Guide to Law Studies in Germany

“Law is easy” is what student magazine “ZEIT Campus” entitles its interview with Thomas Fischer, the presiding judge of the Federal Court of Justice. The article quotes the judge as saying: “Law studies aren’t really difficult. It appears to me that it’s easier than physics, linguistics or electrical engineering”[1]. Whether or not studying law is actually easier than the named courses, remains to be seen. However, what it is not, and this should oppose a common misconception which has stuck to law studies for decades is a “dry” subject, where the focus of attention is on memorization. On the contrary, law studies combine current social, political, ethical and philosophical questions of law, discussions of complex issues in all conceivable areas, and age old problems. Those who only memorise, perhaps do not really understand their subject, and those who are deterred by this myth miss out on an interesting education and a large and varied number of working possibilities. However, those curious about studying law in Germany shall get a brief overview of its structure as well as a listing of its advantages and disadvantages.

The choice of university

After having successfully finished the “Abitur” (An examination taken at the end of school, similar to UK A-Levels), prospective students apply to a university with a Law Faculty. But in doing so they are spoilt for choice: over 40 German universities offer the course of law studies, “Rechtswissenschaften”, with the state examination as the final certificate. A university ranking[2] might then help: the University of Munich (LMU) and the University of Münster (WWU) generally compete for the first two places, followed by for examples the universities in Bonn, Cologne, Berlin, Freiburg and Heidelberg. Alternatively, the private university Bucerius Law School in Hamburg offers its own initial and further juridical training for selected candidates. But in the end, the quality indicated in the university ranking is just one factor besides the suitability of the city itself, the housing market or other elements which can influence the final choice. In the end, a good graduation grade is more important than having studied at a prestigious university, and the former can be reached with a little effort at any university.

The application to the university

The application to universities for the course of law studies is usually easier than for other courses because admission is (generally) only based on the Abitur grade. Recently, more and more universities are also taking part in the dialogue oriented service procedure, an online portal on, through which graduates can apply to individual universities. Depending on the Abitur grade, there should be something for everybody, from the University of Cologne (NC of 1.1 for the winter semester 2015/2016[3]) to the University of Würzburg (NC-free).

The studies

Part 1: The path to the first state examination

Studying begins after the confirmation of admission, enrollment and the introduction week (for many, the highlight of the first semester). Although they generally follow the same guidelines, studies are organized a little differently from university to university. Using my experience at the Humboldt University of Berlin as an example, I will describe a typical structure in the following sections.

Basic course (1st and 2nd semester)

The basic course is designed to introduce students to the various legal fields and to provide a basic understanding of the subject. In the basic studies at Humboldt University, the general and special part of the German Civil Code (BGB) are taught in civil law. In criminal law, the general part of the German Penal Code (StGB) and part of non-property crimes are taught, and in public law, state organisation right and fundamental rights are covered. The basic course is completed at the end of the second semester with the intermediate examination. This is the prerequisite for admission to the main focus (see below). However, at many universities the intermediate examination takes place only at the end of the fourth semester.

Main course (3rd and 4th semester)

The main course deepens the skills that have already been gained and turns to more specific subjects. In the main course, students at Humboldt University begin to study civil law, family and inheritance law, commercial and corporate law, labor law, and property law. In public law, international and European law and administrative law is taught (general administrative law, administrative procedural law, construction, municipal and police law), and in criminal law, property violation. Furthermore, students gain knowledge of civil and criminal procedural law.

However, at many other universities, students must attend only a certain number of lectures in the respective areas and then can choose lectures themselves. However, for the state examination they must learn all the listed subject areas, so that at the end, the syllabus they have covered is the same.

In both the basic and in the main course, there are – depending on the number and scope of subjects – several lectures per week, with each lecture lasting an hour and a half. In the lectures, the theoretical basis for the juridical understanding are taught. The lecture content is deepened through working in groups and applied in practice usually by solving one case with respect to the lecture content.

In addition to the modules mentioned above, various basic subjects must be completed (at Humboldt University you can, for example, choose between the history of law, the sociology of law, the philosophy of law, Jewish law or methodology), as well as courses for professional additional qualifications and a juridical language course.

At the end of each semester a final exam is taken in each module, possibly combining different modules. Furthermore, during these four semesters (more specifically, during the semester break) three seminar papers – one in civil, criminal and public law – must be taken. The exams and seminar papers usually consist of a case, and theoretical questions are rarely part of the assignment. To solve such cases in the exams, students are taught a particular technique known as the expert’s report style. It consists of four steps, beginning by raising a legal issue (major premise), then the definition of the incrimination and characteristics of law (definition), its relation to the present case (subsumption) and ending by drawing a final conclusion from the result (conclusion).

Main focus (5th and 6th semester)

The so-called main focus is the university’s part of the first state examination and in Berlin makes up 30% of the later final grade. It is usually completed in the 5th and 6th semester, but it can also be completed after the written part of the first state examination.

In the main focus year you specialize – as the name suggests on a particular area of law. However this does not limit the student to later working only in this area. Humboldt University offers, for example, intellectual property law, tax law, international criminal law or European law. However, there is also the possibility to apply for the main focus at a foreign university through the ERASMUS program.

The main focus at Humboldt University consists of a written and an oral examination and a seminar paper which must be written during the semester break, whereas the focus abroad depends partly on the requirements of the host university.

For admission to the state examination, students must also complete internships within the semester break. At the Humboldt University, the internship is a total of 13 weeks – also abroad – with a fully qualified lawyer.

