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Should 1Ls take international law?

So asks Duncan Hollis. The answer is No! There is no reason to take international law in your first year. There is no reason to take international law in any year unless you want to work as a lawyer in the State Department or certain obscure precincts of the Justice Department, hope to work for an international organization such as the United Nations or an international NGO with a legal agenda such as Human Rights Watch, or have an academic or intellectual interest in international law and international relations. If you are in any of these categories, wait till your second year. For most law students, who aspire to work in regular law firms, or in prosecutor's offices and other government agencies outside the State Department, the chance that you will encounter the type of issue taught in a public international law course over the course of your career is close to zero. So don't take it at all--unless you think it might be interesting.

Do not confuse public international law and private international law! Private international law, which essentially involves choice-of-law issues, could be useful if you expect to work for a law firm whose clients include corporations that do business across borders. Do not confuse public international land and comparative law! Comparative law, which introduces you to foreign legal systems, could conceivably be useful but probably is not. The types of public international law concepts that might come in handy for a law firm lawyer—such as treaty interpretation—are easily picked up.

Law schools have always offered public international law courses, as they should. These courses have always been poorly attended, which is also how things should be. In recent years, a number of law schools have expanded and highlighted their international law offerings, and have created elective or mandatory international law courses for the first year. These changes do not rest on any coherent theory of pedagogic priorities. They are marketing gimmicks that play off buzzwords like globalization. They do little more than reflect transitory intellectual fashions. They are patronizing efforts to turn you into citizens-of-the-world. If you have time on your hands and want to learn something that might increase your value to future employers, take statistics!

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It's Like Ping-Pong of the Mind!

OJ Co-Blogger Duncan Hollis Responds to VC Co-Blogger Eric Posner on the question of classes in public international law. (I will try to find a moment to weigh in on this, but I'm trying to make the final copy edits to my Targeted Killing chapter, finish my long-suffering UN-US relations manuscript, and help my daughter paint her room a tasteful eggshell blue while my Beloved Wife is in Guatemala over the weekend.) I'm also going to add, apropos of nothing in particular, that while I like the title of Eric's book, The Perils of Global Legalism, I probably would have named it, Parlous Global Legalism. I've always wanted to have an academic title with "Parlous" in it.

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Michael Scharf on International Law in the First Year:

My colleague Michael Scharf, who teaches several international law courses and is currently Chair of the ABA's International Legal Education Committee, asked me to post his view on taking international law in the first year of law school, in response to Eric's thoughts below.

At Case Western we offer international law in the spring of the first year as one of five electives (and have done so for over a decade). Currently, more than half of our first year class enrolls in the course, which I teach. The course is not strictly public international law, but a hybrid of public and private international law (actually, most international practitioners and academics will tell you that the lines have blurred between the two over the years). I use the Carter, Trimble, Weiner casebook, which introduces students to the fundamentals of treaty interpretation, customary international law, the law of state succession, international organizations, numerous substantive areas (international trade law, international environmental law, law of the sea, international criminal law, international human rights law), as well as international law in the U.S. (including questions of constitutionality of Executive actions, the role of customary international law in U.S. courts, the foreign sovereign immunities Act, the act of state doctrine, choice of law, and recognition/enforcement of foreign judgments). The advantages of taking international law as a 1L include: (1) it gives students an edge in competing for international law-related jobs for their first summer (a number of our 1L students obtain placements at foreign law firms, war crimes tribunals, international institutions, and NGOs); (2) it gives students an early indication of the various areas of specialty within the field, so that they will know what international law specialty courses they would benefit from when they sign up for upper level courses in the spring semester (we have 47 international law courses, seminars, and Labs to choose from at Case); and (3) it exposes students to a field of law that is becoming pervasive in the practice of law in the United States (everything from family law to property law now often has an international law component).

I will just add that I think there is some common ground. Michael is not calling for making international law a required course, and Eric acknowledges that if a student is interested in the subject, that is a good enough reason to take it. I agree that most students at most schools will rarely get an opportunity to work on public international law issues as practicing attorneys, but I also think Case Western may be an exception in this regard (at least that's what Michael tells me). I would also stress that if a student is interested in working in an international law field, private international (and comparative) law is far more important, and its relevance for many practicing attorneys is likely to increase over time.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Michael Scharf on International Law in the First Year:
  2. It's Like Ping-Pong of the Mind!
  3. Should 1Ls take international law?
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