Five Reasons to Study Abroad in Law School

To paraphrase Charles Hamilton Houston, “lawyers are either social engineers or social pariahs.”  Like many former educators turned lawyers, I decided to go to law school because I knew that my calling was to advance some sort of social change, especially within public education.  Change can only happen by promoting cultural competency in professions, in the legal system, and as a result, I believe that it can transform the trajectory of society and communities.  

I am a daughter of a Filipina mother and an Ecuadorian father.  Both my parents immigrated to the United States in the late 70s from different parts of the world and they met in Manhattan, already adults, embarking on their professions in a new country.  Although they are both now U.S. Citizens and have lived the majority of their lives in the United States, I still feel a connection and  awareness of the experiences of my siblings and extended family who reside in other parts of the world.  Knowing their experiences adds perspective and depth to the work I do as an employment and education lawyer representing school districts, especially when families involved are immigrants or first generation Americans.  As I go about my legal career, I wish to use my personal experience to ensure that legal services are provided with cultural competence for people and communities regardless of race, ethnicity, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical and/or mental abilities.  Diversity and equity in the law is more than representation.  It is recognition, understanding, and as I noted before, cultural competency.  

While this blog entry is about studying abroad, I did not study abroad in law school.  Looking back, studying abroad in law school was an opportunity that I missed out on and many of my peers did as well.  Although I traveled to many countries outside of the U.S., visiting a country as a tourist and living, studying, and working in another country are completely different experiences.  There are many reasons why law students should take advantage of the study abroad opportunities available at their school or through exchange programs.  It is not only beneficial for your legal career but also can be quite an enriching personal experience. 

The following are five reasons why law students should take the opportunity to study abroad while in law school.  

Cultural Competency/Global Lens

As we continue to practice law, our clients will become more and more diverse.  We need to be mindful of an individual or business owner’s place in the world and the context of their upbringing, cultural traditions, and values.  That is the best way to attain cultural competency and weave it into the practice of law.  By doing so, we are able to assist our clients, either a business abroad or an individual coming to the United States involved in a litigation or contract deal, or you being asked to live and work abroad for a company or firm with offices in another country.  

There will be a time in your career where your client will not be able to speak English or may not understand the U.S. legal and legislative system.  You can certainly use a translator but knowing another language or other legal systems can do wonders for your representation.  If you study abroad, whether in an English speaking country or not, you are likely to have a great experience.  However, I would advise that you use the time to study abroad and pick up another language.  Although there are programs online to learn another language, there is nothing like the experience of immersion where the street signs and newspapers and menus at a restaurant are not in your dominant language.  As opposed to studying abroad in college, you are more aware of your career choices and how to apply learning another language to the practice of law.  Think about the region in which you desire to practice.  Is there a specific population of people who speak a certain language?  

I have a friend who practices law in the Newark, NJ area and she is a Spanish speaker.  However, she also wishes that she had some Portuguese language skills because there is a very large population of Portuguese in the Ironbound section of Newark.  Even if you do not know a specific linguistic community, pick a language you have always wanted to learn or improve your skills.  

I am lucky that I was raised in a multicultural family and thus have viewed much of life through a global lens but I would have a better understanding if I knew a bit about cross-border and comparative laws.   As mentioned previously, both my parents coming from their respective countries placed value on knowing their heritage, upbringing, and culture but also those of others.  I still have siblings who live in Ecuador and because of my Dad remarrying, I have half siblings who are of Eastern European descent and another who resides in the Middle East.  One of my closest uncles is from Guyana.  Globalization and immigration have transformed families and the way we do business.  However, as we know, the law is somewhat slow to adapt to globalization and various cultural differences.  

Preparing for the Real-World

U.S. law schools are generally ethnocentric, and typically only prepare law students to practice in the United States, especially within the local regional market where the law school is situated.  Although there are law firms with offices in other countries, their law school’s standard curriculum did not prepare them for that experience.  

In many study abroad programs, there is an opportunity to conduct a comparative law study and learn another country’s legal system.  Laws of other countries do not just arise in immigration or international law matters.  In fact, laws of other countries intersect with U.S. legal system in many areas of practice.  The most common is usually in business and family law practice, but it comes up in intellectual property, trusts & estates, and real estate to name a few.  Your civil procedure course might come into practice when you hear issues of enforceability of judgments, service of process abroad, and other issues. 

When I was a law clerk in Somerset, NJ, I recall a case involving the recognition of a foreign divorce in a specific region of India.  It took review of India Code of Civil Procedure and also review of their relationship as married cousins.  That had many implications with regard to custody, alimony, and certain traditions within the family.  We learned that the parties were likely related and there were also rules about dissolving that type of family dynamic.  I previously handled a guardianship case which involved the pension rights of my client, now a resident of NJ, who worked in Spain the majority of his life.  We had to review his assets and to determine whether he could claim his pension while abroad.  I had to navigate the contributory period requirements for pensions in the part of Spain he worked and review information from the Instituto de Mayores y Servicios Sociales website.  

It is Truly the Best Time to Travel

As a lawyer in private practice, I do not see many lawyers taking more than a week off and when they do, they are still answering emails or taking calls.  This is also true of those I know who also work in the public sector.  When in practice, you are most likely not able to take more than 10 days to explore the world due to constraints of the job, either because of billing requirements or employer policy, especially within the first few years of practice.  Thus, I encourage law students to use the time abroad to travel to other countries, if feasible (subject to travel advisory restrictions and requirements).

Gain Valuable Work Experience – Interning at a Global Law Firm or NGO

Although there are many U.S. based law firms with a presence in other countries, this is a great time to take advantage of that experience before practicing for that type of firm.  By interning at a global law firm or NGO, you will gain exposure to the court system in another country, you may also learn how to conduct legal or legislative research, and also network with people who are actually practicing in another country.  This experience will offer you a glimpse of quality of life, how work/life balance is for lawyers, and best practices, all the while gaining work experience to put on a resume. 

Personal Growth and Development

For many women, as they continue to grow in their career, the demands of parenthood and the partnership ranks make it hard to take on personal passion projects or be truly independent.  This is an opportune time for law students to explore new places and develop new interests.  As you know, in certain countries women are not given the freedom to travel and are limited in their experiences.  This is the opportunity for you, a woman law student or future woman lawyer, to seize the opportunities available to you.  It is my belief that it will not only add value to your personhood but also to your professionalism.  I have a fellow law school classmate who works as a prosecutor in a demanding city practice who often looks back at her study abroad experience in Tokyo as a very memorable and transitional one.  She often credits that experience as a time where she felt she learned that she gained valuable skill sets of adaptability, adversity, independence and curiosity.  As it applies to her experience in practice, she was able to adapt very quickly in practicing in one region of the state to another and embrace the change of pace and work culture.  She is also to use those skill sets in the courtroom before various judges. 

Take it from me, someone who graduated law school just a handful of years ago.  This is an opportunity that  you do not want to pass up.  Time affluence is critical for a successful and fulfilling life.  Since the law is very demanding and can take away your time affluence, I believe the most precious and valuable asset you have as a professional does not involve money, an award, popularity or prestige – I truly believe it all boils down to your unique experiences. 

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