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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Considering 1L Summer Abroad...

It’s that time of year when students are considering what to do with the summer. Getting a legal job as a first-year student has always been extremely difficult.  But with the economy still weak and the law firm market the toughest it’s been in years -- some describing it as a “law firm hiring crisis” – the chances of 1L students getting a paying job are slim.  My recommendation: go abroad.  Many schools have fantastic programs and it’s not too late to participate. 

With a number of advantages, the real question is why you’re not already signed up.  Here’s a few reasons for taking the jump and studying abroad:

1.  It’s Often Cheaper:  Often summer abroad programs cost less that paying for units at your home law school.  Summer programs must be competitive and so often the tuition rate is set less than domestic tuition.  For some programs, the total cost of travel, housing and tuition is about the same (or less) than if the student stayed at home and took summer classes.  Usually financial aid/student loans can also cover summer abroad programs. You would want to meet with your Financial Aid Office. I run a program in Vancouver, B.C. Canada,and we set the tuition rates so that the total costs of going abroad (including housing, travel, living expenses) is about the same as if the student earned the credits during the Fall/Spring semesters.

2.  It’s Condensed:  The Fall/Spring semesters are usually 14 or 15 weeks long.  Most summer abroad programs range from 4 to 7 weeks.  For many programs, you can earn 4, 5 or 6 units in about a month. Make sure the program is ABA-approved, and you will need to get approval from your school to ensure that the credits transfer (most schools will give you at least pass/fail credits).  But there’s a big advantage of going abroad (say in June) and then returning and being in the U.S. in July – with 6+ weeks to volunteer and get other experience on your resume.

3.  It’s A Great Experience:  To state the obvious – going abroad is an experience that will often be the highlight of your law school career.  Zipping off to exotic locales… it's hard to get better than that.  And the programs usually include tours of local courts, trips to local landmarks etc.  But aside from this, it's usually a wonderful educational experence too.  You'll take classes in fascinating areas of the law -- some that you might not of considered if you stayed at home -- often taught by some of the most preeminent experts in the field.  Part of being a good attorney is having a broad foundation of knowledge.  Summer abroad helps with that.

4.  You Get Credits Out of the Way:  Six credits doesn’t seem like a lot.  But you’ll be thanking yourself when you’re taking 10 units your last semester of your third year, when everyone else is taking 17!  Taking units now may also open up externship/internship or clinic opportunities later in law school, when you really want to get hands-on experience that may lead to a job.

 5.  Misc:  Other benefits: You meet new people (both faculty and students from other schools.  You can gain expertise in a niche area of the law. And you end up with something interesting to talk about in interviews. In short, a summer abroad experience can help round out your legal education and make you (at least on paper) look interesting.

If you’re considering going abroad, here are some resources.  First, you may want to take a look at the list of all ABA-approved summer law programs.  The greedy associates webpage on Findlaw has some two good posts about the advantages of going abroad  and a list of "captivating programs. I still have some spots available in our Vancouver program. The program is sponsored by Southwestern in collaboration with the UBC Faculty of Law and the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy (a UN Affiliate).  If you're interested, feel free to email me at [email protected].

A final point.  The old wisdom that going abroad is too much like taking a vacation and does't look good on a resume is just that - old and outdated.  Don't believe it.  First, summer abroad programs these days are high quality, classes are taught by top notch faculty, and the course-work is rigorous. Second, it's better than other options.  Sure, if you land a high-paying job at a good firm as a summer associate you should take it.  The reality is that very few 1Ls get decent paying jobs doing legal work. And the economy is not your friend right now.  In this context, taking advantage of a summer abroad program makes a great deal of sense.

Posted by Austen Parrish on March 11, 2010 at 07:33 PM | Permalink


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Yeah, dig that financial hole a bit deeper.

Posted by: pchuck | Mar 12, 2010 11:32:56 AM

One other caveat: I think students will still need to take a certain number of courses to maintain full-time status for purposes of financial aid, so there may be a limit to how much tuition they will save down the road by taking summer courses, even if the school charges by credit. (That said, I'm a big fan of study abroad.)

