The Legal Education System in Germany
The German system of legal education is quite different from most other areas. I will give a short overview of the main differences compared to especially the North American way – from getting into law school to being admitted to the bar.
1. Getting into Law School
Getting into Law School in Germany is comparably easy. For some universities your high school grades need to be at a certain level, but in general any high school diploma (Abitur) will do. There is no LSAT, though some private universities do interview applicants beforehand.
You have the option of studying in the State Examination track or the regular Bachelor’s track. If you want to become a lawyer, legal counsel, public prosecutor or judge, you will need to chose the State Examination track.
2. The Grading System
The first main difference you will notice, both from other areas of study within Germany and internationally, is the difference in grading. Our grade scale goes from 0 to 18, where everything below 4 means failed. 9 points are considered well above average and two digit grades are very rare. There is a saying that no one reaches 18 points, God reaches 17 points, the professor who designed the exam reaches 16 points and 15 is achieved by the best student - not the best student in the class that semester, but the best student. In fact I have experiences many courses where the highest grade was 10 or 11 points by one or two students.
In regards to grades in State Examination, 9 points is considered a Prädikatsexamen and is typically preferred by international law firms high-class boutique firms.
3. Graduating from Law School
To graduate from a German Law School you will first need to pass three courses at intermediate level (Zwischenprüfung). Those courses are Civil Law, Criminal Law and Public Law. To pass a course you need to pass one corresponding written exam taking place during the semester and one assignment of about 20 pages to be done in the semester break either before or after the corresponding written exam. There is no multiple choice and usually you get confronted with one, sometimes two, facts packed with all kinds of legal problems which you need to solve on paper in one structured text; it is not permitted to address legal problems on their own. Generally students chose to do two courses per semester – of course classes where the topics themselves are covered come on top, it just isn’t required to pass an exam in these. After passing the intermediate level, you need to do the same on advanced level. In case you fail on intermediate level, you will be expellled from studying Law (in the State Examination track) in Germany. Since there are no exams to check on your knowledge beforehand, this gets critisised a lot but still does not get changed.
After passing those six courses and a few general courses you will be admitted to take part in the State Examination. Up to here you will have written at least 120 pages in assignments covering 12 complex legal topics and 60 pages in exams covering 6, not counting general classes. Since sometimes the results of a written exam are not published before the next written exam in the same field, students might chose to write a second exam just in case and end up with many more written pages in total.
State Examination consists of a few written exams (the exact number different by federal state), that can be of any topic within the corresponding legal field. For me it was six exams: three exams in Civil Law, two exams in Public Law and one exam in Criminal Law. Each exam lasts five hours over a course of one-and-a-half weeks and only the text of the law is permitted. You will get a complex ficitional case stuffed with lots of legal problems that you need to solve on paper in a clearly structured (and correct) way, as if you would advise a client or prepare a court decision. After passing the written exam, you will take an oral exam which tests knowledge of any topic related to the three fields of law. After passing all exams in the State Examination and one final assignment in a field of your choice, you will be awarded with the title Jurist.
Internationally the degree counts as a Bachelor’s Degree. The proposed semester count is about 10 semesters, though many people need 12 semesters since not all courses are offered every semester. There is barely any chance for specialisation, since the State Exams may cover any topic. A small chance for specialisation is the final assignment, where you can choose among the offered classes but will likely need to write on a given topic. My final assignment was in the field of Media Law and covered legality and usefulness of so-called Information Letters to the Press, which are often used to warn media companies to not cover a certain topic involving a famous person.
After graduating university with the State Examination you can work in the legal department at a company or some other field where legal knowledge is helpful. Internationally it is preferred to employ people who are admitted to the bar, so often the only chance is to work in a legal department within Germany. However, to be a lawyer, public prosecutor or judge, you will need to do something remotely comparably to articling and clerkship - the Referendariat
4. The Referendariat
While in some areas it is difficult to receive a place in the Referendariat program, other areas of Germany are easy to get into, especially with medium to good grades. You will – on paper – be employed by a (typically higher) regional court. However, you will only spend the first few months, how long exactly depends on federal state again, at a court in that district. After your placement at the court (Gerichtsstation), you will have placements at the public prosecutors office in the same district (Staatsanwaltschaftsstation), have a placement within public administration of your choice (Verwaltungsstation), have a placement at a lawyer of your choice (Anwaltsstation) and finally conclude with a placement at some of those places of your choice* again (Wahlstation). If need be you can switch the order of placements – except the first and last one.
