In commentary on Wrath versus envy, an "anonymous bad speller and horrible typist" observed:
Law is often a profession for the ambitious but undirected or risk-adverse ("I really want to create my own internet dog grooming business but am scared of failing so I will go to law school instead"). In Iceland, following one's muse is encouraged and failure isn't tragic. As a result, I would guess Iceland's lawyers are in the profession by choice and not default.As one of the few members — perhaps the only member — of the American legal academy who has any exposure to Icelandic legal education, I figured I'd weigh in.
During the 1987-88 academic year, I was a Fulbright Scholar (Fulbrightsstyrkþegi) at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands). Because I expected to enter Harvard Law School the following year, I spent some time in classes in the University of Iceland's law school, Lagadeild Háskóla Íslands (literally: Law Department of the University of Iceland). The law school resided in a building called Lögberg ("law rock"). This is a poetic name because the original lögsögumenn ("law speakers") recited law from the Lögberg in Þingvellir.
Twenty years later, the basic course of study at the University of Iceland's law school remains familiar. Despite the formidable language barrier — I was desperately trying to learn modern Icelandic off the strength of a little exposure to Old Norse, modern Swedish, and modern German — I sat through lectures in two courses: Almenn lögfræði ásamt ágripi af réttarsögu (general jurisprudence with a summary of legal history) and Stjórnskipunarréttur (the law of government, a cross between what we would call constitutional law and administrative law).
The University of Iceland has long taken great pride in its program in European law and in legal history (Evrópuréttur-Réttarsaga). That tradition gave me a chance during spring semester 1988 to take part in a splendid seminar taught by James Child of Bowling Green (who, unfortunately, died three years ago). That experience prepared me like no other for Harvard.
The notion that Icelandic law students affirmatively choose to study law rather than defaulting to that course of study is, alas, inconsistent with my experience. Law is an undergraduate subject in Iceland, as it is in much of the world, and people between the ages of 18 and 25 rarely if ever know precisely what they want to do. Admission to the University of Iceland, at least in my time there, was guaranteed to any Icelander who had completed the required high school sequence. And a significant number of young Icelanders enrolled in Lagadeild Háskóla Íslands.
What was not guaranteed was passing grades. General jurisprudence/legal history, taught by the legendary Sigurður Lindahl, had an especially high failure rate. It was not unusual for students to take that course three times before passing it. I knew students who took five years to complete a nominal three-year program, and I heard of one instance of a seven-year path through Lögberg. That is true dedication.
I regret that I have not been able to maintain my connection to Iceland, its main university, or legal education in a country that hosted me for one of the happier years of my life. I do know that the path to the Icelandic legal profession is extraordinarily difficult, and I will always remain full of admiration for the students who complete that journey.