Improving Legal Education Across the World

 

By: David Thomson, Professor of Practice at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law

Many of us who focus at least part of our research and scholarship on legal education reform focus most or all of that time on the situation in our own country, the United States.  With 200 law schools here engaging in numerous “natural experiments” to improve legal education (from expanding experiential learning to allowing the GRE for admissions, and more), and with the U.S. market for legal services roiling through its own changes, we have our hands full as it is.

At least speaking for myself – the author of Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age (2009), a book about the future of legal education – for many years, I myopically focused on the situation in the U.S. exclusively.  I was, for the most part, ignorant of the situation in other countries.  But as that book slowly made its way around the world, I have found myself drawn in to a broader interaction with what is happening in legal education outside our borders.

I recently returned from trips to Japan and Russia, and I write this still dealing with the scrambled egg brain of double jet-lag (so please keep that in mind if this post makes no sense).  I thought readers of this blog might be interested in what I am learning from our colleagues in these two other countries.

It turns out everyone is dealing with the same things we are dealing with.  That is a vast oversimplification, of course, but the recurrent themes we often discuss – in conferences and scholarship and blog posts – are themes I have heard in these other countries.  Would it surprise you to know that the legal education system in Japan and Russia (whether in undergraduate form, or at the masters level) is primarily lecture based, and that there is the desire – but resistance – to move away from that?  Would it surprise you to know that clinical education is growing, but is by no means as strong as many would like it to be?  Would it surprise you to know that there is interest in best practices for teaching law, but that progress is slow?  We might be a little bit ahead of the common practices in these other countries, but the themes are much the same.

In Japan, I had the honor of making the acquaintance of Professor Akira Fujimoto, one of the founders of the PSIM consortium at Nagoya University’s faculty of law.  PSIM began by establishing a relationship with NITA here in the U.S., and NITA has long supported PSIM in its development.  It now comprises law professors and administrators at 30 Japan-based law schools, and is primarily focused on trial advocacy training.  I was a speaker at their 10thth Anniversary symposium on Teaching Sustainable Practical Skills in early September, with Karen Lockwood, the Executive Director of NITA.  PSIM members attended the symposium to learn more about legal education in the United States, and to understand changes in law teaching that are becoming more common here.  I spoke about the “Carnegie Integrated Course” model that we developed at the University of Denver, and also about the impact of technology on law teaching in the U.S.  During the Symposium Q&A and the social event that followed, there was intense interest in learning about different models of teaching the law than the classic lecture format.

In Russia, I have been lucky to be a part of the Legal Education Exchange project, sponsored by the U.S. Russia Foundation, for the last four years.  This project brought four U.S. Law schools (Georgetown, Denver, McGeorge, and Emory) together with four Russia-based law schools (Baltic Federal, Moscow State, Russian Foreign Trade Academy, and Urals State), with each school having a “partner school” (in the order provided here).  It started with the first LEX Conference in Moscow in 2014, which brought us all together for information exchange about teaching methods, and for preliminary meetings with our partner schools.  Since then, I have traveled to Russia three times for additional meetings, and last week was at Moscow State to offer a two-day workshop on Law School Assessment in the U.S.  Over 20 professors from seven Russia-based schools attended the workshop, and there was great interest in how to draft learning outcomes and rubrics, and the backward design of courses.  I also had the pleasure of teaching MSU’s Masters degree students over two days, and was very impressed with their fluency in English, and their genuine interest in our legal system.

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In both countries, there are issues of lower enrollment, reductions in bar passage rates, and complaints from the practicing bar about graduates being underprepared to practice law.  These pressures are – as they are in our country – encouraging a broader discussion about how to improve legal education, while retaining those aspects of it that remain valuable.  It has been immensely encouraging to me when I meet kindred spirits in other countries who love teaching, and who care deeply about how to make legal education better for their students.

This post, of course, is only a small window into a complex topic, but it is a snapshot from the window I have had the privilege of looking through.  I hope that others who have experience teaching best practices in other countries will comment on this post about what they have learned, so we can add to our understanding of how best practices for legal education are spreading around the world.

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