The amount of months for each placement varies by federal state, the placement at the lawyers office is always the longest though and in total the Referendariat lasts two years. During these two years you basically already work as a Legal Professional, the only difference being that you get supervised and may not sign documents.
* Another option is to study at the German University of Administrative Science in the city of Speyer. This you will do instead of a placement at public administration, usually with the consequence of having to choose a placement at a public agency in the last rotation (Wahlstation).
Content-wise you will do the work the person you are assigned to usually does, but to a in quantitative reduced extent. At the court you will prepare and write court rulings, that might or might not get used by the judge you are assigned to. You will also take part in every court hearing your judge is holding and, if the situation allows, you will hold one or two yourself. At the public prosecutors office you will prepare and write the charges and will attend criminal procedures on your own. In the public agency you will do any work the people on the level you are aiming for usually do. This can even be far from any legal background and varies greatly depending on what agency you choose. The scope of tasks also vary greatly at the lawyer placement, but you will always work “as a lawyer”. Oftentimes you will get assigned your own cases and manage those. The lawyer will review everything but the aim is to work as independently as possible. If the situation allows you may even go to court on the behalf of the lawyer, usually on a minor case.
Since tasks vary so greatly from placement to placement, Germans struggle to use an English translation. Some prefer Clerk, some prefer Articling Student - and while both is more or less correct, it only refers to one or two of the placements. Therefore I, as many others, prefer the phrase Legal Trainee.
The Referendariat ends with the Second State Examination. There is no preliminary course to pass, as long as you attend all of your placements. Written exams will take place during the last month of the placement at the lawyer or the first month of the next placement, depending on federal state. The second state examination consists of more written exams than the first one and they each will also cover Procedural Law on top. In my case, I had to write eight exams over the course of two weeks: two in Civil Law from a court perspective, two in Civil Law from a lawyer’s perspective, two in Criminal Law from a public prosecutor’s perspective, one in Public Law from an administration’s perspective and one in Public Law from a lawyer’s perspective. Each exam lasts five hours and it is permitted to take law texts and certain commentaries on certain laws with you. Again, it is not possible to specialise. All participants of the State Examination within one federal state will write the same exams. After passing those exams, you will take an oral exam after you finished your last rotation. The oral exam will include a presentation you will hold on a case that was given to you with an hour of preparation time (a bt of specialisation is allowed by chosing the general field of law), and also tests on your knowledge on all three major fields of law. If you pass the written and oral exam, you will be awarded second state examination and may call yourself Volljurist or Assessor. If you want to become a lawyer, you can now apply at your local bar and – given you don’t have a severe criminal record, severe debt or related things – will be admitted to the bar.
There is no separate Bar Exam, the Second State Examination is our Bar Exam (and also the exam for becoming a judge, a public prosecutor, a non-lawyer legal counsel or an employee at the state).
Within Germany, the Second State Examination is usually considered to be equivalent to a Master’s Degree, internationally we are often stuck with our First State Examination as Bachelor’s Degree though since the Referendariat is not offered by an university.
5. Becoming a Lawyer
After the Second State Examination, admittance to the bar is basically only a formality – an important one though that not all employers provide. Many companies will have legal counsels who are not admitted lawyers, since the company (or the employee) could not or does not want to provide certain formalities, among those the option for a lawyer’s office. Those who are admitted to the bar are called Syndikusanwalt, and those who are not are referred to by several different words, all of those may not include the word Anwalt (lawyer). Therefore, the phrase Legal Counsel is nowadays used in Germany as well, as this can mean both a lawyer and a non-lawyer with the same education.