Making It Real: Hosting an International Law Speaker Series in the Legal Writing (or Any Law School) Classroom

Vol. 43 No. 2

By

Diane Penneys Edelman is a professor of Legal Writing and the director of International Programs at Villanova University School of Law. She is co-chair of the SIL International Legal Education and Specialist Certification Committee. She regularly integrates international law issues into her legal writing courses and has spoken on this topic at regional, national, and international conferences.

Breaking the Traditional Classroom Mold

When we think of the traditional law school course, certain characteristics come to mind—the Socratic method, chains of hypotheticals, problem-solving, drafting of memoranda and briefs, and the like. Regardless of which teaching techniques we use or projects we assign, the typical law student—especially, but not only, the first-year law student—wonders: how does what I am doing in the classroom relate to my career? How will it help me to get a job? How can I figure out what I want to do after law school?

Students learn the answers to these questions in a number of ways. Some come to law school with set ideas of becoming trial lawyers or public interest lawyers. Some do not yet have specific practice interests and explore a wide range of possibilities in and outside of class to ascertain what most interests them. Just as law students differ in this way, law school courses seek to impart subject matter knowledge and practical skills in different respects. Some law school courses are very practice-oriented—take, for example, legal research and writing, trial advocacy, and clinical courses. Others, such as those introducing legal theory and reasoning, a broad array of subject matter, and in-depth legal research, impart skills crucial to successful lawyering. But typically, only clinical courses introduce students to the practice of a particular area of law in a consistent way, a way that permeates the course from start to finish.

In this difficult economy, with law school enrollments down and students more concerned than ever about finding their first jobs, the introduction of guest speakers can play a significant role in both inspiring and reassuring law students and in offering them opportunities to network as well. Although law schools have always offered students ample opportunity to hear guest speakers as part of law school life, bringing speakers into the classroom on a regular basis builds a deeper connection between students and practitioners and opens doors in a different way than attendance at a schoolwide lecture and a question-and-answer session can do. And for those of us who want to inspire students to consider the relevance of international law to their future law practices, a speaker series that is part of a required first-year course may be the perfect means of doing so.

Why Legal Writing?

In the traditional legal writing classroom, first-year law students typically learn to write objective or predictive analytical memoranda during their first semester of law school and they master the fundamentals of persuasive advocacy by writing trial and/or appellate briefs during their second semester. Depending upon each school’s curricular approach, the students further develop their writing skills in upper-level research paper and skills courses and the like. Professors who teach first-year legal writing courses use many techniques, exercises, and assignments to teach these skills, engaging students in individual and group work in a progression of increasingly complex assignments. Professors at some law schools may develop their assignments together; more commonly, they create assignments that reflect their personal areas of interest such as, for example, criminal law, torts, sports law, or international law. If guest speakers are present in class sessions, they may typically include judges and practitioners who bring home the importance of thorough research, clear writing, and preparation for both informal and formal oral presentation of a client’s case.

Legal writing classes are typically small, averaging around 20 students. Because of its size, a legal writing class is an ideal setting for guest speaker interaction. Too often, however, the very nature of a legal writing course is too filled with material and techniques to cover to permit much time for speaker visits. So why “sacrifice” precious class time to have more than one guest speaker, or even several, in a single legal writing course? And why, in particular, should speakers address international law topics?

Internationalizing the Legal Writing Classroom

In a typical legal writing classroom, in which professors assign projects that reflect their areas of practice or scholarly interest, it might make sense to have only one speaker or two during a semester to address these important topics. However, what about in a specialized legal writing course—in particular, one that focuses on international legal issues? Although it may not be well known, professors at a growing number of American law schools are focusing their legal writing courses on international issues, creating an ideal setting for inviting international practitioners into the classroom on a regular basis.

