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Law Schools Go Global

Students now have more options for gaining international legal experience.

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As the world moves increasingly toward globalization, America's law schools are offering students more opportunities to immerse themselves in foreign legal systems and international law. Studying abroad is "incredibly valuable," says William Treanor, dean of Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Treanor points to how legal questions are increasingly being resolved across national boundaries, whether they involve business transactions, litigation, domestic relations, estate planning, or social justice. Adds Steven Ratner, a professor at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor Law School, "It's simply impossible to be a competent lawyer" without understanding "how law works across borders."

Hulett Askew, a consultant for the American Bar Association's legal education and admissions section, says of foreign study programs, "The growth overall in the last 5 or 10 years has been steady—and even dramatic." In 2009, at least 112 U.S. law schools collectively offered more than 255 such programs, according to the ABA. And though the down economy has slowed growth, about 8,000 U.S. law students still participated in a foreign program in 2009, Askew notes.

[Learn more about graduate students studying abroad.]

The most common study abroad opportunities are offered during the summer and are similar to those attended by second-year University of North Dakota law student William Black, 32, of Grand Forks. Last summer, Black completed a six-week program in Prague, Czech Republic, sponsored by the South Texas College of Law.

He then spent a month studying international and comparative law at the St. Petersburg (Russia) Summer Law Institute. The program is cosponsored by the University of Arkansas, Cleveland State University, and University of the Pacific law schools.

"The classroom part is very valuable," but the "opportunities to meet people from different cultures and deal with them is, too," says Black, who was able to apply credits toward his North Dakota law degree.

Like many schools, Georgetown Law offers semester abroad programs, with a dozen locations including Argentina, China, and Germany, as well as a full-year program in Paris. Georgetown graduate Alexis Paddock, 27, of Washington, D.C., spent a semester at the school's Center for Transnational Legal Studies. Opened in 2008, the center brings together students and faculty from more than a dozen other countries to the heart of London's legal quarter.

[See the top rated law schools according to law firms.]

Partners include Free University Berlin, the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, all of which send students and faculty to the center.

"It's like going to 10 countries" to study, says Paddock, who credits the program with giving her a "greater awareness" of other legal systems and cultures while helping her build a network of contacts around the world.

According to the ABA, about 40 U.S. law schools have semester abroad options. "We offer a variety of opportunities, which we've vetted," says Virginia Gordan, assistant dean for international affairs at Michigan Law. These include for-credit semester programs at Amsterdam Law School, University College London, and Waseda University Law School in Tokyo, among others.

Michigan Law also offers fall "externships" with legal reform agencies in South Africa and winter programs in Geneva with leading U.N. agencies and international nongovernmental organizations. Michigan students can also pursue not-for-credit internships in Cambodia, London, and elsewhere.

The programs aren't for everyone. They can be pricey and may preclude a student from taking work or internship opportunities in the United States, which some fear might set them back in landing a job. But many experts disagree, saying global experience has become a major plus on résumés. Clearly, the thousands of students who enroll in these programs agree.

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