Common law relies more on previous rulings while civil law relies more on written code. Therefore, one would expect it takes more work to become familiar with the law in the former case.

Please estimate: what is the difference in amount of work needed in these two systems to become familiar with an area of law? Please estimate for a well-educated person (with a college degree or higher) but is not a lawyer and does not plan to become one.

For instance, suppose a person needs to learn about a specific crime (e.g. robbery). If she needs to read for X hours in a common law system and Y hours in a civil law system, please report your judgment on what is the ratio of X/Y.

The answer clearly will depend on the specific area and the specific country. If possible, please compare countries with relatively well developed legal systems, such as U.S. vs France.

  • you had the wrong of the false friends ;)
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 23:15
  • @Trish sorry what do you mean by that? :)
    – J Li
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 0:06
  • civil-law (which you tagged) is part of the common-law system. It is civil-legal-system aka Code Civil (derived) system you had missing.
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 10:09

1 Answer 1


Legal Education Compared

In the U.S., the customary way that one learns about the law for purposes of being admitted to practice as a lawyer is by completing three years of course (with no thesis or dissertation) at the graduate level, after completing a non-law related undergraduate degree (customarily four years but including non-legal studies), and then taking a several week bar exam preparation course and passing the bar exam.

In many other common law countries, the customary way that one learns about the law for purposes of being admitted to practice as a lawyer is by completing a three or four year preprofessional undergraduate degree, with a primary concentration in law but also including other general education requirements, followed by preparation for and sitting for a bar exam, and sometimes a period of apprenticeship or internship.

In most civil law countries, the customary way that one learns about the law for purposes of being admitted to practice as a lawyer is by completing a bachelor's level undergraduate degree which is taken by both people who want to become practicing lawyers and also by people who want to go into business with legal knowledge, followed by very extensive bar exam preparation in the context of an internship or apprenticeship somewhat similar to that of a U.K. barrister.

This is complicated somewhat by the fact that the U.K. and most civil law countries have multiple different legal professionals rather than a unified legal profession like the U.S. The U.K. has barristers (trial advocates) who have more education through the "inns of court" and solicitors. Civil law systems typically have more kinds of legally trained professionals with legally trained notaries with transactional law practice infused with the keeping of public records, prosecutors, judges, trial advocates, sometimes specialist public law lawyers, and legally trained non-lawyers (typically in business) all belonging to separate professions with different roles in the legal system.

No entry level lawyer who has been admitted to practice knows the whole of the law in the country where that student has studied, and generally, even very experienced lawyers will be experts in some parts of the law, and have only a vague notion of where to learn the law in other areas where the lawyer practices only infrequently or not at all.

In common law countries, legal education focuses on "edge cases" and the way that edge cases are argued, and leaves instruction to many "black letter" rules of law to be learned in bar exam preparation and after entering the practice of law to learn on the job.

In civil law countries, legal education focuses on providing students with a comprehensive outline of the "black letter" law rules of law in the area of private law and criminal law and a few bits of public law, and learning methods of argument, advocacy and edge cases is reserved for learning on the job in practice.

In both systems, the primary way that one learns the law as a future lawyer in the first instance is from textbooks, rather than primary authorities, although common law country law school textbooks have a heavier mix of excerpts from court cases selected by a professor, while civil law country law school textbooks have a heavier mix of statutory language excerpts and exposition form the professor writing the textbook.

Lay Understanding Of Particular Areas Of Law

Please estimate: what is the difference in amount of work needed in these two systems to become familiar with an area of law? Please estimate for a well-educated person (with a college degree or higher) but is not a lawyer and does not plan to become one.

A well-educated person with a college degree or higher but is not a lawyer and does not plan to become one faces a very steep learning curve in either system to become familiar at a functional level with an area of law.

Most of what a lawyer learns in school is the larger context and method of analysis, research skills and an ability to identify legal issues. In common law countries, a lot of this is learning how the case law making system works and having an unwritten outline of key issues in areas of law that would be codified in civil law countries. In civil law countries, a lot of this is learning how general parts of civil law codes interact with more specific provisions, and being aware of the "gloss of interpretation" (often in scholarly work by law professors) that is given to a superficially very vague and short provision like the section of a civil code imposing tort liability, and also how to research legal issues in that system.