How does a professor “internationalize” the legal writing classroom in a substantive way? As readers of this publication know, international law deals not only with the relationships between countries that are resolved by diplomacy and in international tribunals, but also with those aspects of international and foreign law issues that arise in all aspects of everyday life: travel, business deals, real estate transactions, trusts and estates, adoption, employment law, online communication, and so forth. A legal writing professor can demonstrate the relevance of international and foreign law in his or her classroom by incorporating any of these issues into regular assignments. But guest speakers—those actively engaged in the practice of international law or even occasionally exposed to these kinds of issues—are the ones who can help the writing professor make these issues come alive to students in a very real way. Simply put, the legal writing professor interested in bringing international law into the classroom can do it in at least two ways: by presenting students with international law-related problems to solve and by introducing students to practitioners who actually confront these issues on a regular basis.

The Speaker Experiment: Format and Topics

Whom to invite? What to speak about?

Because we are currently speaking about first-year law students, it makes sense to expose students to as broad a variety of speakers as possible so as to demonstrate the ubiquity of international and foreign legal issues in everyday practice, as well as to appeal to students interested in different types of law practice.

Relying on this assumption, in my spring 2013 Legal Writing II course at Villanova University School of Law, I brought seven international practitioners into my classroom, five of whom were Villanova Law alumni:

  • The former co-chair of the International Law Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association;
  • An attorney practicing refugee and asylum law at the Department of Homeland Security;
  • An attorney practicing global data privacy law in a European office of a major international firm;
  • An attorney litigating and arbitrating matters in the Shanghai office of an international firm;
  • A visiting professor who had practiced and now teaches national security law;
  • Former in-house counsel for a major oil company; and
  • A Fulbright scholar engaged in fighting human trafficking.

The speakers visited individually throughout the semester for approximately 45 minutes (less than half a class session) scheduled intermittently to accommodate in-class work on pending assignments and coverage of all regular course subjects. Each speaker gave a presentation during the second half of class, followed by a question-and-answer session. Most speakers did not use slide presentations, and two participated by remote access from their offices abroad. Of course, working out time-zone differences was intrinsic to the process. I asked the speakers to discuss the nature of their practice, how they became international lawyers, and how strong legal writing and oral communication were important to their practices.

The Feedback

Because this was the first time I had introduced a speaker series in the classroom, I surveyed the class twice online, once after the first several speakers had visited and once after the visits had been completed, while the students’ impressions were fresh in their minds. In addition to having the students rank the speakers, I asked the students to report whether they had communicated with any of the speakers following the visits (several had done so), as well as on their overall interest in having international lawyers speak in the class. I also asked them to provide suggestions for future speakers.

Not unexpectedly, the guest speakers were a big hit. In addition to introducing the students to the breadth of international law practice, the guest speakers infected students with their passion for their work. Students were pleased to hear from lawyers from the “real world” and to learn about international practice from hearing stories about real cases and deals, rather than just from academic hypotheticals. The students appreciated insights from practice, but, most of all, they were interested to hear about the steps that the practitioners took to get from law school into international practice—their law school activities and their networking experiences both in and after law school. As one student put it, “I like when the speakers give more of a ‘how to do what they do’ speech rather than a ‘what they do’ speech because it is more helpful to first-year students.” Students felt that the speakers spoke with candor and were very willing to answer the students’ questions. Most important to many students, and not surprisingly, were the speakers’ discussions of the opportunities that they had taken advantage of during law school to set them on their paths, as well as which steps they wished they had taken or courses they realized would have been valuable. Even for the few students who were not certain of their interest in practicing international law, the guest speakers added an interesting dimension to class. One student was particularly impressed when a speaker stated that “everyone in this room will practice international law in one way or another, no matter what you do.”

The only critique received mid-course was quite helpful in shaping the remainder of the speaker series. One student commented that although the speakers’ topics were interesting, their presentations needed to be more concretely connected to the subject matter of the course, which was not just international practice (although our assignments focused on this), but, rather, the development of strong persuasive writing and oral advocacy skills.

After the second set of speakers visited, a student commented that the speakers’ comments were more connected to the nature of our course. It is easy to ask speakers to talk about their work, but maintaining that connection to course skills is, of course, absolutely crucial, and to emphasize to students the importance of their legal research and writing courses, the speakers should discuss the types of documents they research and draft and the types of oral presentations they make.

