Postcard from Prague – Part One: Comparing the U.S. and Czech Experiences in Legal Education

Prague Legal education in the Czech Republic is similar to that in the United States in some regards, but it departs from the U.S. model in a number of ways.

First of all, the choices of where to study law are clearly more limited in the Czech Republic.  There are only four universities in the Czech Republic that are authorized to award law degrees:  Charles University (Prague); Masaryk University (Brno); the University of Western Bohemia (Pilsen); and Palacky University (Olomouc).

The most noticeable difference is that Czech students study law as undergraduates, as is the case in most countries of the world.  (The United States and Canada are outliers in that regard.)  Would-be lawyers typically enter the university as law students and remain law students the entire time they are enrolled.

At Charles University, where I am visiting, students are selected into the law department on the basis of criteria that include an SAT-like component, as well as other, more distinctively Czech forms of evaluation.  Charles University (founded in 1348) is the most selective of the four Czech state law schools, and it accepts only about 10% of applications it receives.  Law is a popular major in the Czech Republic, and, in spite of its selectivity, Charles University enrolls approximately 600 new law students each year.  Although he had little direct impact on the Czech legal system, the most famous alumnus of the Charles Law School is Franz Kafka ’06.

The Czech law course, which is essentially the same at all four of the country’s law schools, consists of five years of classes.  The first year is designed to introduce new students (who typically are 17, 18, or 19 years old) to the study of law and legal methods.  The remaining four years are devoted to a general survey of Czech law, public, private, and constitutional.

As in the United States, legal education is a mixture of practical and theoretical elements.  Unlike the United States, the Czech Republic is a civil law country, so a substantial amount of time is devoted to mastering the Czech Civil Code.  Clinical education is not emphasized as much at Charles University as it is in many American law schools, although the law school at Palacky University places a much greater emphasis on that aspect of legal education.

In addition, between a quarter and a third of Charles University law students spend at least one semester studying at a foreign university.  While this is becoming more common in the United States — witness Marquette’s programs with law schools in Denmark, France, and Spain — only a tiny percentage of American law students take advantage of such an opportunity during their three years of law school.

At the completion of the five-year law course, students must pass a final law school examination.  Those who complete the course and pass the examination are awarded the degree of Magister (Masters) in Law.

Roughly half of the students who enter the Charles University law program complete the degree in five years.  Those who have not compiled the requisite number of credits at the end of five years are permitted to remain in the program for an additional year or more, and those who have completed the course but have failed the final examination are permitted to retake it up to two more times.  Eventually, about two-thirds of the university’s entering law students complete the law degree.

Some Czech law students decide to work simultaneously on an additional degree, often in a closely related field like business or political science.  While this appears to extend the time at a university in some cases, there are students who complete the dual degrees in the usual five year period.  In addition to law, Kafka studied literature and art history, when he studied there in the early years of the 20th century. (Over the past two decades a number of Marquette students have completed either an additional M.B.A degree or an M.A. in Political Science.  While this has usually extended the period of time the student is in law school to four years, a few students have completed both degrees in three years.)

Once they have completed their law degrees, Czech students who choose to pursue a career as a lawyer must undertake a three-year apprenticeship, either with a practicing lawyer, a prosecutor, or a judge.  Those who choose the first path prepare themselves to be advocates (usually called lawyers in English); in the second track, they prepare to become public prosecutors, and in the third, judges.

The apprenticeships are paid positions, but the level of compensation is left up to the employers and not every student is guaranteed an apprenticeship.  Consequently, compensation remains low, although students with proficiencies in foreign languages are often fairly well-paid by the larger Prague and Brno firms that have extensive international practices.

At the end of the third year of the apprenticeship, the student takes either the advocate’s, the prosecutor’s, or the judge’s exam.   While the assumption is that a student will enter into the branch of the legal profession for which he has trained, the separate examinations are viewed as equivalent, so it is possible that a lawyer admitted under one professional examination could later join another branch of the profession without having to take additional examinations.  As the number of judicial positions in the country is not large, many recent graduates from the judicial track find themselves without a position and end up practicing law for at least part of their career.

