Law School Study Abroad: To Go or Not To Go?

Pros and Cons of Study Abroad During Law SchoolPlease welcome back Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, to discuss what you should consider when deciding if studying abroad during law school is a good idea.

If there’s anyone who appreciates the value of studying abroad in college, it’s me. During my sophomore year, I spent a semester in Madrid that was truly a life changing experience. For me, studying abroad turned out to be so much more than a chance to travel and live in a new place. I was in Madrid in spring 2004, when, just days before Spain’s general elections, al Qaeda inspired terrorists bombed four commuter trains. The bombings were so close to my apartment that the explosions woke me up. Over the following days and weeks, I not only participated in the deep mourning for the victims of the attacks but also witnessed the significant political reverberations that played out in the Spanish elections. It was a significant occasion for Spain – and the world – that influenced my own beliefs and views.

In addition to experiencing this historical moment, studying abroad had a huge impact on my personal and professional life. I met my husband (another American student) while studying abroad and found myself completely altering my plans so that I could follow him to his home state of Oklahoma. As a native Californian and recent New York City resident, this was a drastic change, to say the least. Studying abroad set me down a path that I never contemplated, but it’s one I have never regretted.

So, if studying abroad is so fulfilling and life changing, it only makes sense to pursue that same type of experience in law school, right? Well, maybe, maybe not.

While studying abroad can indeed be a wonderful experience, for many students it simply doesn’t make sense to do so in law school. In addition to academic study, undergraduate education is also legitimately about broadening your mind, exploring your own beliefs, and maturing as a person – all things that studying abroad promotes. Law school is different. The primary goal of a law school education is to train you to be a lawyer and enter a profession. Thus, if studying abroad does not directly contribute to that goal, it’s probably something you should think twice about before pursuing. So, before you jump at the chance to spend a semester in some romantic, foreign locale, evaluate the potential downsides of law school study abroad:

Cost

Law school already comes with a hefty tuition bill, and study abroad may add to the cost. Besides potentially pricier tuition fees, the cost of living could increase depending on the country you visit. Additionally, financial aid may or may not cover law school study abroad, so it’s essential that you research the specifics of the program that interests you.

Credit Transfers

While some law schools sponsor study abroad programs that allow for easy credit transfers, this isn’t always the case. If you’re pursuing a study abroad program that is not affiliated with your school, it’s important to figure out ahead of time whether the course credits will transfer. If the credits won’t transfer or won’t help you complete your graduation requirements, study abroad could impact your ability to graduate on time.

Work Experience

Undoubtedly, the biggest potential drawback of studying abroad during law school is that it may prevent you from gaining valuable experience. Rather than spending a summer learning the ropes at an internship and making connections with local attorneys, you’ll be taking courses that, while interesting, may have dubious value to your future career. The truth is that the vast majority of lawyers don’t work in international law or pursue careers abroad. Most employers know that study abroad stints are generally less onerous than regular study, so they may not be particularly impressed by this line on your resume. Ultimately, it could be more helpful to your future career prospects to stay local and gain actual work experience.

 

Of course, studying abroad does have its benefits, particularly for certain categories of students. Law school study abroad may be an important networking opportunity for top students that are committed to pursuing a career in international law. Additionally, law schools that sponsor regular semester study abroad programs can have less drawbacks, since they likely incorporate more seamlessly into your course schedule and don’t prevent you from gaining valuable work experience over the summertime. And let’s not forget the intangible benefits of study abroad – the chance to live in foreign country and experience a new culture isn’t an opportunity that comes around that often. Law students should consider study abroad programs with a healthy amount of skepticism, but if you’re committed to going this route, you need to consider these factors before choosing a program:

What are your career goals?

If you already have a job secured after graduation, by all means study abroad and enjoy yourself. If you don’t have a job lined up, think long and hard about whether studying abroad will help or hurt your career. Moreover, if you plan to go into a practice area that has no relation to the courses you will take while studying abroad, you might be better off staying put. Consider whether saving up for a winter break vacation or post-bar exam trip might give you a similar experience without the potential damage to your future career prospects.

Can you work while abroad?

Working while studying abroad may give you the best of both worlds. You get the study abroad experience while also gaining work experience that can help your future job hunt. Explore whether you will be able to secure an internship or legal position while living abroad.

What’s the program’s reputation?

Not all study abroad programs are created equal, so it’s worth researching the various options available. Try to get feedback from students who have participated in the program, particularly if it’s one that is not sponsored by your home law school.

While the romantic part of me wants to tell you to throw caution to the wind and take advantage of what could be a life changing study abroad experience in law school, the logical part of me knows that law school study abroad is not the right choice for every student. You need to do a realistic cost/benefit analysis before you pursue study abroad in law school and pay particular attention to how it will help, or hurt, your future career prospects.

For more helpful advice, check out these articles:


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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