From Erasmus semesters abroad to international exchange programs, most universities offer students the opportunity to spend some time away from the UK and the chance to experience studying law in another country. Having been fortunate enough to secure a place on my university’s International Exchange Program during the 2017-18 academic year, I travelled to Ottawa, Canada during my third year and I have to say that it is probably one of the best decisions I have made. With visions of never-ending frosty weather, Canada was not initially on my radar as a host country of choice; instead, I longed to travel Down Under to study and live the coastal lifestyle, surrounded by sandy beaches and students ‘hitting the surf’ in between classes. Had it not been for the testimonials from students who had previously returned from Canada persuading me otherwise, my study abroad experience may have been a completely different one.
During my year studying at the University of Ottawa’s Law School, I attended classes alongside both JD (Juris Doctor) English Common Law students and other international students from all over the world. Having a diverse range of students really added an element of substance to class discussions as many of my courses took a comparative approach to legal analysis, allowing us to look in depth at casework from a variety of jurisdictions, including looking at both Canada’s common law and civil law systems. Being the only Brit in my classes, I was often called upon to offer an English perspective on topics during class discussions as well as to provide answers to those burning questions which enthralled our friends across the pond – from assisting my baffled classmates on the prospect of Britain’s uncodified constitution, to explaining the tradition of why barristers wear wigs.
With each class being taught as a combined lecture and seminar with in-depth discussions taking place on the class topic, this differed from the usual routine of showing up to the lecture theatre to type up notes and having everything covered before that nights pre-drinks began at your mate’s flat. Preparation for the class was mandatory and god forbid for you to be that person who didn’t manage to get through all 103 pages of the Marshall Report in time for the day’s Insurance Class because all copies of that specific resource just happened to have already been checked out of the library. That’s right, the Canadian equivalent of e-Law Resources, unfortunately, did not exist as I found out the hard way. Neither did lecture recording, meaning a big emphasis was placed on class attendance, with some professors even having attendance and classroom participation contribute to a percentage of students’ overall grades for the module. With students’ performance also being evaluated throughout the duration of each class by a combination of graded research papers, group projects, take-home examinations and presentations, this stood in stark contrast to the modules I have taken at my home university, where each final grade has been based on my performance in one culminating assessment, whether a final closed-book exam or piece of coursework.
Nevertheless, despite the initial teething problems associated with moving to a new country and adjusting to the different style of teaching at “school”, the benefits of the experience made me remember why I chose to embark on such an adventure, and why you should too!
1. Expanding your legal knowledge
With law being an international concept and with the majority of UK law schools primarily focusing on the law of England and Wales, studying abroad provides you with the opportunity to gain knowledge of another country’s domestic legal system and compare and contrast how it squares up against our own body of rules back at home. For instance, my foreign studies enabled me to have critical discussions with my classmates in the UK on areas of medical law and ethics and how Canada is leading the way with its legal developments surrounding medical assistance in dying.
Studying abroad also allows you to develop a broader perspective of law in general, as looking at this from the perspective of another jurisdiction allows you to step back from the complexities of statutory interpretation to see how different legal systems operate together in a global sphere. With Canadian law and those of many other jurisdictions having their roots in English law, I found it fascinating to see the history and development of the country’s legal system from the days prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court of Canada, when Canada’s judiciary looked to the decisions of our House of Lords for guidance on legal issues. An understanding of comparative law will also come in useful if you intend to work for international firms or multinational organisations.
2. Inspiring your career choice
Studying abroad can inspire your career choice and help you to decide on the type(s) of law you may wish to practice in. For instance, the comparative approach is taken to the law on patents across Canada, the US and Europe, sparking my interest and prompting me to take up Intellectual Property law as an elective in my final year of studies back home and seek out work experience in this area. Different countries also offer different specialities. For instance, the US has programs aimed at nurturing the skills required to navigate a career in technology and law, whilst Switzerland is a good destination for students leaning towards careers in banking and financial law. For law with language students, studying abroad also provides the chance to put into practice your language skills and cultural studies in the host country, helping to improve your proficiency in your chosen minor language.
3. Gaining global connections
Pursuing your studies abroad offers you the chance to expand your professional network and meet people who may be able to help you find experience, internships and even employment in regards to international opportunities after you graduate. With the majority of my professors being practicing lawyers with expertise in their subject fields, there was often the opportunity to have an informal chat with them about career prospects and what I was hoping to achieve from my studies, offering me the chance to seek improvement as a student and an aspiring solicitor. I was also inspired and entertained by the stories I heard from local lawyers speaking of the different issues their clients had presented them with and, in particular, learning first-hand about the trials and tribulations of being a Real Estate lawyer in Ontario. My global connections also extended to colleagues in my classes, many of whom after graduating, have gone on to undertake training at commercial firms or have begun to set up their own law practices.
4. Standing out amongst the competition
With today’s job market being increasingly competitive and with global issues being heightened by the differing legal systems in place across the world, having international experience on your CV will increase your global acumen and give you an edge in this dynamic marketplace, particularly if you are looking towards pursuing a career in commercial law. Similarly, for those of you interested in practicing in the areas of criminal and human rights law, these areas are international in their very nature; with the International Criminal Court having its home in the Netherlands. Studying abroad will allow you to see the bigger picture of how law operates in the world, in turn preparing you to take on a variety of global challenges. So, if you’re planning to work as a lawyer in a specific country, or to work for an organisation with an interest in that region of the world, studying law there will help to give you a serious inside edge and allow you to stand out amongst the competition.
5. Trying out new experiences not offered at home
Whilst my primary purpose for pursuing legal studies abroad was to strengthen my academic background, the new experiences I undertook extended beyond the classroom to embracing new customs and trying out activities that UK-based students wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to experience at home. For instance, one of the most memorable parts of my experience living in Canada was ice skating on the Rideau Canal over the winter months, stopping half-way down the river to pick up a hot chocolate and a delicious portion of a poutine; a classic Canadian delicacy. Whilst the experience gave me the chance to immerse myself in a new culture and experience a different working environment to that at home, I won’t forget trudging through the snow to get to my 7pm evening classes and surviving through Canada’s brutal -25 degree winters. Alongside juggling my studies and extracurricular activities, I also gained experience working at the Federal Parliament of Canada in a Liberal MP’s office; this offered me the chance to apply the knowledge I had gained from my legal studies to help analyse and explain the effects of newly proposed Federal Bills, as well as develop a deeper understanding of the workings of government.
So, if you’re interested in an international career, or just fancy taking a break from three years of law school in the same place, then consider taking up an exchange program. My advice is to start early – contact your study abroad program advisor at your university to find out about the available programs on offer and attend any information sessions being held. Also, speak to study abroad ambassadors and previous exchange students about their experiences to help you narrow down some countries of interest.