The result? I have refined my general instructions for future speakers. I now ask each speaker to:

  • Pinpoint, as closely possible, the time when the speaker became interested in practicing international law—before, during, or after law school?—and what triggered that interest;
  • Explain, if the interest arose before or during law school, what the speaker did during law school to follow up on that interest in terms of, for example, courses, activities, networking outside of the law school, clinical/externship/summer experiences, study abroad, and additional study (e.g., an LLM abroad);
  • Describe the international/foreign law aspects of the speaker’s practice and include some anecdotes about, e.g., cases, deals, working with counsel abroad, intercultural competency, etc.;
  • Discuss the importance of developing strong advocacy skills—research, analysis, writing, and oral communication—and any special challenges these areas pose for an international practice.

The students are also asked to learn about the speakers ahead of time by doing their own research so that they feel more of a connection to the speakers and will be prepared to ask questions based on their research, as well as the speakers’ presentations.

When asked for suggestions for future speakers, the students debated whether they preferred remote presentations (this “really highlighted the global context in which international law operates” and “brought a truly ‘international’ element” into the presentation) or local speakers (“to bring a sense of ‘internationalism’ right to our doorstep”). The students favored bringing back the speakers and perhaps adding additional ones as time might permit.

And how was the experience for the speakers? One commented, “I was incredibly impressed by your students—their receptivity, their abject fear, and their curiosity—all good traits for a lawyer, especially one who has an international practice.” Another responded: “I was challenged to consolidate my experiences and hopes into a succinct presentation that could motivate others towards action. I gathered up resources and contacts and possibilities to share, which forced me to be more thoughtful about my own future movements.” In virtually all cases where the speaker’s presentation was in person and not remote, the speakers remained to chat with students after class and stayed in touch in some cases as well. Another goal to aim for is generating this type of satisfaction for the speakers so that they wish to return each year and they think well of the students they met and of the law school as well.

Networking Beyond the Class Experience

One of the underlying goals of the speaker series was not just to introduce the students to the breadth of international legal issues that will crop up in their law practices, but to offer them the opportunity to network with practicing lawyers in an informal setting. The students had the opportunity to impress the speakers with their questions during formal question-and-answer sessions, as well as to converse with the speakers after class and to continue to communicate with them beyond the dates of their visits. All of the speakers were willing to hear from the students and interested in doing so, and several have kept in touch.

So why limit the “speaker series” concept to legal writing courses? There really is no reason to do so. Think of the perspective that international lawyers can bring to a course on environmental law, civil procedure, criminal law, and virtually all other subjects. Of course, a professor should only use speakers to enhance a course and should not invite so many speakers that the series impedes teaching all of the complex issues and skills that need to be taught in a particular subject. However, a few select guest speakers can emphasize for students the prevalence of international issues in the practice of law today. Even if students choose not to delve further into international subjects at law school, their increased awareness of these issues will alert them to these issues as they arise in practice.

A Final Note: The Law School Connection

What I haven’t discussed is how to find guest speakers for an international law speaker series. Of course, the professor can start with the colleagues and contacts whom he or she has met over the years.

My top recommendation is: invite alumni of the law school where you teach. What better way to demonstrate to your students that their law school produces international lawyers? The speaker series presents an opportunity to communicate that lawyers who once sat in the very same seats—or at least the same courses—as your students can become international lawyers if they take steps to do so. Through engaging with the speakers, the students will learn that attorneys come to practice international law by many paths, some intentional from day one of law school, some by the necessities of practice, some almost by accident. The speaker series can enhance or confirm the messages that students receive from their career guidance offices: network, become confident in your professional communication, follow up. Commented one student: “[T]he fact that these individuals have a connection to the Villanova School of Law is reassurance that this law school is a place where one may [prepare to] have a professional career in international law if [he or she] so desire[s].”

My other recommendation is “go local.” In addition to alumni, invite lawyers from your law school’s geographic community, including your local bar association, as well as academic colleagues, to discuss their pathways to their international law careers and the nature of their work. For students, learning that international practice can take place in their own “backyards” is an empowering message.

Aren’t these messages that we’d all like to convey? Consider introducing an international lawyer speaker or speaker series into your courses to bring this vibrant, ever-growing area of practice to life for your students.

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