The Stanford Program in International Legal Studies (SPILS) is a unique and rigorous program offering a select group of graduate students with a primary law degree earned outside the United States the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary, socio-legal research that applies the full range of social science methods (qualitative and quantitative), as well as more humanistic approaches, among others.  Each of the graduate students accepted to the SPILS program must develop and execute a research study on a socio-legal topic of their choice and report the results in a written 8-credit thesis. The research must involve one or more interdisciplinary methods of investigation. SPILS research projects address topics of concern to various nations or regions of the world, or to the international community as a whole. Examples of these interdisciplinary projects include analyses of particular legal cultures, legal reforms and policies. The researcher develops their work in close collaboration with Stanford faculty and student colleagues. The SPILS program also serves as preparation and screening for Stanford’s JSD program—though admission into SPILS does not in any way guarantee subsequent admission into the JSD program. Like the SPILS program, the JSD program is interdisciplinary in nature. Past SPILS fellows include specially qualified academics, researchers, lawyers, public officials, judges and other professionals trained in law outside the United States.

Questions concerning SPILS should be directed to graduate.admissions@law.stanford.edu.


Note to applicants: The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program awards full funding to Stanford graduate students from all disciplines, with additional opportunities for leadership training and collaboration across fields.

Applications for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars are due in early Autumn one year prior to enrollment. View dates and deadlines. You can also sign up for Knight-Hennessy Scholars email alerts to stay up to date on the availability of their online application.

Learn more about the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program



Stanford Law School has an exceptionally strong faculty in interdisciplinary legal studies, including law and society, law and economics, law and development, law and technology, and critical approaches to legal reform. SPILS fellows take courses from among those offered by the Law School’s faculty according to their interests and research needs. Each SPILS fellow will conduct her or his research in close collaboration with a faculty advisor with substantive expertise in the SPILS fellow’s relevant field of research, chosen from among the entire Law School faculty.

For example, Professor Lawrence Friedman has recently advised fellows from Germany, Mexico, Spain, Brazil and Taiwan on a wide range of research projects related to the role of lawyers and judges in a changing society; Professor Paul Goldstein has worked with fellows from Russia, Kenya, China and India on issues related to intellectual property law reform; Professor Deborah Hensler recently advised a Venezuelan SPILS fellow investigating informal dispute resolution processes in his country; Professor Tino Cuellar recently advised a fellow from Mexico researching the political consequences of international trade and investment agreements and Professor Jeff Strnad recently advised SPILS fellows on theses concerning fiscal decentralization in Japan and tax competition legislation in Latin America.

SPILS Founders

Thomas Heller 1

Thomas C. Heller

  • Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies, Emeritus
  • Faculty Director, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance

Areas of Concentration

SPILS considers applicants seeking to pursue significant research in one of a wide variety of interdisciplinary areas that reflect strong Law School faculty interest and expertise, including the following areas of concentration:

  • Legal Culture, Legal Institutions, and Civil Society, including such areas as the sociology of law and legal practice, rule of law and critical approaches to legal reform, human rights, women’s issues, and the dynamics and reform of domestic, regional and international legal systems.
  • International Economic Law and Political Economy, including the transition of legal systems, law and economic development, privatization, deregulation and economic institutions, international trade, investment and finance, and comparative corporate governance.
  • Environmental Law, Sustainable Development and the Intersection of Law and Technology, including legal frameworks for clean energy and for transition toward sustainability and the development of intellectual property and related fields of law.
  • Criminal Justice Systems, international and domestic, including access to justice and legal empowerment of the poor.
  • International Conflict Resolution, including law and diplomacy, negotiation, mediation and arbitration, international courts and tribunals and restorative justice, and dispute resolution and justice system design.

Academic Program

SPILS fellows are required to take a minimum of 35 credits per year, and a maximum of 45 credits a year, including the required 8 credits of thesis writing. Each quarter, students can take a minimum of 9 credits and a maximum of 14 credits. The fellows are required to be in residence for one academic year (nine months).

Research Project

Each SPILS fellow must complete an intensive empirical research project designed to result in a significant contribution to the scholarly literature or policy debate in her or his area of concentration. Fellows receive intensive faculty advising on the development of their research projects throughout the academic year. Interdisciplinary research workshop provides fellows with a framework within which to develop their projects and receive useful feedback from faculty and international colleagues. Each fellow must give a public presentation of her or his SPILS research following its completion.

Examples of completed SPILS theses include:

  • an analysis of the failure of criminal justice mechanisms to adequately address domestic violence in Kenya, based on interviews with abuse victims in urban and rural settings;
  • an empirical analysis of Taiwanese custody cases, comparing judicial decisions made before and after a recent change in custody law;
  • a study of Spanish legal culture, and professional problems faced by young legal actors, based on interviews with lawyers, judges and prosecutors;
  • an analysis of the viability of alternative compensation mechanisms for Palestinian refugees under international human rights law in comparative historical context;
  • an analysis of Australian Muslim community organizations and their perceptions of counter-terrorism laws;
  • a quantitative study of labor litigation and termination disputes in Mexico;
  • a study of the alternatives to incarceration and community service practice in Armenia;
  • a consideration of the utility of the device of the “special prosecutor” in order to facilitate efforts to constrain arbitrary executive and administrative power in South Korea; and
  • an analysis of the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey as a case study of the impact of EU membership conditionality requirements upon democratization in countries seeking EU accession.

Core Seminars

SPILS fellows are required to take the following core program courses:

  • SPILS Law and Society Seminar (3 Units, Fall)
  • Research Design for Empirical Legal Studies (4 Units, Fall)
  • Introduction to American Law (3 units, Fall)
  • SPILS Research Methods Workshop (2 units, Winter)
  • SPILS Masters Thesis (4 units, Winter)
  • SPILS Masters Thesis (4 units, Spring)

Course Work

In addition to the required SPILS seminars and workshops and the research for their theses, SPILS candidates take other advanced courses or seminars offered by Stanford Law School or by Stanford University’s other graduate departments or professional schools. Fellows select these courses to form a coherent program related to their areas of concentration and research projects. View the full list of courses offered by Stanford Law School.

View current SPILS Candidates

Related Programs

SPILS fellows may also participate in research workshops, seminars, lecture series, and discussion groups with faculty, graduate students, and visiting scholars at the University’s other schools and research institutes. Of particular interest are programs offered by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (including the Asia Pacific Research Center, the Center for International Security and Cooperation, the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and the Center for Environmental Science and Policy), Stanford’s area studies centers and regional research institutes (including the Center for African Studies, the Center for East Asian Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Center for Russian and East European Studies), the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and the Hoover Institution.