There is also a fourth branch of the Czech legal profession, public notaries, who have a highly specialized, quasi-public function in the Czech Republic, relating to the authentication and drafting of certain documents and the succession (inheritance) process.  The number of notaries in the country is small and is restricted by statute. At the same time, the positions are viewed as highly lucrative.  Most, if not all, notaries have legal educations.

Obviously, this aspect of legal training is quite different in the United States.  Not only are apprenticeship requirements quite rare (though they may become more common), but American law schools are also committed to a view of legal education where they train their students for what has traditionally been called a “unitary” profession.  In the American bar there is only one category of lawyer, and a lawyer is presumed to be capable of performing a variety of professional functions in both the private and public sectors.

Not every law school graduate in the Czech Republic becomes a licensed lawyer.  Law school graduates often end up as government administrators or in law-related (but non-lawyer) positions like those of accountants and tax advisers.  In that sense, Czech employment patterns resemble those in the United States, where a surprisingly high percentage of law school graduates never practice law per se, or else they abandon the practice of law at some point in their career.

Although Charles University and the other Czech law schools award graduate LLM degrees, those programs are primarily designed for non-Czech citizens who already have a first law degree and then subsequently enroll in a Czech law school for additional training.

For Czech law students seeking more training, the next degree is a Ph.D. in law, which, unlike the case in the United States, is widely viewed as a “practical” degree.  While some of the 60 students currently enrolled in the Charles University Ph.D. in Law program are primarily interested in law as an academic subject, a larger number are using the program to establish a specialization that will enhance their marketability in the contemporary world of law practice. Given the forces of globalization and the ever-increasing economic integration of the European Union (of which the Czech Republic is a member),  Ph.D. degrees in International Law, International Business Transactions, and International Intellectual Property are particularly attractive.  (A “lesser” doctoral degree, the iuris utrisque doctor, abbreviated JUDr., is still occasionally awarded, but is considered to be of much less value than the Ph.D.)

A comparable expansion of graduate legal education has not occurred in the United States.  While American LLM programs have proliferated, in many cases they are primarily targeted at foreign students.  Where they do exist for American law graduates, they are usually only certificate programs that signal a minimal competence in, rather than a mastery of, a legal subject. Only Yale University awards a Ph.D. in Law, although a small number of universities still award the S.J.D. award, which is a somewhat old-fashioned legal counterpart to the Ph.D.  In the United States, most lawyers who pursue such degrees (as well as Ph.D.’s in fields like History, Sociology, Political Science, Economics, and American Studies) do so primarily because they are interested in careers in teaching and scholarship, and not for the purpose of developing a new practice specialty.

One area in which Czech and American law students differ greatly is in regard to student debt.  In the Czech Republic, public law schools do not charge their students tuition (and there are no private law schools entitled to award law degrees).  The only times that a law student is charged tuition is when he or she enrolls in a course taught in English (rather than Czech, which normally means that the course is taught be a visiting professor from another country), or when the student enrolls for a sixth or seventh years in law school.

Consequently, while Czech law students have very little income during the eight years (5 years of school + 3 years of apprenticeship) they spend preparing for a career in law, they do not begin their professional careers significantly in debt, as is the case in the United States.  However, Czech universities have experienced budget cuts in recent years, and some tuition charges may be on the horizon.  A previously announced plan to impose a $500 per semester tuition fee that would only come due once the student was done with college and employed was withdrawn last year.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ryan Scoville

    Interesting post. Question for you: to complete the 5-year curriculum, is it required either by the government or the law schools that a student complete one or more courses in public international law (other than EU law)?

  2. J Gordon Hylton

    Czech law students are required to take at least one course in public international law as part of their degree requirements. Right now, the course is taken in either the 4th or 5th year.

    However, the Czech law curriculum is somewhat in flux at the moment as the Czech Republic attempts to comply with the Bologna Process, which is designed to harmonize higher education throughout the European Union. It is possible, even likely, that the curriculum will be restructure over the next few years.

    While public international law is addressed in the basic curriculum, it appears to be frequently the focus of Ph.D. studies in law, as it is at our German partner, the University of Giessen.

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