By Brittany Sims • March 07, 2018•Ms. JD, Law School
Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity for students to expand their world-view through international travel and cultural immersion. It provides more than just Instagram-worthy photos; it is a beneficial experience that can enable both personal and academic growth. For law students, studying abroad is especially advantageous since we live in such a global economy and law has become increasingly international. Additionally, exposure to foreign governments, legal systems, and jurisprudence can help American students better identify the strengths and weaknesses within our own system. As future lawyers and leaders, this perspective is critical if we wish to make positive changes within the profession.
During my 3L year, I was afforded the opportunity to study in Brisbane, Australia at the University of Queensland T.C. Beirne School of Law. It was insightful to learn about the similarities between the American and Australian legal systems- both based upon the English common law- and to discuss the differences that developed throughout each society historically. For example, in America it is normal for a district attorney’s office to work with police departments. In Australia, it is considered almost an unethical breach of duty for prosecutors to work with the police. We engaged in a lively and scholarly class discussion about the ethical implications of collaboration between the two agencies, and hypothesized how or if prosecutor offices could operate effectively in the American justice system if we followed that belief.
Studying in Australia was truly a transformative experience and a highlight of my academic career. I was fortunate my school offered a program that met every criteria I desired: the program fee was affordable and due to the partnership between my school and UQ, we students did not have to pay for food or room and board; my course credits transferred and counted towards my graduation requirements; and it was held for three weeks over winter break, not summer, so I did not miss valuable internship opportunities. Those three factors- cost, academic benefit, and timing/duration- are the most important criteria a law student should consider when deciding if studying abroad is a viable option.
Without a doubt, the most prohibitive factor hindering students from taking advantage of studying abroad is cost. In addition to hefty program fees or course tuition, students must often come out-of-pocket for airfare, room and board, food, and general personal living expenses. The often exorbitant price tag is the most cited reason why law students in particular do not pursue international opportunities, especially those who take unpaid clerkships during summer breaks and/or do not work throughout the school year. However, there are ways to finance a trip if a student is diligent in seeking out possibilities. Scholarships and financial aid are sometimes available through university study abroad offices, as well as fundraising how-to guides and payment plans. Of course, it is never prudent to go into debt or run up a credit card in order to study abroad, but researching potential options is free and worth the time and effort
Although undergraduate students may choose to study abroad “just because” regardless of their major, it is essential for a law student to ensure they are gaining a tangible academic benefit. Law school is tough. With such rigorous course loads and competitive journal, trial team, or internship opportunities, it would not behoove a law student to take time away from those pursuits to study abroad if the program does not offer practical experience or transferable credit hours. My study abroad program credits counted towards graduation, which has allowed me to take fewer courses this semester and devote more time to my criminal externship since I do not have to be physically on campus for class as much. I am gaining first chair courtroom experience through my externship and the credits boosted my GPA. Win-Win.
Timing and Duration
Similarly to the importance of academic benefit, the timing of being able to study abroad and duration of the program is crucial to a law student. If a student has a paid summer position already lined up, studying abroad for ten weeks may not be the best decision at that time. For most people, the entire point of attending law school is to begin a career. While studying abroad can be beneficial (particularly for those interested in international law), work experience with the possibility of getting a job offer outweighs the benefits in many instances. Even if the timing of the program is right, the duration or length of stay may not a good fit. I have a young son so three weeks was the longest I wanted to be away from my family, whether during summer break, school year, or winter break. One of my younger classmates had no familial obligations and studied abroad in South Africa for ten weeks during his 1L summer. He was happy with a longer program because he had also obtained an internship with a government agency. Another friend completed all of her graduation requirements early and has already accepted a job offer, so she is spending her entire final semester studying in Spain and travelling throughout Europe.
Law school is a period of incredible self-reflection, personal growth, and professional development. Studying abroad offers law students a unique opportunity to enhance their skills by observing foreign legal structures, broadening their network, and gaining valuable transnational experiences.