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Being a European at Vandy Law

by Thomas Guenter

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design informs three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

 

This LPS post is by Thomas Guenter, a visiting student from Belgium.

"Sometimes we are forced into directions we ought to have found for ourselves.”

 

– Maid in Manhattan, 2002

This blog post discusses the differences between law schools in the US and Belgian law schools. In making this comparison, I will also mention some of the implications of these differences and this automatically makes one wonder about how law school ideally should look like. While my preference goes out to one of the two, I believe neither of the current designs is perfect. In touching upon some of the current issues, I hope to give inspiration to my fellow LPS students who are also writing their blogs about redesigning the law school curriculum.

And while I am fully aware of the fact that this blog is a long read (sorry for that!), I do hope it is worthwhile and that the reader could gather some insights into the backgrounds of foreign lawyers and become even more aware of the fact that how law school is done today is not necessarily because it is the best way of doing so but simply because it is convention. The former is important because a lot of law students will end up working together with lawyers from different countries while the latter can help you come up with ideas on how to redesign law school for the better.

Ghent Law School

Biggest law school differences

Vanderbilt Law School

Biggest law school similarities

1. Focus on the Law

2. Grades Matter

On the number of students

Even though more than 1,000 students start law school at UGent every year, more than half drop out after the first year and the others mostly end up somewhere between the first and the second year with individualized curricula. Only about 5% of students pass every course in the 1L regular academic year while the other students have to retake exams during the summer break (and thus they have less time to do real legal work). The two most important reasons for these bad passing rates in Belgium:

  1. A lot of students just want to give law school a try, not because they are very interested in the field of law but because they are bad at science and mathematics and thus law school remains as their most prestigious option.
  2. The first year at university is generally quite overwhelming, especially because most students are only 17 or 18 years old. A lot of students are not used to the bigger amounts of learning materials and would have failed regardless of their choice of studies.

On the way of teaching

Because of the large number of students there is absolutely no interaction in Belgian classes, especially in the first three years. You literally have zero chance of being called upon. On the picture below you can see one of the classrooms that is used for a lot of the 1L classes, it can seat up to a 1,000 students. Most students are just a number to the professors and most exams are MC. Often students put all of the readings inside their heads just before the exam period, spit everything out on the exams and then forget most of it during the holidays. If an alien were to visit earth, I would not want to be the one explaining this way of going about education.

A lot of Belgian students do not even attend classes by the way. In selecting my curriculum at Vanderbilt for example, I was aware of some overlaps in lecture hours but I did not think this would be of any major concern. That is until dean Pavlick was kind enough to point out to me that in the US students are required to be present in all classes. Even though classes can be a bit slower in the US because of the Socratic method and more interaction, I do still find this way of doing it superior in that students have to keep up with the readings during the year and you are more likely to remember the materials because of a more active state of mind and participation during classes.

On the prestige of law school

While law school is something for smart people in the US, this is much less the case in Belgium. Since I am pursuing two graduate degrees, I have even found myself handling according to this double standard: when someone in Belgium asks me what my field of study is, I always tell them that I am studying economics (Business Engineering) but if someone in the US asks me the same question, I proudly tell them I go to law school.

Most Belgian law students have a high school background of Latin-languages or basic economics and languages but the people that perform best in law school typically had Latin-math or science-math majors in high school. Having spent time in a Belgian as well as an American law school, I am under the impression that the average American student might indeed be more intelligent but this can probably partly be explained by the fact that the students are way older and are more extroverted. As mentioned, quite some people drop out of the Belgian law schools so those that survive typically are of decent quality as well.

A bigger difference however can be seen when you have a look at the bottom 10% of the student base: I feel like the capacities of American law students are fairly similar (while some individuals really stand out) and while this is the same in Belgium, we do have some less competent people that end up with a law degree as well but because they do so in 6-8 years instead of the normal 5. There is a lot of debate going on about this group because these students suck up a lot of the university resources while also lowering the level of education and prestige of the studies. Just recently for example, not enough Belgian students passed the torts exam in the second year (less than 20% of the students). The faculty solved this by giving everyone a slightly higher grade. Consequently, some students that initially failed now got a pass and some that got a good score now had a great score. On the long term however, nobody benefits from these practices.

Good law students on the other hand typically pass every exam on the first try and participate in a lot of extracurricular activities or take on honors classes or some even try to combine their law studies with another full time degree like pharmacy, history or economics. Others just focus on their law courses and do really well. Some students even got off to a rough start but continue by having less retakes every year and/or better grades. Good grades then typically land these students very nice internship positions that give them great legal experience while earning money and already getting a feel for what it is like to work at one of the big firms.

“Ah. The law school boy. A distinct breed. Intelligent. Well dressed. Brave, idealistic and unselfish. If you would have been any good at math you would be studying economics for sure.”

 

– Wouter De Rycke

On the cost of studying

Tuition, other expenses and living are all much lower in Belgium. A lot of people actually only pay $120 or $0 tuition and they get a yearly scholarship of about $1100-$5500 while you can get great housing for less than $400 a month. Because of this, you could say that (almost) everyone has the opportunity to give university a try. I know several people that have no parental financial support whatsoever but still they are doing great at university. Nevertheless, most people come from middle class families. I am under the impression, not surprisingly, that law school students in the US mostly come from even richer households and you do not really see any poor people here. Even though a lot of Americans do not have to pay the full law tuition of $54k, living and other expenses (health care, books, 4 years of undergraduate studies, etc.) are way higher in the US and serve as a threshold when it comes to who gets to give law school a try. This is not only unfortunate in itself but also in the sense that there is less mixing going on between students of different social and economic backgrounds.

“My recollection is – and I’d have to confirm this – but I don’t recall paying any money to go to law school.”

 

– Joe Biden

When speaking about the financials with fellow students, it is often stated that they see law school as an “investment”. But investments need to bring in money and thus it is sad to see that a lot of students are pushed towards the higher paying jobs at the bigger firms after graduation, while those same students often initially started law school with the idea of social justice and standing up for the people that need it most. Of course a lot of Belgian students end up in the big firms as well but I feel that we have more freedom to choose otherwise (and we actually do as well) because of the lower costs of study. Someone has to pay the bill however, but I think a lot of people would rather have more educational equality and higher taxes than the other way around.

“I had loans in law school.”

 

– Kenn Starr

On the requirements to go to law school

Four years of US undergrad is a long time. If you work hard and get involved in a lot of activities, this period can become a foundation on which you build your future law school success. But I was in a frat house the other day and although I sure had a lot of fun, I do not know to what degree this really contributes to your plans of becoming a lawyer. Regardless of what you hope to get out of your undergrad degree, I believe an entire undergraduate degree should not be required to go to law school. Instead of having law students do 4 years of for example, English or Political Sciences, I believe it might be a better idea to require students to only have completed the first 2 years.

The first 2 years contribute the most to your interdisciplinary skills and knowledge anyway while they also give you the opportunity to enjoy college life. By giving aspirant students the possibility to do a test after 1 or 2 years and offering law school as a switch in degrees, I think you could end up with highly ambitious students while also lowering the financial pressure on the students and their families.

This might seem like a non-issue for some (Q.E.D.) but having to pay 2 years less of college really makes a difference for a lot of families and you can also start to earn money 2 years earlier. More specifically, it is your highest wage at the end of your career that you get an additional 2 times. And of course students that prefer to finish their undergrad should be given the option as well. It is after all an American tradition and a lot of fun.

“America’s most overrated product: undergraduate education.”

 

– Marty Nemko

On the duration of law school

While a lot of students feel like the 3L year is unnecessary in the current US system and that it only serves as an extra financial burden, I do believe 3 years of law school really is the minimum. If only 1 or 2 years of undergrad would be required, one could even consider making law school 4 years because of the introduction of some more general courses or courses that form the link between the law and other fields and also by focusing more on practical legal skills like doing cases from scratch, learning how to interview clients, etc.

In Belgium law school takes 5 years but the curriculum encompasses some more general courses like economics, social psychology and philosophy as well. And even though law school takes longer, still a lot of students feel like they are missing practical legal skills. I even know law students that have considered to take on courses of the legal practice degree, which is a more practical, paralegal 3-year-degree you can do that prepares you to assist lawyers in their work. In redesigning the law school curriculum, this is probably the biggest issue that needs to be addressed and my fellow LPS students have already put forward some nice ideas on how to do so – stay tuned!

On the routes after graduation

As mentioned before, the fact that Belgian students generally have zero debt when finishing law school obviously has an impact on what you go on to do afterwards. As seen in the list of differences, a large part of the Belgian students actually goes on to study something else after law school.

Some of them go on to get an MBA degree or do an extra year specializing in tax or complementary studies in business economics. Vlerick for example is one of the more popular business schools because they are located in Ghent (and have a very nice campus by the way). By far the most popular option however, is to get a one-year law degree abroad (even though a lot of students already had a European semester exchange as well). An LLM not only is great for your regular and legal English but it also serves as a mean to get to know the world and yourself.

Law firms really appreciate these degrees because they have a signaling function for a lot of positive characteristics. Belgian law students also typically have quite a hectic final year because they have to finish their master’s thesis and thus a year of LLM can be considered as (relatively) relaxing. In this way American law students typically achieve some level of interdisciplinarity because of their undergraduate degrees while some Europeans achieve the same by means of an extra diploma.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

 

– Henry Miller

On the whole package

To conclude this reflection, I would like to mention that neither of the current law school designs is perfect but I do believe that the European way of going about it is superior in that it is more accessible regardless of wealth while also providing students with a good understanding of the law. The biggest common issue is probably the lack of focus on anything else but the law. Students should not be able to go through the entire 3 or 5 years of law school without ever seeing a real client or without handling a case from the start.

Law school seems to focus on exactly the things that computers already do and will do better than humans. As technology further advances, law school will only continue to be a good “investment” if it focuses more on exactly the opposite. As Tyrion Lannister famously said in the Game of Thrones series:

“It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor.”

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