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Study Abroad

Christian Bartholomew
Marion, Indiana
Previous Education:
Ball State University

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Student Profiles

Analyzing Fundamental Differences in Legal Systems
Christian Bartholomew, JD’08, MPA’08

“At German law schools, you just show up to the classes you want to take. If you like what you hear, you stay and sign up to take a test at the end of the course.”

I studied at…

Why I studied abroad: “Because I was an undergraduate German major, I was especially happy to see that Indiana Law has two separate programs to Germany. I was looking for ways to bring an international element into my legal education.”

American law student in Germany: “In Jena, most classes meet once a week, in two-hour blocks, and it’s not always easy to know what you should read for each class. Professors don’t give out clearly delineated assignments for each class. In fact, they often don’t even tell you what book you should use. They’re more likely to drop the names of a few good authors on a topic, or mention some articles, and expect you to follow up on the information later. This is a big difference from American law schools’ use of the Socratic Method, which requires that the professor know exactly what students have read in order to kick off an inquisitorial discussion.”

Fundamental differences: “Something I found particularly confusing after arriving in Jena was the class registration process. There basically wasn’t one. At German law schools, you just show up to the classes you want to take. If you like what you hear, you stay and sign up to take a test at the end of the course. If you don’t like the class or find yourself overworked, you just don’t come back—it’s that easy. That’s why on the first day of many classes, there might be students filling all the seats in a lecture hall for 500+ people, some sitting on the floor. Two weeks later, the hall will only be half full!

“The law professors in Jena are friendly, especially toward Americans, as we’re still something of an oddity at German law schools. There are plenty of foreign students, but not many American law students. But German professors keep a bit more distance from their students than American professors do, partly because of the large class sizes. But it’s also traditionally German.” 

Cultural immersion: “The daily ritual of many students during the summer semester of sitting outside and drinking coffee after lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes near the university is worth adopting. Table service and a leisurely conversation beat a rush to Starbucks any day.

“You learn to study in the library—but it takes some time-management skills. Because German libraries have very strict rules about checking out books (i.e., the good books stay in the library), and much shorter hours than the libraries at American law schools, you’d better forget about putting off studying until Sunday night. The library will be safely locked. And your German friends will think you’re crazy for wanting to study on a Sunday anyway.

“German law schools are not plush like many American schools. They’re state-funded institutions with significantly less wood, brass, and leather floating around in the halls.”

Getting out of the classroom: “Most American students simply accept that law is based upon a system of binding precedent. In Germany, that’s not necessarily the case. A fundamental difference like that changes your entire framework for analysis of the law. A student can’t help but grow intellectually by encountering such differences in a context where they can’t be shrugged off as arcane academic issues. Your professor may want you to justify beliefs fundamental to the American system.”

What I learned: “One semester is only long enough to scrape the surface of another country’s legal system, and though I highly value what I learned about German constitutional law, the Roman roots of the civil law system, and the German social model, the most valuable thing that I gained through this exchange was new friends. I met future lawyers from Poland, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, and Germany, each with different views on law and life.”

Future plans: Work in the public sector, perhaps as a criminal prosecutor, eventually moving on to the federal government. “Whatever I do, I’d like to tie an international element into it.”