Ugandan Legal Education

During early August, I lectured at several Ugandan universities, and in the midst of my lecture tour I had the opportunity to learn about the Ugandan approach to legal education. Its form and goals contrast strikingly with what we take for granted in the U.S.

Someone who wishes to become a practicing lawyer in Uganda begins by completing a four-year major in law at a Ugandan college or university, much as one would complete a major in history or chemistry. Then, one takes the entrance test for Kampala’s Legal Development Center (LDC), the nation’s only “law school.” If successful on the test, one joins a 400-student cohort at the LDC for a one-year, intensive study of areas of law. It culminates with the Ugandan bar exam, and between one-third and two-thirds of those sitting for the bar exam pass.

When I compared this approach with American legal education one morning over coffee in the faculty lounge at the LDC, a Ugandan professor expressed surprise that most American law students earned a liberal arts degree before attending law school.  

She asked in a friendly but earnest way, “Why would somebody study something like political science before studying the law?” When I sketched standard American law school courses in jurisprudence, legal history, and law and economics, heads were shaking in mild disbelief. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision not to mention I had just published the second edition of a textbook in law and popular culture!

In essence, Ugandan legal education consists of surveying areas of law, both in the undergraduate programs and at the LDC. There is a bit of observing in court and a course in advocacy at the LDC, but, for the most part, professors present the laws and students try to remember them. Products of this type of legal education take themselves to be technicians who assist clients or the state, and the professional assistance of Ugandan legal technicians is quite welcome in the context of the nation’s rapid modernization.

American affluence and our stage of socio-economic development allow us the luxury of proffering future lawyers broad undergraduate programs before law school and then educating (not training) them with a range of doctrinal courses, clinical experiences, and theoretical offerings. If everything goes according to plan, American lawyers hang up their shingles as learned men and women, who are able to critically and creatively engage the law on behalf of their clients in fully modernized society.


This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Joseph Hylton

    I suspect that the Ugandan approach is closer to the world norm in legal education than that of the United States.

    In Germany, law is also a first degree with a primary emphasis on what the law is. Undergraduate law students essentially devote their time to memorizing the German Civil Code. What we think of as the “academic” study of law doesn’t really begin until students with law degrees choose to pursue masters or PhD degrees in law.

    There are those who believe that the U.S. system of requiring lawyers to first acquire a four year bachelor’s degree and then a three year law degree–which did not become the norm until after World War II–was at its base a way of controlling the supply of lawyers.

    Requiring would be lawyers to pursue seven years of higher education delays the entry of individuals in the legal profession of those who become lawyers, and it presumably deters some people from pursuing careers in law.

    In contrast, in countries like Uganda, as the above post notes, there is pressure to get qualified “legal technicians” into the workplace as quickly as possible.

