Almost 27 years old, started my four year long legal bachelor (LLB) when I was 18, followed by two years of masters (LLM) and soon entering my third and final year of doctorate (PhD). Studied and worked at 7 different universities and institutions in 7 different countries. Interned at law firms, EU institutions and acted as student assistant…This is a short description of my current CV, a CV which many young European academics and professionals at my age possess. Increased European and International mobility does not always mean that the legal profession can keep up with the new changes, even if the new changes are dictated by European and International legal instruments.
In most European countries the ‘traditional legal’ carrier looks as follows. You finish high-school, do a four to five year degree, graduate and after a couple of years of traineeship you become a lawyer, judge or prosecutor. Every country has its own ways of defining this path, ranging from strict systems such as the ones in Germany and Poland, to loser systems such as the ones in Spain or Sweden. Romania is somewhere in the middle, closer to the German model. After four years of law-school comes your first entrance exam to the Bar (not the one where you drink), if you want to become an attorney or the magistrates school, if you want to become a judge or prosecutor. This is followed by another two years of education and practical experience which will culminate in another exam. I am not going to tell you what the failing rate for the first set of exams is but it is in the 80% range. Compared to how the system was 20 years ago, when some people became judges after coming out of law school, the system has the same tendencies as many other professional areas. With every new generation a new set of criteria are introduced to keep you out of the job market. People ask you, so you finished law school, are you a lawyer? Hell no, a bachelor’s degree does not get you far nowadays. Maybe it did several decades ago but things have changed.
Even with the new advancements and Europeanization/Internationalization of the ‘law’, the legal profession is still a tough cookie to crack. This profession is different than engineering, rocket science, medicine, biology or you name it. If you studied rocket science in country X, the same rules of physics and engineering will also apply in country Y. Law is different. Each country has its own legal system, with its own rules and of course language. While the legal profession is partially getting liberalized in Europe, you will not be able to profess in Germany as a foreign lawyer if you do not prove knowledge of the German legal system, the language, etc.; and technically this means getting another degree in that country.
And now we come to another specimen or category of legal professionals. Those who decide to focus on various parts of International or European law. This is a field where the competition all of a sudden gets fierce. Suddenly you realize that you are in a race of gathering more and more international experiences, at more and more foreign universities, coupled with low or mostly unpaid internships and a rising number of languages etc. A race a lot of young people are fully participating in with the hope of arriving to a finish line that offers a better life. But the job opportunities afterwards will remain scarce: academia, EU institutions, international institutions or NGOs and occasionally a return to the home country. Add to this the fact that I come from one of the poorest countries in the EU, add the growing number of young professionals leaving the Southern EU countries and all of a sudden the options for better paid spots become even narrower. Just to give you an example, in 2012 there were almost 50.000 applicants for not even 300 new openings at the EU Commission. It means that almost 200 people apply for one spot. Alright then, you might say. Go and choose academia.
And then you find out that the situation is not much different. First of all, just because you have four years of bachelors and two years of masters will not get you far in European legal academia. In order to advance on the academic ladder, the first step is to do a 3-4 year PhD. Very few countries offer legal PhDs that provide a salary or a grant which can at least provide you with some decent living conditions. PhDs are also designed more and more to just focus on research in the detriment of teaching. It means the system is preparing you to become a post-doc and not an assistant professor or lector. Even if, I for example would like to teach in the long run, the system is still making me write a book that probably 10 people will read. Besides the fact that you focus on a narrow area of law, which might not even have too much practical significance, your writing and research skills will become better (wait, what were six years of law school for??) but you will also lose track of areas of law you were good at during your LLM. Oh, and try remembering your national law studied at the bachelors level. Maybe force equals mass times acceleration, but unlike the laws of physics, law is not static. Law will evolve and it will not wait for you.
Doing a PhD means that you take several risks. First, you take the risk of the legal profession not taking you back because you were ‘out’ doing something else for 3-4 years. Second, nothing is guaranteed after the completion of your PhD. More and more PhDs are becoming unemployed. The promises of an assistant professorship are far and scarce. Plus, a new step is slowly introduced, that of the post-doc. Another temporary position focusing on mostly research (Let us be honest, I do no truly think legal research is at par with for e.g. cancer research). This can hopefully be followed by an assistant professorship, then an associate professorship and maybe by the time you hit 40 you get tenured, with a permanent position. All through these years you do not have a permanent employment contract, but a patchwork of temporary contracts, which means that your chances of obtaining a mortgage, proper pension, etc are dwindling.
As much as people criticize the US, the road to becoming a law professor in the US looks a lot simpler. The first step involves four years of bachelors in any type of area (physics, politics, literature, you name it). You heard me, any area! This is followed by an expensive 3 year JD (juris doctor), which is the first and technically, last legal education you get in the US, which is mandatory. After completing these three years of formal legal education, JD recipients will pass the necessary tests and exams to work for the government, law firms. And the good thing is that you can pass any States’s bar exam, regardless of the State in which you did your legal education. In the meantime you write and publish some articles in your field of work and can then apply for assistant professorships, which is followed by a tenured position. Oh, and a tenured position in the US is better paid than in Europe. Us Europeans laugh at the amount of legal education Americans need to have to become law professors. Let’s be frank. I already have 8 years behind me, more than any law professor I met in the US. But at the end of the day they have a better paid legal profession, better paid academics and the best law-schools in the world. No post-docs and forget about legal PhDs (to my knowledge only Yale offers legal PhDs and only since 2011). What count are your professional experience and the articles you write during those years.
The European system is getting more and more rigid and highly competitive. Academia is even worse, than the professional field. You end up being thirty plus, with no permanent contract yet, your best years invested in a vast amount of studying. Let’s be honest, studying for a law exam is not exactly studying tourism studies (no offence). And what bothers me is that we have more and more law professors in Europe, who unlike their US counterparts, have no practical experience. My honest opinion is that law is a living thing, which cannot be mastered, just by reading articles, books and commenting on them. You have to take part of the action to truly understand it.