
Most programs catered to Americans seem to be offered in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Netherlands (especially for international human rights and criminal law). China and India are also popular because of their global relevancy and exposure to the particularities of their systems can be beneficial for many aspiring legal professionals.
The level of difficulty of the coursework is also something to note. Many Americans who have studied law overseas note that foreign universities have a more challenging legal curriculum than their counterparts in the United States. Some Americans who have taken the BAR exam in another country have remarked that passing the BAR was easier in the United States.
For those of you curious about perhaps going to law school overseas instead of in the United States should note that a person wanting to study law should do so in the country where he or she intends to work. The specificity of the law system in every country makes it difficult for lawyers to attend law school abroad and come home and practice in their home country -- or vice-versa.
Planning Your Trip
Here are some other helpful considerations before selecting a program and departing:
Look critically at the courses listed for your program. Do these make sense from an academic perspective and complement your pre-law or existing undergraduate coursework? Are these topics you wouldn't ordinarily cover at your home university?
Especially if you're enrolling in a semester or year-long program, make sure the courses on offer will satisfy requirements, both general and for your major, at your home university.
Going abroad could potentially interfere with law school application timelines and studying for the LSAT. Make sure you choose a time before the application madness begins so you can fully enjoy your time overseas.
If you're studying a foreign language and proficient enough to take a class in it, would there be courses available in that language? Specifically for those who want to study international law, demonstrated foreign language proficiency is very beneficial. If you don't speak another language, would beginner classes be offered alongside your law-centered curriculum?
If you're between two similar programs, look at the faculty. Sometimes who teaches the class can be as important, if not more important, than the content. Are they from the country itself? You can also look at professors at the university at large, who may not teach your class, but who would be available on campus to meet if you made the effort.
Legal clinics on-campus provide opportunities to work on real cases with a faculty member supervising. Are these available or accessible to study abroad students?
Does the university have an international law journal? Student-run publications can be a fun and rewarding opportunity.
Learning in the classroom is only part of the experience. Study abroad students can usually choose from on or off campus housing. Check with your program to see if a homestay is available, which would give you a much better grasp of the host society. Deeper involvement in the culture leads to more personal growth and helps develop the cross-cultural skills that are important to career success.
Funding for your program will depend on whether it's offered through your home university or from an independent provider. Usually there are additional scholarships available, both destination and major specific for study abroad.
Check with your provider for more options, and explore a comprehensive list of scholarships for law students.