  2. Alex Buri

    1. Contrary to your assertion, Law Development Center (LDC) in Uganda is not a law school, as it does not offer any education leading to the award of an academic degree. Instead, the LDC is a statutory corporation established under the Law Development Center Act (Chapter 132 of the Laws of Uganda) – Its functions are set out under section 3 thereto.
    2. The yearlong course that you probably described in your blog is a Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice. (Please refer to the Advocates (Enrollment and Certification) Regulations (Statutory Instrument 267-1 of Uganda). Please refer to Regulation 2 (a) thereof, that states inter alia that it is a ‘postgraduate bar course’.
    3. There are 7 law schools in Uganda (a nation that is about the geographical size of Oregon). The longest standing law school being – The Makerere University, School of law.
    4. The 4 year course you probably made reference to, is a law degree. The Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB – Legum Baccalaureus). Therefore, it is a degree in law and not a ‘major in law’, as you aver.
    5. It is unfortunate that during your interaction with ‘faculty’ at ‘LDC’ that their ‘heads were shaking in mild disbelief’ when you discussed courses such as ‘jurisprudence, legal history and law and economics’. The ignorance depicted in their responses, is a misrepresentation of the Ugandan legal education system. Whilst at law school in Uganda, I pursued several law courses including Jurisprudence (which I thoroughly enjoyed – including reviewing legal positivists such as John Austin and Jeremy Bentham; natural law thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and John Locke and some leading American jurisprudential thinkers such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. I also studied African history and law as a part of my law degree among many other courses. Even the foundation courses such as Contract law, Criminal law, Constitutional law, Torts and land law, inter alia were prefaced with extensive reviews of their common law history. Further, the predominant approach of teaching was the case law method with a focus on analysis of the development in legal doctrine and principals in common law. This included, but wasn’t limited to appreciating significant dissenting judgments in decisions. The Ugandan legal education system is also intended to result in “learnéd men and women, who are able to critically and creatively engage the law on behalf of their clients”. (As in the US, you will find that the quality of individual lawyers will differ and that that objective is not necessarily achieved in each and every graduate of law school. You will find that, just as in the US, while some students are keen to engage in intensive research and to actively engage with law review, moot court etc, there are several students that will be satisfied with ‘learning the law’ from nutshells and various commercial outlines (which would definitely affect the depth of their appreciation of the law))
    6. I therefore strongly disagree with the suggestion that “Ugandan legal education consists of surveying areas of law’ with the ‘products’ being mere ‘technicians’. So, while there may be some students that are intent on mere rote memorization of material (It could also be argued that the focus of the commercial bar review courses in the US is principally on rote memorization of black letter law). Rote memorization is not necessarily reflective of Uganda’s legal system, any more than, say, the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina would be regarded as being representative of how the US government handles humanitarian disaster.
    7. As you may be aware, the most significant historical source of present day Ugandan law is English Common law (as is the US), because of the historical British imperialism in Uganda.
    8. Law students in Uganda have numerous avenues to become more practically and intimately engaged with the law through participation in law review in law journals, participation in moot court competitions, engaging in legal aid clinics inter alia. Some will take advantage of the opportunities available, and others will not.
    9. Uganda’s education system generally will typically start with pre-kindergarten, then kindergarten, then Primary school (equivalent to elementary school and middle school in the US). Thereafter, a child would go to high school for 4 years to attain an Ordinary leaving certificate. Thereafter, a student would pursue a narrower course of study focused either on Arts courses or Science courses for 2 years (so as to attain an Advanced level certificate). Then, a student intending to go to law school in Uganda, would typically be required to sit an entrance exam, similar to the LSAT in the US (although, in Uganda it would be set by each individual University). Assuming the student met the required pass grade and had scored sufficiently highly in his or her Advanced level exams, the student would then enter Law School which is a 4 year program encompassing 40 Course Units comprising about 5 contact hours per course, per week, per semester in which the course is pursued (That is approximately 400 contact hours per semester). After law school, there is an entrance exam into LDC to entitle one to attend the Bar course. (So, instead of having independent Bar review courses such as BarBri and Kaplan, to name but a few, Uganda has one standardized bar review course that is a highly intensive year long program reviewing the foundation courses already covered at law school, a mandatory practical clerkship (with a law firm, Judge, State Attorney’s office or legal department in a company or other similar entity), similar to the voluntary US summer associates programs run by most law firms (some students do engage in internships throughout law school or in research assistantships with their professors), numerous periodic practical tests and regular moot court competitions. If a student passes the bar exam, he or she can then apply to be enrolled to the bar.
    The Ugandan legal system could certainly do with improvement, in many ways, no doubt. I think the challenges it contends with have more to do with certain very unfortunate social challenges within the community per se, than with the legal education system itself. A bit like the way the second amendment of the US Constitution is not necessarily the cause of the challenges the US contends with in connection with the proliferation in gun related violence.

    Lastly, it would be unfair to compare Uganda with the US, as the US has been an independent nation for almost 230 years and is approximately 40 times larger than Uganda in land mass. Not to mention that it has about 10 times the population of Uganda. In addition to that, the last time the US had to contend with civil warfare was about 150 years ago, while you are probably aware that until fairly recently (Joseph Kony’s LRA), Uganda has had to contend with numerous episodes of civil unrest following the end of the formal imperialism by representatives of Britain. The abstract creation of Uganda about 100 years ago from a group of over 50 diverse ethnic groups, whilst using manipulative mechanisms of divide and rule to establish the state has left it with inherent structural weaknesses. Uganda still contends with diverse forms of neo-colonialism and for the most part, relatively poor internal governance. The legacy of Uganda’s various wars has been difficult to overcome. I have seen tremendous progress during the time I have lived with respect to the rule of law. Unfortunately, there are also several indicators, that that progress is fragile.

    1. Cynthia Kinyera

      What a perfect reply, I came here to say just that. The article was a misrepresentation and mixed up facts. LDC is not a Law school, it offers a postgraduate diploma that is necessary to practice as an attorney. There are still many jobs in the industry that one can pursue without going to LDC. Just as in the US, one doesn’t need to take the Bar to become, say, a paralegal. Taking the 4-year LLB degree is what we as Ugandans consider being in Law School.

    2. Cynthia Kinyera

      Additionally, I would like to clarify that the Ugandan high school education, formally called secondary school, is six years in total. It includes both the Ordinary level of 4 years and the Advanced level of 2 years (often called O and A level).
      Many urban parents take their children to pre-primary school, which Mr. Buri has referred to as kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. However, pre-primary schools do not have any specific government-mandated syllabi and are usually independently self-regulated. As such, attending pre-primary school in Uganda is a choice for those who can afford it, not a requirement.
      Primary school is seven years long. On average, a student who starts primary school at around age 5 and doesn’t repeat any classes will finish secondary school at age 18.

    3. Adam

      Wow Alex u laid everything down to notes!

  3. Moses Matovu

    Thanks Alex. I could think of no better response.

  4. Patrick Turinawe

    Thank you, Alex, for the comprehensive response. The
    danger of only looking at the negatives in a system (at Africa as a whole) is that it breeds bias and untruthfulness as depicted in the article. The image and ideas portrayed are wrong; yet, it will be believed. It takes anybody responsible to show the other side of the story. Thanks, Alex.

