Lessons Learned from Studying Public International Law at Ghent University

October 17, 2012 | By Jacob R. Masters, Class of 2014

While opportunities to study international law abound, law students have very few chances to work alongside experts in any specific area of international law.  I was fortunate enough, from May through the end of June 2012, to work as a research intern at Universiteit Gent (Ghent University in Ghent, Belgium) due to the recommendation I received from my legal writing professor, Professor Christina Bennett. I conducted research with specialists in International Environmental law and the Law of the Sea. My projects included writing about U.S. climate change litigation, researching the prosecution of Somali pirates under Article 105 of theUNConvention on the Law of the Sea, and proofreading several academic papers.

I’d like to share a few things I learned from these experiences:

First, the opportunities to study and work in international law are out there. The language barrier really forms no barrier at all – knowledge of English remains an advantage, or at least nothandicap. Openness to different cultures and sometimes very different opinions (rather than mastery of Dutch, French, etc.) is the key asset of anyone working abroad or with foreign lawyers.

Second, American law students should be more aware of the distinctions between civil law and common law jurisdictions. I can’t claim to be aware of all the difference, but the following example is apt: during my time in Belgium (and since then) I have had the chance to research American climate change litigation. The claims I researched rely on judge-made remedies and conceptions of public nuisancecoloredby their long common law development - they simply could not exist in a jurisdiction such as Belgium, where the concepts of judge-made law is foreign and public nuisance is defined differently. The common law tradition is something to be valued  - but in the context of international law, students should realize that even when the language barrier is surmounted, differences in basic legal concepts may still present a frustrating cultural barrier.

Finally, legal research and writing are universal skills. Substantive and procedural rules can differ between jurisdictions, but the basic ability to research and write a memo can be easily applied in the international context. If I could go back to the months before I left for Ghent, I would worry more about being up to the challenge of conducting research in a Belgian law library than about my level of knowledge.

Going abroad itself, while challenging and rewarding, is probably something most people will do at some point. However, the opportunity to work abroad with foreign professionals is unique, and it can make for a fascinating foray into several unfamiliar areas of law.

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