You really need to know all of this general material to have a competent and comprehensive understanding of specific legal issues, whether you have one that you are investigating or twenty. So, it is extremely inefficient for a non-lawyer to master a single legal issue.

The difference in the learning curve between civil law systems and common law systems from pure primary sources is greatly reduced because both are intermediated by secondary sources that explain them in a more efficient and pedagogically sound manner.

Rather than largely being a difference between say, the French system and the Colorado system, for example, the biggest difference in the learning curve involved the nature of the particular legal issue that you want to know about within a particular system.

For example, in both the U.S. and in France, the body of law that governs child custody and child support is very self-contained. If you master the legal principles and authorities in that area of law, you can fairly swiftly know all of the substantive law issues and research issues involved.

On the other hand, in both the U.S. and in France, the body of law that governs a property division in a divorce is absolutely sprawling. This is not because the law of property division itself, in sensu stricto, is terribly vast, but because applying the relatively simple law of property division to any set of facts, presupposes and requires a comprehensive knowledge of the private laws of property, contracts and other legal obligations, and associated tax laws, which can be quite vast over the full range of legal and property rights the might need to be divided in some divorce, sometime. It is the opposite of being self-contained.

Similarly, immigration law or patent law questions can often be resolved and understood almost entirely within the four corners of a small number of statutes and regulations, while tax law questions, like property divisions in divorces, interface with a vast expanse of property, contract and legal obligations that might arise.

As a general rule, laws pertaining to personal status tend to be self-contained, while laws in areas implicated property ownership and legal rights more generally, tend to require an expansive knowledge of many areas of law.

Starting From Scratch

While codification v. case law doesn't make much of a difference in the amount of work needed to become a lawyer or to understand a particular legal issue, codification does provide a decisive advantage in the case of a country seeking to adopt a new legal system from scratch, and many former European colonies have done, which is why civil law systems are so much more common globally.

From the perspective of a legislature and judiciary starting from a more or less clean slate, it is much easier to adopt a mildly edited set of civil codes as the starting point for the law of your country, than it is to incorporate centuries of case law from some other country into the law in a country that has never used a common law system case law system "organically" prior to adopting its own set of laws. Even then, it is much harder for legislators to be clear on precisely what laws it is that they are adopting at the outset in a common law case law based system where many legal rules are implicit in decisions that are only imperfectly indexed, rather than explicitly codified. And, from a legislator's perspective, adopting a comprehensive new legal system without any clear delineation of what laws you are actually adopting in your new country, is very undesirable, unless you are merely grafting onto a common law legal system that has already long been in force in your country prior to starting its new legal system, with which all prospective legal practitioners in your country are already intimately familiar.

  • 1
    This is extremely helpful. Thanks for the clarification. It sounds like your main gist is: because people (initially) learn from secondaries sources, the fact that common law has many more cases isn't a problem -- people don't need to read those cases unless they have to get into the weeds (later).
    – J Li
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 0:16
  • I do want to ask -- though the number of years needed for a common vs civil law education is similar, that is more a product of how educational systems are structured. For instance, engineering and literature majors both take four years, not because they are equally costly to master (I don't know which is harder), but because colleges are four year institutions. Therefore, it is still worth asking whether the same amount of education produce lawyers with the same levels of expertise. This is like comparing 6th grade students from different schools: do they have equally good math skills?
    – J Li
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 0:19
  • @JLi For reasons only remotely related to legal education in particular, most developed countries have high school educational systems that are more rigorous than that of the U.S. and undergraduate college educational systems that are significantly less rigorous than the U.S. The quality of law student instruction in Continental Europe, in particular, is far inferior to that of U.S. law schools. Also, at least 25%-50% of law school instruction as an undergraduate degree involves general eduction classwork not taken in U.S. law schools (at the high end in Europe, and the low end in the U.K.).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 2:13
  • I see. I guess the question I'm trying to ask is impossible to answer: how would the efficiency of legal education change if the U.S. have adopted civil law from day one, or if France has adopted common law from day one? That is, I'm trying to isolate the effect that is only coming form common vs civil law. The counterfactuals are very ill identified, of course.
    – J Li
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 2:54
  • @JLi France would have never adated common law. They rewrote their code of law several times completely to sever all ties with royalty
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 10:18

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .