Anatomy of the Summit: A Strong Step Forward for International Legal Education
The day began with panel discussions about employment opportunities in international law. These panels were tremendously effective and helpful; for once, the student cohort did not feel as if it was merely being bombarded with information that could not possibly be digested. Instead, the presenters focused on their personal endeavors in those terrifying years immediately following graduation from law school. They made clear the trials that could befall young lawyers. They made clearer the ways those trials could be navigated. Their ability to articulate the perspective of both the employer and the prospective employee was unique.
In addition to the productive information offered, the presenters also represented the public and private avenues in balanced fashion. Due in large part to careful organizing, there was a balance of public international lawyers and attorneys practicing internationally in firms. These panelists picked up on cues offered by their peers. They were entirely candid about how they ended up in their respective positions.
One panelist, Elizabeth Rushing, started her career in public international law, and she remains in that field. She dispelled the notion offered far too often by career advisers that such careers are impractical or impossible to obtain. Her advice focused on transnational networking and creative thinking. The legal world does not begin and end in law firms; neither is a JD or LLM confined in its utility to jobs with “attorney” in the title. Her message was to focus on long-term goals and remain open to the myriad of public international law possibilities, such as policy work, employment with intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), and work in other industries. Panelist Neal Cohen described the process of self-specialization. Though his expertise in a niche area of law led him to a large private firm, his advice is applicable in any arena. Both speakers focused on concrete strategies for achieving marketability in an increasingly competitive global job market.
While students attended these sessions, educators attended workshops with a focus on instilling practical skills in international legal education. The sessions addressed global problems in legal education, curriculum development, clinical opportunities, and international collaboration. This critical focus on practical learning is crucial. The afternoon sessions allowed educators and students to share ideas on these topics.
An extraordinarily engaging afternoon session is what made this conference truly memorable and productive. First, two more panels engaged in a sort of “hot topics” in legal education roundtable. The panelists represented a broad range of nationalities, cutting across common and civil law jurisdictions. Entertaining from start to finish, even the roundtable format contributed to the fun. The moderators for the two panels posed questions and attempted to keep the answers moving along.
The intrigue grew when the audience got involved. Questions from students, practitioners, and other legal educators challenged the panelists. One of the most controversial moments occurred when a professor in the audience seemed to challenge the merits of teaching a subject such as Roman law at the expense of more practical drafting courses. There was a clear divide between those in the room who supported inclusion of such courses for pedagogical and historical reasons, while others favored more immediately practical subjects. An opponent of “antiquated” subjects suggested that the utility of such “relics” had disappeared. An academic from a prestigious U.K. law faculty countered by stressing that Roman law and similar, seemingly outdated courses teach students how to think and are thus invaluable. After the panels, conference participants broke up into discussion groups to assess the afternoon’s conversation.
Breakout groups served as a conclusion to the afternoon’s formal program. Each group contained two to three students, professors, and practitioners. Volunteers from the School of Law in each group took notes during the discussions so that a report could be drafted. The conversation in my group picked up on the theme of practical skills in legal education; specifically, we followed up on the notion of legal writing as underappreciated and the overall deficiency of skills-based courses for both domestic and international practice.
In my group, students from U.K. schools defended the inclusion of more theoretical, academic courses in the curriculum on the basis that all students are required to undergo training following graduation. The differences between the U.S. system and the U.K. traineeship program were discussed at length. Despite the focus on practical skills in the latter, the group settled on the fact that even more practical training is important. Other crucial issues arose in the discussion, such as the cost of education, the length of school, and the relative age of new attorneys in each country. The conversation was extremely productive; had there been more students from other foreign jurisdictions, the results might have been even better.
As is to be expected at a legal careers event, the day ended with a networking reception. Though the common elements of such an event were present—the wine, the food, the exchange of business cards—there was also another positive aspect of this day’s networking: it felt more organic, less contrived. Of course, that can be attributed to the group of people in the room; that is to say, perhaps the attendees were just a jovial, talkative lot.
It seemed, rather, that the buzz in the room emanated from a productive day. Discussions were ignited earlier, and one could readily perceive how much the participants wanted to continue those conversations. A day’s work spilled over into the “fun” portion of the evening. Students and educators alike shared more ideas and made connections, the benefits of which will be realized as this generation’s students become practitioners and educators in their own right.
A Model for Globalized Collaboration
Globalization spreads culture, enhances technology, and unites people, benefiting the public and private sectors and professional and personal lives. Similarly, it affords legal education ample opportunities to evolve. On the whole, the Summit demonstrated that broader networks provide for more nuanced problem solving. Many approaches and experiences from different jurisdictions around the world were presented, and the discussions served as an example of how these international perspectives can be utilized in a productive manner.
First, the morning panels demonstrated that career planning can, at times, be too narrowly focused. Not every student attending law school will practice law. The JD is a tremendously versatile degree; it is sought after outside the legal employment sphere and can be used in other arenas. Strategies for securing a career in other areas of law are readily applicable to the field of public international law. Students of international law can look to public policy, private consulting, and numerous other areas outside of traditional legal jobs for employment. The panel focused on strategies for both alternative employment prospects and more traditional avenues.
The advice of the panelists focused on how to break into other areas by specializing one’s law degree or first few years of legal practice. Similar initiatives in law schools would provide students with a broader range of employment possibilities. Just as the shift in the legal marketplace coincided with greater educational emphasis on the business of law, so too might other interdisciplinary approaches benefit law students and legal education on the whole.
Second, the afternoon session highlighted the relative lack of importance attributed to legal writing and skills-based courses in law school. A single question during the panel was the catalyst of this crucial topic. A member of the audience queried the panelists as to why legal writing faculty are given an almost “secondary” position among faculty in law schools. Indeed, this question is pertinent and on point. Many schools list legal writing instructors in a separate section from other faculty members. Of course, the argument might be raised that this is not intended to impose a hierarchy. The important issue that was discussed as a result of this pointed question, however, was whether legal writing (and, more broadly, practical legal skills training) assumes a lower position in legal education.
The breakout sessions following the panel allowed for collaboration on this point. Students assessed that legal writing faculty and skills-based learning were undervalued in U.S. law schools. A student from the U.K. retorted that no such problem exists in Britain due to the traineeship system (in which students must complete a mandatory internship). The conversation revealed that the barristers’ Bar Professional Training Course (formerly known as the Bar Vocational Course, or BVC), the solicitors’ Legal Practice Course (LPC), and traineeship in the U.K. refine the more practical legal skills beyond university. The discussion eventually yielded the same conclusion about both systems: initial legal education is lacking in practical, skills-based work. Further, it highlighted the fact that the problem might be of a greater concern in the U.S. system because students do not complete mandatory training courses or internships before entering practice. Conversation then focused on whether the U.K. system achieved a preferable balance between academic and practical legal education.
This type of comparative analysis of legal training systems is key to the advancement of legal education, both international and domestic. It can address problems that are purely domestic and, beyond that, it can offer suggestions to enhance international legal education. Skills-based learning options are imperative for all jurisdictions and essential for aspiring international attorneys. Globalizing legal education reform enhances opportunities for skills-based training.
Lessons Learned from a Day in London
The SIL’s Legal Education Summit was tremendously productive. It provided valuable advice to students and fostered important conversations about the future of the profession. The success of the summit was owed to the diversity of perspectives. There were educators, practitioners, and students—people at various stages of their legal careers. Attorneys from both the public and private sectors were present. Perhaps most interestingly, conference participants were from all over the United States and Europe.
Beyond the success of the conference itself, the day’s events offered a number of lessons about how globalized legal education can benefit the future of legal education and the legal profession in general. More dynamic connections across borders would increase employment possibilities for students. Similarly, open dialogues with colleagues from foreign jurisdictions will help sort out problems in domestic education systems. A main theme of the conference was bridging the gap between law school and legal practice, albeit with a comparative focus. Reform of legal education can benefit greatly from identifying the way in which law schools from different countries tackle this problem.
Ultimately, a globalized education is a more fully formed education. It can solve local problems such as the skills gap described above. Further, as domestic law schools make efforts to increase practical coursework in curricula, so too must they ground international legal practice in skills-based education. Too often students studying international law are not taught the highly technical, practical aspects of transnational legal work. Aside from providing an enjoyable day, the SIL’s Legal Education Summit offered strategies and solutions for domestic and international legal education.