The German vs. the American Law School Experience

Why is Germany different from almost any other country in educating lawyers and structuring our law school curriculum? I don’t have a clear answer to that, but I am assuming it has to do largely with our “Wilhelm von Humboldt” approach to higher education.

A different kind of German experience. Photo:
A different kind of German experience. Photo:

If you don’t know who Humboldt was, check him out on Wikipedia. He was basically a universal genius who lived in the 18th century and devoted his life to the studies of many different disciplines such as philosophy, law, linguistics, and educational theory. Though he never quite finished his legal studies and worked mainly as a government official for authoritarian Prussia, he became one of the most influential thinkers on educational reform. An ardent proponent of “general” education and the use of Greek and Latin as a way of channeling the student’s thoughts, he finally founded a university in Berlin, which is now known as “Humboldt-University” and is one of the leading institutions in Germany to this day.

To sum up his educational philosophy, which still influences the way German universities structure their curriculum, he favored a holistic approach (in German it is often described as Allgemeinbildung, or general knowledge). As an effect, all German universities focus heavily on theory and the teaching of a broad dogmatic foundation.

With this background information, it is easier to understand why we have a system that has received huge criticism and sparked controversial debates. Recently some of that criticism has receded due to the 2010 “Bologna” reforms of the European Union. Through those reforms, most German universities restructured their studies according to the bachelor/master system.

However, not much has changed for law schools. German law schools, scholars, students, and agencies are particularly “resistant to change.”

A German student’s path to law school begins after graduation from high school (Gymnasium). Entry to law school does not require an undergraduate degree. Typically German first-years will be 18 to 20 years old when they start their journey. Gaining admission to law school is not particularly difficult, though some “elite” universities (even though we don’t have a lot of private universities, a small number of public ones are considered to be more well equipped in terms of research funds and excellent faculty) have a numerus clausus (restricted admission based on high school GPA). No personal statement, recommendations, or further tests are required.

German law schools offer excellent legal education, plus a Harry Potteresque setting. Photo:
German law schools offer excellent legal education, plus a Harry Potteresque setting. Photo:

The first two years are basically just mandatory courses on civil, criminal, and public law. There is little to no practical interaction in a German lecture hall. Although we do have some smaller faculties, the typical German law lecture class has 200 to 500 students. Almost all the older professors prefer a style that is purely ex-cathedra, teaching with no questions asked. Some younger professor have changed things up considerably and engage the students in a more Socratic way.

Sadly, a lot of professors still have no practical experience whatsoever, and only theoretical wisdom to offer to the students. This is why some students do not know that they were being taught a “minority” opinion up until they prepare for our final exams.

When it comes to practical elements, German law schools often do not live up to reality. With the exception of one or two mandatory “key qualification” courses on a pass/fail basis, which can be freely elected by the law students (ranging from rhetoric training, history of the law, and basic political science to law and sociology, negotiation, or legal writing), there are few possibilities for a German law student to perfect the art of making an oral argument or to draft a written pleading.

Some very driven students acquire these skills through summer internships or mock trials, but a great number choose to languish in the last rows of the classroom, unmoved, unchallenged, and uncontrolled by any attendance or participation requirements. There are no oral grades, and no mandatory attendance.

We survived German law school!
We survived German law school!

If the student has not dropped out or has failed interim examinations, which are compulsory in some universities, the dreaded First State Exam awaits at the end. But it’s not even the end of the road to becoming a lawyer. In order to actually practice law in Germany, one has to complete a two-year legal training (aptly described as an “apprenticeship” model) before being eligible to take the German bar exam.

To conclude, an average German law student spends seven to 11 years to complete studies and to be admitted to the bar. We are deemed among the most qualified law professionals on Earth after we have finished our legal education, and there are many positive aspects to the German law school system, but I do believe that we are very “top-heavy” and could use a little bit of inspiration from the US law school model.

In light of the above, three years of law school don’t seem so bad, do they?