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Should Students Study International Law?

On Opinio Juris and the Volokh Conpircay an interesting debate has taken place over the last few days with regard to whether first year US law students ought to choose international law as a subject (Kenneth Anderson lists the latest inputs here). In short, Eric Posner argues that unless you plan to work for an international organisation or simply find international law interesting it is not worth studying and instead students ought to dedicate time to statistics. Is any of this relevant for European law students?

First of all, Posner has a good point; if you plan to put your legal skills to the test in a local small-town law firm, international law is probably not all that relevant in Europe either. Likewise, if you plan to work for a local government or other mainly nationally focused institutions, you might be better off pursuing other topics. However, a few other points are worth making. For some European law students (this is a very gross simplification as legal education does vary significantly across Europe – even post the Bologna Process) international law is not optional but mandatory. This was, for instance, the case when I did my undergraduate studies in Copenhagen. At that time, public international law was even taught as a part of what is roughly equivalent to constitutional law (shock horror). This may have changed by now. Moreover, in some countries, for instance the Scandinavian countries, the law degree is a lengthy affair taking five years where the first three years form the Bachelor, which is made up of a series of compulsory courses, and the last two years form the Masters degree (or LLM), in which students choose from a series of courses (at least that is how it works in Denmark). A fair bit of the courses taken as part of the LLM would touch upon some international legal issues, either private or public, making a basic knowledge of international law an advantage. On the other hand, in the UK, international law remains optional in either the students’ second or third year. Moreover, UK students do not have to do an LLM, and very few choose to, perhaps making the case for international law less clear.

Still, international issues and law would, at least for certain European countries, seem to play an important role in national law, such as for instance the European Convention on Human Rights, making a basic knowledge of international law an advantage regardless of subsequent profession. In addition, the enlarged role which the European Union seems to play as an international actor outside Europe would add weight behind recommendations for European lawyers to study international law. Finally, the initial question of the relevance of international law is in some way answered by European students themselves in that international law (both private and public) would appear to be fairly popular courses. In this regard, one piece of advice would be that students ought to be more critical of certain aspects of international law. In the end, however, the best advice to prospective students would be to choose what they find most interesting, as this make for a more motivated studying, while keeping an eye on employability.

Comments appreciated if you have any thoughts on this.


  1. Bart Smit Duijzentkunst Bart Smit Duijzentkunst 6 September 2009

    Some thoughts from a European law student enrolled in a US LL.M program:
    When comparing the US vs. European law school curriculum, it is important to keep in mind the different structure of legal education on both continents. Whereas in Europe law is primarily taught as an undergraduate degree, US law schools are exclusively graduate institutions. Without elaborating on the (dis)advantages of a graduate law school (note that Melbourne law school is switching to the latter, as Kevin Heller blogged over at Opinio Juris), this significantly affects the role the respective law schools play in a student’s academic development. When a student is first confronted with academic education in law school, as is the case in much of Europe, it is the task of the law school not just to train the student vocationally, but also to introduce him or her to academic thought and curiosity and to provide a broad overview of “what is out there”. Confronting students with international law, something outside their home jurisdiction, might help to develop this academic foundation.
    On the other hand, US law students will have often studied some politics, comparative government or international affairs in their undergraduate years, and are coming to law school to prepare for the legal job market. Their level of experience and academic training will often be completely different, as is their expectation what the law school will bring them (a well paid job in the legal sector). Consequently, they might be a little pickier when it comes to course offerings and select the courses that matter most to employers.
    Another interesting difference is the cost of legal education in both systems. Tuition fees in Europe tend to be fairly low, especially when compared to the enormous amounts that US law schools charge (see the comments on Michael Scharf’s blog at Volokh). When you’re paying thousands of borrowed dollars for any given course, you’d better be sure that it pays out (not the strongest point of international law).

  2. bikey bikey 8 September 2009

    As the US moves away from post-WWII international legal standards, it becomes increasingly important for anyone who considers himself/herself to be educated in the law to have some knowledge of what international law teaches, especially considering how little attention US undergrads pay to the study of history. Torture and war crimes would have little resonance in US law were it not for international law. Modifying these statutes is not like changing traffic regulations.
    They are there to keep/make us civilized, something lawyers should keep in mind, arguably above all else. Everyone should study international law, even undergrads!

  3. Abby Abby 4 March 2011

    As a UK based lawyer, I think that there is some value to studying international law at degree level, as it gives you an appreciation of the wider, global problems that we’re facing and it makes you a better citizen.
    However, it’s not necessarily going to be any help in practice, when you’re faced with a client that wants to sell their company, divorce their husband, or sue their employer…

  4. Staatsrecht Staatsrecht 14 March 2011

    Thanks for this information please keep up this creative writing.

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