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The culture of legal education in France from a comparative viewpoint: perspectives for a legal education in the EU

In her paper Ruth Sefton-Green (Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne) presented a comparative view of French legal education, taking account of perspectives for a legal education in the EU.

Coincidentally, a total of four papers at the Learning in Law Annual Conference 2009 explored the implications of the differences between the French and UK/Irish legal education systems – see the other papers by Audrey Guinchard, Marie-Luce Paris and Chloë Wallace. In her report on Ruth and Audrey’s papers Chloë noted that “the cultural leap is significant and possibly not as well understood as it could be, with an important impact on mobility and on quality assurance”.

Legal education in France has traditionally been the exclusive domain of universities, although the 21st century has brought about a number of transformations. The republican ideal of providing higher education to all school leavers who have obtained their baccalauréat, with no selection process on entry, means that law is part of a mass teaching system which bears little resemblance to legal education in the UK.

Completing a legal education in France takes a comparatively long time. Although a first three year diploma (Licence) was instituted after the Bologna Declaration, a four year degree (Master 1) is a pre-requisite for eligibility to enter and train for the legal profession of lawyers (avocats and notaires), the judiciary (école national de magistrature) and the civil service (concours administratif), including court auxiliaries or less specialised areas. In practice, however, the majority of students who enter such professions complete their law studies with a fifth year of specialisation (Master 2), and frequently even acquire two such specialisations. These five years of legal studies look long compared with a (mostly) three year law degree programme offered in the UK. Professional instruction and training is additional to a university legal education in France and takes on average another two years.

The double aim of providing a comprehensive legal education and preparing students for a variety of legal professions (preparation for the entrance exams to the legal professions is also provided by the university) means that education is still mostly organised in the form of large sized lectures, backed up by seminar classes with a low interactive content, since the class size is, once again, big by UK standards (35 students on average for the first four year of studies). Little emphasis is placed on personal research, developing oral expression and argument skills, rhetoric and finding room for personal opinions.

The focus is on rote learning, analysis and rigour, together with dogmatic deductive modes of reasoning. Students are required to concentrate on the ability to acquire the skills of formal style dissertations, academic case commentaries and solving problem cases, presented in a very theoretical fashion. Legal clinics are rare, moots are just becoming fashionable and only organised at an advanced stage of legal studies, and interdisciplinary modules are practically non-existent. More specifically, course content is concentrated on acquiring knowledge of domestic law – comparative law is marginal, meaning that students are not always well prepared for studies abroad offered by Erasmus exchange programmes.

The values underlying legal education in France are characterised by a desire to offer university education to all, focusing on knowledge transmission rather than skills and techniques (propositional knowledge and process knowledge). Although attractive in principle, the idea of offering a legal education to everyone is difficult to realise. In practice, selection does occur – not on entry, but through a process of elimination during the degree courses. It is questionable whether this situation actually promotes social inclusion or social reproduction. Is this an efficient, effective and humane distribution of resources?

The emphasis on knowledge transmission is no doubt a consequence of the mass teaching system, as well as the system for recruiting professors (concours d’agrégation) and is reflected in the kinds of exercises and skills students are required to undertake. However, the attitude and belief that it is possible to know all the law seems both anachronistic and parochial, and within the EU there are pressures to modernise legal education in France and reorientate the emphasis on teaching students to acquire more practical legal skills, rather than just knowledge, to prepare them for the real world.

Legal education needs to maintain a focus on theoretical analysis while developing capacities to apply knowledge. Furthermore, offering more interdisciplinary studies, including acquainting students with other legal systems in the EU, would help to enhance their capacity to participate on Erasmus programmes and prepare them for professional mobility in the EU.

French bibliography


  • – (2005) ‘Recherche juridique et professionnalisation des études de droit: pour une filière hospitalo-universitaire en matière juridique’ Dalloz 908
  • – (2004) ‘Les écoles de droit’ Dalloz 3003
  • – (2004) ‘La “lutte pour le droit”’ Dalloz 2579
  • Atias C (2004) ‘Pour un observatoire de la formation des juristes’ Dalloz 707
  • Bigot C (2005) ‘Réflexions d’un avocat sur la professionnalisation des études de droit’ Dalloz 1724
  • Cesaro J-F, Gauthier P-Y & Leduc G (2005) ‘Peut-on cesser d’accabler les universités?’ Dalloz 2332
  • Croze H (2004) ‘Qu’est-ce qu’enseigner le droit?’ Dalloz 1315
  • Gobert M (2003) Libres propos: ‘une certaine idée de l’université’ Les Petites Affiches (86):3
  • Grynbaum L (2005) ‘A propos des écoles de droit’ Dalloz 4
  • Hennette-Vauchez S & Roman D (2006) ‘Pour un enseignement clinique du droit’ Les Petites Affiches (218-219):3
  • Lichière P (2006) ‘Le pot de terre et le marché de l’enseignement du droit’ Dalloz 1180 (point de vue)
  • Olszack N (2005) ‘Pour le développement d’un enseignement clinique (au delà de la création d’une filière “hospitalo-universitaire”) en matière juridique’ Dalloz 1172
  • Truchet D (2008) ‘Les facultés de droit et le marché de l’enseigneemnt du droit’ Dalloz 3892 (point de vue)

Interviews and news flashes in La Semaine Juridique (JCP):

  • – (2007) ‘Recommendations pour l’enseignement du droit’ JCP 5:act 49
  • Croze H (2007) ‘Crise de l’université: a fortiori ou a contrario? Le contre-exemple du DJCEJCP (20-21):I 154
  • Pailusseau J (2007) ‘La crise de l’université? La merveilleuse aventure du DJCE!’ JCP 15:Doctrine I 140
  • Teyssié B (2008) ‘Conseil national du droit: prière reunion’ JCP 27:I 159
  • Teyssié B (2007) ‘Conseil national du droit: premiers chantiers’ JCP (23):I 159
  • Vogel L (2008) ‘Le “collège de droit” d’Assas: préfiguration d’une Grande Ecole de droit’ JCP 48:I 212

Chloë Wallace (University of Leeds) reports:

Ruth outlined the profound differences between UK and French higher education, and specifically legal education. The French mass education system (some figures cite 200,000 law students) creates significant resource pressures and constraints. There is no student selection, but extremely high failure rates. The time and resource pressures tend to lead to a sort of social reproduction where there is scant opportunity for creativity, however little motivation for change is apparaent.
The main drivers for change within this apparently dysfunctional system would seem to come from forces of competition, and from external mobility. The Bologna process is having little impact in France, as throughout Europe, as it tends to lead to superficial changes rather than in-depth harmonisation.

About Ruth

Ruth Sefton-Green is a senior lecturer at Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, specialising in comparative law of obligations. She studied law in London and at Paris 1, and has practised law in England and France.
Ruth has contributed to many comparative law periodicals and collections in both English and French. Her research interests include English and French contract law, comparative law and European contract law.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010