Going to Giessen

This summer on The Brief we plan to share blog posts authored by W&L Law students reporting on their summer work experiences to give you a sense of the kind of opportunities that are available to our students. We’ll have posts from students working for law firms, in district attorney’s offices, and in international settings. Look for those posts to start in a few weeks.

But first, fresh off final exams, a group of W&L Law students currently are in Giessen, Germany for an intensive two-week exploration of German law and legal culture. The German Comparative Law Academy, organized by Prof. Russ Miller, brings together American and German law students for a scholarly exchange on both countries’ legal systems, with an emphasis on Constitutional Law.

Today, we have our first dispatches from Giessen, authored by Michelle Spatz ’13L and Leona Krasner ’12L:


May 9, 2011 – Leona Krasner

Building on the Giessen Law School Campus

Hello from Giessen, Germany!  Today was the first day of our two-week “boot camp seminar,” as Professor Miller affectionately dubs it.  And what a day it was, too!  What struck me, once I had woken up and was checking out the varied views from my hotel room, was how similar and different Germany was from the United States.  The pigeons looked just as they did back home, and the movie theater across the street made me think of similar theaters in the US.  Upon craning my neck, however, I saw several houses that were likely built in the style of the previous houses that had stood in the exact spots for centuries.  Similarities and differences continued to jump out at me throughout the day.

Breakfast was a truly delectable experience.  The variety of breakfast items was staggering: breads, cheeses (including fresh mozzarella!), sandwich meats, scrambled and boiled eggs, cereal, jams, cereals, cake, nutella, and a wide assortment of juices to name just a few. Katie couldn’t get over what she called “smorgasboard juice” – a juice that seemed to be a mix of all of the other fruit juices that were available.  The wonderful breakfast helped put that much more spring into my step as we walked to the university.

Upon our arrival at the university, we were very kindly given an interesting tour by Law Professor Philipp Dann, who told us how each professor at the university was given a set of suites in one of the university buildings, and that each professor was then encouraged to have the personal space renovated to his or her preference.  A number of American students, including myself, were shocked and very impressed.  Professor Dann’s immense generosity, kindness of heart, and great helpfulness throughout the day truly brightened my first day and inspired me to work my hardest during the morning and afternoon sessions.We Washington and Lee Law students next had a 3-hour interactive seminar on the German courts.  Armed with cookies and coffee, compliments of Professor Dann, the session was a great success.  Professor Miller’s enthusiasm and thoughtful questions spurred us into heated debates about personalities on the court, and the lack of stare decisis in Germany.  Doug in particular had us all laughing and keep our hands raised high to respond.

After a short nap and a quick review of the material for the evening comparative law session with the German law students, we walked back to the law school campus and actively engaged in the session.  The diversity of the students who took part in this seminar surprised me: of the small number of German students, one was Brazilian, another two Russian, and yet another Hungarian.  Additionally, the students’ excellent English (for some their third or fourth language) and the thoroughness with which the German students immersed themselves in the difficult material we covered was truly humbling.  Frieda, the German law student who was selected to speak about the assigned article, gave a fantastic, detailed summary.  Merilys then asked a question that got the entire group going.  Indeed, the discussion was so animated that it lasted past the time that class was supposed to end!  The differences between the responses that the American students and the German students gave were fascinating.  At one point, an American student mentioned that financial gain, and not selfless interest in human rights issues, drives many lawyers.  The German law students nearly all extolled the virtues of human rights, and found this American student’s comment reprehensible.  All in all, however, the comparative law session was phenomenal, and I look forward to the future sessions!

The professors, research assistants, American students, and some German students then convened by an eatery by the lake, and we all had a true German meal: bratwurst, rotwurst (made of beef), pommes, and beer gallore!   Interestingly, the German girls did not enjoy the taste of beer, and most ordered a drink called “Apfelschorle,” which is sparkling apple cider.  I ordered it as well, and found it to be wonderful.

All in all, today was a fantastic day!  The faculty and staff of the German law school were gracious, kind, and wonderful.  The German law students were so well prepared, opinionated, and interested in our collaborative work.  The other students from Washington and Lee were real troopers, and remained motivated and enthusiastic throughout the day.  I look forward to the adventures that tomorrow will bring!

May 10, 2011- Michelle Spatz

Today was fulfilling and enriching academically, culturally, and socially. We started the day with our amazing breakfast at the hotel. My favorite part about a European breakfast has been the real fruit juices and the excellent fresh breads.  Our breakfast was followed with a scenic walk to the University, and this time we found our way without the help of our German hosts!

During our morning class session we discussed the content of the German Constitution, the Basic Law. Our discussion was fascinating in that we considered the comparative context between the German and American Constitutions. The German Constitution’s placement of the right to human dignity as its first article and substantive issue, while the American Constitution does not address individual rights until its Amendments, really demonstrated the different historical and cultural backgrounds of the two nations.  Other fascinating discussions which particularly struck me because of the significant differences between German and American Constitutional law included the German Constitution’s treatment of political parties as state-like entities, actually receiving funding from the government, and our conversation regarding the sheer length and extensive inclusiveness of the Basic Law compared to the relatively short American Constitution.

W&L law students in Giessen, Germany unwind with beer and brats after their rigorous class session.

After class we had some down time before our evening class session, so I was able to finish up my reading for later and have a quick skype chat with my mom. My mom did not hesitate to express her envy of my opportunity to study a subject like comparative law in such a relevant and exciting context.

Our evening class session with the German students was fascinating in that the topic of our readings allowed us to step back from the substantive study of comparative constitutional law in which we have been engaging, and examine the methodology of comparative law as an academic study. Just as in the previous night’s class session, I was impressed at our German peers’ ability to present a summary of our rather difficult readings, in a language that is foreign to them in front of native speakers, with confidence and intellectual criticism. While last night’s discussion highlighted some of the underlying differences between the views of common law and civil law lawyers, tonight’s discussion seemed to bring out an area of relatively mutual concurrence. In discussing the differences between the various approaches to the field of comparative law, there seemed to be a general acknowledgement that each person’s way of comparing and looking at other legal systems is inherently influenced by their cultural background. It was so interesting to step back and acknowledge that, despite all good efforts to conduct comparative legal analysis objectively, each person’s way of viewing the world is developed within the context of their own culture, and one’s legal analysis will therefore be unavoidably influenced by that culture in some sense.

Later some of the German students and Professor Dann joined us for dinner at an Indian restaurant near our hotel. It was really an indescribable cultural experience to be sitting in an Indian restaurant in Germany talking to German students about how their families moved to Germany from Hungry or Russia, while eating Naan and drinking German weiss beer. And aside from all the great conversation about our different international experiences , the food was delicious and the German beer speaks for itself.

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