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Silver, C --- "Internationalising US Legal Education: A Report on the Education of Transnational Lawyers" [2006] LegEdDig 29; (2006) 14(4) Legal Education Digest 16

Internationalising US Legal Education: A Report on the Education of Transnational Lawyers

C Silver

[2006] LegEdDig 29; (2006) 14(4) Legal Education Digest 16

NW U L Sch Working Paper 2005, pp 1–41

Law is uniquely local — it embodies local customs and legitimises local moral judgments. Legislators and judges are selected directly or indirectly by the residents they will govern, and the laws they adopt and interpret are intimately tied to the norms and expectations of their local societies. Legal education also reflects this local character of the law, in that students in US law schools spend most of their time studying US federal and state court cases, statutes, regulations and the policies underlying them. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of lawyers originally educated outside of the US, whose work is centred outside of the US, are enrolling in US law schools for graduate legal education. Most of these lawyers are practitioners, whose interest in US law is pragmatic rather than academic. Given law’s local nature, this interest might be surprising. This paper takes this phenomenon as its starting point in examining US law school graduate programs for foreign lawyers.

US graduate programs serve several functions in the development of careers of transnational lawyers: they provide an important link in the professional networks of transnational lawyers; they offer graduates credibility that enables them to connect with elite national and international law firms and raise their status in their home country legal professions; and they equip graduates with a legal terminology crucial for participation in the international legal services market.

The global political and economic changes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s explain much about the shift in the focus of graduate law programs from scholars to practitioners. The prominence of US law firms in the international legal market supported the developing interest of foreign lawyers in US legal education. In order to represent US businesses and to participate in the growing market for international advice, foreign lawyers perceived that they needed to be able to speak the same language as US lawyers, both literally and conceptually.

While certain US law schools may offer no graduate programs for foreign lawyers, others offer multiple such programs. Certain graduate programs are open to foreign and domestic lawyers, while others are available exclusively to foreign lawyers. The distinction may be a matter of marketing the program or may relate to particular course requirements for the degree. It is not entirely clear how applicants weigh the merits of an exclusively foreign-student program.

The landscape of graduate programs available to foreign-educated lawyers provides a starting point for understanding the development of the international legal education market. But what do US law schools gain from hosting foreign lawyers in their graduate programs? And how do the graduate programs satisfy the needs of international students? First, graduate programs that attract foreign students allow US law schools to legitimise their claims to being international, and this international label is crucial to law schools as they try to compete for JD applicants; it indicates a school’s forward-looking approach and its ability to educate students for the future. A second benefit of graduate programs for foreign lawyers cited by directors of the programs relates to money: these graduate programs are a significant source of revenue.

But what exactly is it about the US law school experience that offers value for foreign lawyers? For many, the importance of US clients in their home countries convinces them of the need to acquire a US law experience and the skills that go along with it. Another reason that students from particular jurisdictions enrol in US graduate law programs is to bypass restrictions on professional qualification.

US law schools compete for foreign graduate students on a variety of criteria. According to graduates of LLM programs interviewed for this article, selection of a particular US law school graduate program is influenced most often by the following factors (in no particular order): the US News ranking of the law school, a particular characteristic or focus of the graduate program at certain law schools, funding by the law school, and knowledge of someone with a connection to the school or its location. Another way that law schools try to distinguish themselves is by adopting a particular substantive focus to their graduate programs. Apart from substantive focus, graduate programs distinguish themselves on the basis of their curricula. The law school’s financial support of its foreign students is another important consideration in selecting a US law school. Students are funded by employers and their home country governments as well. Finally, graduates rely on personal acquaintances for information about the particular US law schools and their locations. Knowing someone who has a connection to the location of the law school gives some comfort to foreign applicants.

One reason that foreign lawyers attend US graduate law programs is that it qualifies them to sit for the bar exam in certain US jurisdictions. Graduate directors indicated that most of those graduates who plan to take a US bar exam intend to take the exam in New York. New York has a liberal approach to foreign lawyers taking its bar exam; its rules are straight-forward in their requirements and it is possible for most foreign lawyers to qualify to sit for the bar examination after completion of a one-year graduate degree program. Schools located in New York are disproportionately successful in placing their graduates in jobs in New York, and New York’s international role as a financial centre likely leads to more jobs for transnational lawyers than elsewhere in the US. Thus, bar admission rules matter at least indirectly in the competition for transnational lawyer students.

The experience of foreign lawyers in graduate programs may be substantially different depending upon the US law school they attend, and differences in experiences may translate into differences in the programs’ value. In large part, this goes to the issue of how alumni use the networks they develop during their year in a US graduate law program; do students at the more prestigious schools have more valuable connections because of their law school classmates, and does this increase in value correspond to greater career opportunities?

Aside from particular required courses, graduate students focused primarily on courses in US law related to business issues, including corporations, securities, and mergers & acquisitions. Other important areas of study mentioned by the graduate directors at these schools were international law, intellectual property, and negotiations or alternative dispute resolution, although they stressed that these areas are secondary to the business-related courses.

The efforts of graduate directors to involve foreign students in the life of their law schools and the legal communities offer myriad opportunities for LLM students to establish strong bonds. Graduate students offer lectures on their fields of interest at one school, and on their home country legal professions at several schools. One school hosts a regular colloquium on legal practice for graduate students; several have their faculty speak to graduate students about their areas of expertise or substantive areas of law in which they teach.

Many foreign lawyers who enrol in US graduate programs would like to work in the US after graduation. How do foreign lawyers find work in the US? They do everything that JD students do and more. Directors of graduate programs emphasise the importance of home-country contacts when discussing how graduates find jobs in the US. LLM graduates’ stories about finding work do not necessarily support the perceptions of the graduate directors. While personal connections helped some graduates find work, others secured positions without such connections, either through one of the job fairs for foreign lawyers, letter-writing campaigns or even Internet postings. More representative data and analysis is needed.

The response of US law schools to increasing competition for educating international lawyers continues to unfold. If the schools cannot effectively compete with foreign schools, US JD students will lose the opportunity to join the global legal community while still in law school. In order to attract international lawyers to their graduate programs, US law schools must vie for position both domestically and internationally. Just as law firms have re-created themselves in order to signify their international characters, so US law schools may well follow suit in the pursuit of international students and reputation.

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