  5. Peter Kelso

    Hello Alex, My wife has sponsored a law student at a Ugandan university right the way through. The student passed the law degree but my wife was told the student failed the LDC exam and can’t now become a practising lawyer. My wife was told only 16% of law graduates pass the LDC exam as there are many graduates but very few places at the LDC. We live in Australia. I am a practising lawyer here. Does what we are told sound right to you? It seems such a shame that so many graduates are prevented from admission to practice due to the system, if what we have been told is correct.

    1. Tatra Musheshe

      I know my comment may come in a bit late, however, he/she could retake the exam. LDC does not fail the students purposefully, it is a way to ensure that people who finally pass are vetted into the system so that they can apply the law and assist their clients better. That is not to say that passing or failing the bar determines how smart you are, however, the system just wants to make sure. Also, like elsewhere in the world, failing the bar does not necessary reflect on who you are as a lawyer. What I advise is that she retakes the bar. LDC provides for avenues on how to redo the bar. Let her find out why she did not pass last time and try to avoid those mistakes and she will be fine.

  6. George Tebagana

    Peter Kelso, your concern is genuine. However, have you ever considered why the particular student you referred to failed the Bar Exam? If you critically analyse Alex’s response above, you will realize that he has ably tried to explain the education system and why some students will excel where others fail. And failing at the Bar exam should not be the end of one’s legal career. One can always practice law through other avenues.

  7. sikolia steve

    Thanks, Alex, for the well-detailed breakdown. It is actually almost similar to the Kenyan system.

  8. Patrick Osude

    Thanks, Alex, you bring the difference in where we see a negative view represented about us. Your analytical break-down of our education satisfies me to work hard in my law course.


  9. Godfrey Mugabi

    Thanks, Alex. I have had the most fortunate opportunity of having enrolled for a law degree at the main and oldest University in Uganda–Makerere University Kampala. I completed about one year ago, and I can testify that it’s one of the rigorous, intense, knowledge-inserting 4 years I have experienced. I can assure all that most academic pursuits at that high level are mainly premised on personal efforts, interest in what one is engaged in, extensive research on the different topics and should one not go an extra mile, they will never appreciate all the subject units to the level they are expected.

    It also does not matter how many get admitted to the bar course; a law graduate can be so useful in many ways other than focusing on actual practice especially out of school. It gives one scale as they keep trying with the bar course, which has no limits as to how many times one can sit for it.

    Alex’s assertions are correct as different situations affect one’s grasp of whatever they are taught through school. And a lawyer who is worth talking about would never go for winning bar arguments about what the law is about, etc. A good lawyer I have found out is the one who knows where to find the law when they urgently needs to apply it and not that type who will sit in an LDC session with different lawyers and ask them about Jurisprudence, Law, Economics, etc. It just does not work that way. The best preacher rehearses what they will preach about the following day, and similarly the best lawyer researches and updates themselves to the challenges at hand. Any lawyer will tell you that there are simply many different areas of law and that one can never assume to be a master in a bar discussion or any argument. Civil law, criminal law, and commercial law each require different thinking and game plans.

    Having had the luxury of doing a science degree – B-Stat & MBA before enrolling for the law course, I can attest that it was one of the best decisions I made, and I will always defend it. The uniqueness of the law degree and its intensity makes it worth each and everyone’s efforts. One MUST prepare for the 4 years physically and psychologically, but its worth the sleepless nights.

  10. chebet ali

    The problem is with the institution. They try to limit the number they admit and yet we have few lawyers in Uganda, this is increasing unemployment. Remember most lawyers can do self-employment after a bar course. So we call upon the donors to focus much on ADR or paralegal institutions to absorb the lawyers.

  11. Keisha Praise

    Alex great job giving the other side of the story and its exceptions… You make wanting to be a lawyer so easy especially for some of us who have recently started pursuing our four years in different schools of law…. So I pose a question… What is the point of giving up when you are about to reach the finish line??? I think by the time one sets there mind to pursue law they should be willing to do anything to understand the law everyone should give it the best shot in the bar exam until they are finally accepted..If others can , why not you

  12. Wassajja Racheal

    Thanks Alex for your views.

  13. Patson W. Arinaitwe

    It’s a pleasure reading the main article and the comments as I prepare for my lecture: Legal Methods, under the sub-topic of Legal Education in Uganda. I do teach at LDC (post-graduate Diploma in Legal Practice) as well as at the undergraduate level (Bachelor of Laws).

    As a legal practitioner as well as a teacher of law for the last 11 years, I have seen tremendous progress. The methods of teaching have evolved over time and the global trends such as specialization in different practice areas have certainly impacted how law is taught. But the fundamentals have remained the same. Critical thinking, legal reasoning, legal research, as well as advocacy remain core areas.
    Thank you David and my friend and former work colleague Alex for generating this debate.

  14. Asmahan Iman

    Woooow. I am a law student in my second year and am so impressed with your analysis and reply. Thank you. It’s encouraging. May God bless you.

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