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World Perspective | EDUCATION

German Law School Blazes New Trail

November 10, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMBURG, Germany — At a serene campus at the edge of this city's botanical garden, 100 students and a handful of professors are breaking every rule in this nation's higher-education handbook.

The Bucerius Law School, which opened to the first freshman class this fall, has halved the student-teacher ratio prevailing at Germany's overcrowded and underfunded state universities and toppled the ivy-covered walls that isolate professors from pupils.

Its founders have slashed the time it ordinarily takes to earn a law degree from six years to four by abolishing the long breaks that state students enjoy between semesters. The founders also have devised a curriculum that will prepare German lawyers not only for their examinations but for the long-neglected needs of international business.

Most radical, in comparison with the hidebound state system, is that Bucerius is a private university that charges tuition--a practice long denounced as elitist in this country where every high school graduate has the legal right to free higher education.

But the barrage of applicants for the school's inaugural term suggests that, even in the hallowed realm of academia, Germans are coming to believe that you get what you pay for.

Bucerius students pay about $7,000 in annual tuition, a bargain by the standards of U.S. private schools. The relatively low price comes thanks to support from the private Zeit Foundation and law firms that despair of finding the talent they need despite 112,000 Germans studying law at state institutions. The successful applicants here must be fluent in English, have passed the final high school exam in the top 3% of the nation and endure a grueling program that seeks to prepare them for the state-administered law boards and careers as corporate counsel.

"We've been having discussions about how to educate lawyers in this country for 25 years without anything changing, which is why the Zeit Foundation decided not to add to the debate but to set an example," said Michael Goering, managing director of the philanthropic foundation, which provides half the school's funding.

Germany has only a handful of private colleges, and Bucerius is the first devoted to training attorneys rather than businesspeople or clergy.

"We want lawyers with an international orientation who can handle the work of mergers and acquisitions that increasingly involve German companies," said director Juergen Buering, who previously ran the country's only private MBA program, in Koblenz. "Most graduates take jobs as lawyers, while the state universities seem interested only in training judges."

While tuition is a departure from tradition, those unable to pay can get financial aid or a "generational contract," said Dirk Mirow, director of student affairs and international programs, describing a study-now, pay-later deal that is essentially a student loan.

The high expectations that attracted six times the number of qualified applicants as the school could handle this fall are also a lure for faculty members.

Hanno Merkt, one of 150 law professors who applied for the first five teaching seats, complains that state schools have to "dumb down" the curriculum because of large class sizes and low entrance standards. "I can ask these kids to do things I could never expect to get from students at a state university," he said.

While professors at state universities are virtually inaccessible to students, their counterparts at Bucerius are available outside of class to talk with pupils.

The school will take in 100 freshmen each fall, along with additional faculty members, until it reaches full size in fall 2003. The start of that academic year will see most of the seniors doing an exchange semester in Britain or the United States.

"This is kind of an experiment to see if we can train the lawyers the market needs," said Mirow. "We know the jobs are there. We are already getting calls from major companies and law firms asking for interns."

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