Preparation for the state examination (7th and 8th semester)

Two semesters in the normal period of studies are provided for the preparation for the first state examination. However, the state examination can of course be completed before. The student can decide how he or she will prepare for the exam. However, most opt for either the university or the commercial “Repetitorium” (revision course) in which all areas of law are repeated and practically applied to cases. Generally, the Repetitorium is still combined with an exam course and a study group.

First state examination (9th semester)

A successful first state exam is the key to getting into most juridical professions. In Berlin, the university part (the main focus described above) is worth 30% and the state part is 70%. For admission to the state part of the first state examination, proof of the successful intermediate examination, the completed minimum number of semesters, their corresponding exams and seminar papers, basic subjects and additional qualifications and internships must be delivered.

In Berlin, the state part consists of seven five-hour exams that are written within two weeks (three exams in civil law, two in criminal and two in public law) and an oral examination in which a lecture and an examination talk are held.

If the state part is not passed, the whole exam can be re-taken only once, otherwise the first state examination is finally failed. However, if the state part is completed within the normal study period (that is, in the 9th semester), the student has another free trial, a so-called “free shot”.

Digression: “Four wins”

The grading system is often feared among law students. It ranges from zero to eighteen points, the exam being passed with four points (from there the saying often heard in law “four wins”). Although the average of all results of an exam is usually no more than six points and many students initially fall from very good Abitur grades to average grades, one should not be deterred by those numbers. The eight semesters of law serve to shape and deepen legal knowledge, and through each exam you learn a bit more. What counts in the end is the state examination.

Part 2: The way to the second state examination

Technically, the path to the second exam does not include “studying” in the traditional sense mentioned above. The exam is not completed at a university. Nevertheless, for a better understanding of the juridical education it will be described briefly here.

The traineeship (2 years)

The so-called “Referendariat” (traineeship) represents the second cycle of legal education and prepares future fully qualified lawyers for their later work. In addition to the substantive law, which the graduate has acquired during his or her university years, he or she comes across procedural law too and learn all of this in practice. The traineeship is namely completed at various wards: in Berlin there are the civil law ward (ordinary court), the criminal law ward (prosecutor), the administration ward, the lawyer’s ward and a ward of choice. However, the waiting time for each ward can, depending on the federal state and note, be over 12 months from the first state examination. The good news is that once adopted, the trainee receives a living allowance (by contrast to previous unpaid internships), that is approximately 900-1200 € per month depending on the federal state.

Second state examination

After completion of the first four wards, the written part of the second state examination is taken in Berlin, consisting of seven exams. After completion of the ward of choice, the oral examination takes place, consisting of a lecture (“Aktenvortrag”) and an examination talk. Those who pass both the first and the second state examination may proudly call themselves a “fully qualified lawyer”.

Additional qualifications

In addition to the state examination, those who want to (and have been authorized in accordance with the correct application documents) can continue to do a doctorate, a habilitation or a Masters at a university in Germany or abroad.

At some universities, there are programs that offer the possibility of obtaining two or more degrees at a German and at least one foreign university. For example, at the Humboldt University of Berlin, students can obtain the “double degree” at the Humboldt University and the King’s College London, or at the European Law School with final state examination at the Humboldt University and a masters each at King’s College London and at the Panthéon-Assas in Paris or the Sapienza Universitá di Roma.

Job opportunities

The labor market offers lawyers a variety of possibilities. If a student successfully passes both state examinations, he or she can become a lawyer in a law firm or the legal department of a company. If the student also wants to acquire the specialist lawyer title, he or she must be able to show at least three years of registration and operation within the desired field before his or her application. A fully qualified lawyer can continue to work in administration or hold office of a judge, notary or university professor (with previous Habilitation). Furthermore, he or she can work in national and international organizations, at legal specialist publishers or consulting companies, to name just a few.

If a graduate only reaches the first state examination, the “classic” professions such as lawyer, judge or notary cannot be undertaken. However, the graduate can work as a lawyer in the diplomatic service or as a legal advisor. Some companies also employ graduates without the second state examination for their legal department.

… and finally:

Was Thomas Fischer right? The fact is that the law studies in Germany unfortunately often encourage students “to sit until the twelfth semester in the back row without saying a word”[4]. Since the exams and seminar papers – and also the state exam contain a lot of cases, many students tend only to deal with cases, definitions and schemes for cases rather than build a basic understanding of theoretical basis, develop their own positions and exchange in this sense, whereby significant interdependencies and problems are not detected.

During my main focus year at Trinity College Dublin, I saw how students were constantly asked to share their own opinion, to think about abstract questions and to discuss it together. Such an approach at German universities could therefore be a first step to avoid the forming of schemes and make the studies, in Fischer’s jargon, “easier”. However, despite years of education (while others can already show Bachelor, Master and a fixed salary), exciting studies, a solid degree and a variety of job opportunities await future lawyers.

Anna-Lena Priebe

[1] Leonie Seifert, “Jura ist leicht”, Interview mit Thomas Fischer, 29. Oktober 2014, 6:56 Uhr; ZEIT Campus Nr. 6/2014, 7. Oktober 2014.
[2] s. zB.
[3] s.
[4] Leonie Seifert, “Jura ist leicht”, Interview mit Thomas Fischer, 29. Oktober 2014, 6:56 Uhr; ZEIT Campus Nr. 6/2014, 7. Oktober 2014.

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