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 12, 2010 10:45:13 AM

3L here, so I suppose all of my knowledge ought to be discounted.
My school offered course credit for unpaid internships, my understanding is that this is common. This gets you the course credits and at least at my school there was no incremental tuition for them, I didn't realize that charging per credit was done at full-time schools. I haven't otherwise noticed that my school is quick to give up potential revenue, so I figured this was industry standard.
Received wisdom at my school was that summer classes, of the non-study abroad type because I am not aware of anyone who studied abroad, were a very soft alternative to having a legal job, even a nonpaying one. My general sense is that people who went that route paid a price in second year job searches. I am surprised to hear a professor say differently. The same, incidentally, was true for research assistant jobs.
I imagine that study abroad classes are different, but the only clear difference I see for a standard domestic job is that you would have something interesting to talk about in interviews. To give due credit, this occasionally seems like half the battle when interviewing at firms where it is pretty clear no one read your resume before you walked into the room.
There is no obvious harm from both working/volunteering and taking classes, but that will be much easier to arrange if you are taking a class locally. Otherwise you will be taking a 1/3 or 1/2 chunk out of the summer and hoping that someone will accommodate you working in whatever is left.
The one group who seemed to do abnormally well, in comparison to grades and other achievements, in 2L recruitment were those who worked for federal judges. I don't get the sense that this job is all that competitive, if you apply early and are willing to move somewhere for several months without pay. Federal judges in towns that have law schools seem much more competitive.

Posted by: Ben | Mar 11, 2010 9:34:34 PM

I didn't think this would be controversial, but since the suggestion is that post was misleading I thought I would quickly respond to A Prawf and Parent's post.

For many schools you're incorrect on the cost point. It does depend on whether the school has flat rate tuition or not. But for schools that require a certain number of units to graduate, summer abroad programs do not provide extra revenue. The units simply count towards the total number of units to graduate. Many schools will count the units as pass/fail transfer units. The issue then is a straight comparison between the cost of the summer abroad unit and the domestic home-school unit. If the point was that summer abroads cost more in a flat rate tuition school (or in a school that does not permit pass/fail units) I agree you're right -- it would be just extra revenue. But many schools charge tuition based on a per unit basis. And in those schools, summer abroad is not necessarily more expensive and can often be less cost per unit.

I agree that students need to develop practical skills training. And certainly networking, developing writing and analytical skills is a key part of legal education. But that goal is not inconsistent with doing a 1L summer abroad. In fact, the point is that you may earn credits and then return and volunteer or work -- gaining experience in both ways. More importantly, for many students front-loading some units allows them the opportunity to do an externship or participate in a clinic as a 2L or 3L, where the externship could lead to a job. And in this economy, even volunteering as a 1L is not as easy as it once was. So I agree that the question is opportunity cost. But often the opportunity cost is in favor of an abroad experience.

Lastly, you're of course free to disagree. But I don't think it's true that summer abroads are properly described as "sponsored-field-trips-to-country x." There may be programs out there that fit that description. But my experience is that the majority of programs these days are rigorous and provide good educational experiences.

Posted by: AP | Mar 11, 2010 8:24:15 PM

For most students, this notion of cost savings is misleading. Most law students will be a full-time student for six semesters (and will pay accordingly) whether or not they take summer courses. For these student, summer tuition is not "chepaer" tuition, it is simply "extra" tuition. Law schools love to portray it otherwise as it is extra revenue.

I would also add this question to the mix for students reading this post. What is my biggest deficiency as a lawyer-to-be? For most, I think it's writing skills, research skills, and professionalism. I think most students need to get out in the real world (even if it's a volunteer position) and write, research, interact, network and make mistakes. The last point may be the most important. Most of us who are learning anything need to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes--ideally, in an educational setting before the stakes rachet ever higher. Thus it's not just the actual costs, but also the opportunity costs of the sponsored-field-trip-to-country-x that are high.

Posted by: A Prawf and a Parent | Mar 11, 2010 8:02:45 PM

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