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An American Law School in China

May 22, 2008

Jeffrey S. Lehman, former president of Cornell University and now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, spoke on Wednesday about a milestone he’s quietly helped to achieve over the past nine months: creating the first American-style law school in China.

Universities around the world have adopted the American model – a three-year J.D. graduate program focusing on the common law and grounded in judicial reasoning – but while much has been written about the rise of higher education in China, students there who are able still flock to the United States to earn their law degrees. Lehman, formerly the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, is testing whether a school that offers a comparable education, but in China, could serve as a model for other institutions.

“China already has more than 600 law schools, so why have one more?” he asked. “And why should it be an American-style law school?”

One reason obvious to Chinese students is that multinational firms hiring lawyers are looking for students with J.D. degrees. “The very best graduates of China’s very best law schools … were not being hired by multinational law firms unless they came to the U.S.” to study, he said.

But a deeper reason Lehman touched on in his talk, given at the Wilson Center, is a hope that a rigorous application of legal pedagogy can train students who might in the future work to strengthen China’s rule of law and its institutions. “We are intended to be a proof of concept for China. We are intended to show whether this … type of education will have value for China and is worthy for greater emulation,” he said.

Lehman was named the chancellor and founding dean of the School of Transnational Law at Peking University’s campus in the mainland city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. The institution will admit its first class of 55 students this fall, out of an application pool of about 210, he said. Eventually, the school plans to seek accreditation from the American Bar Association so that graduates can take the New York State bar exam.

The freestanding school will operate independently of Peking’s existing, Chinese-style law school. Like any American law school, the courses will be taught in English, the cases will be from American law – and most of the professors will be from American law schools. In order to simulate the course of study of a typical American law student, the school currently requires that applicants major in a subject other than law as undergraduates, a stipulation that Lehman suggested could be counterproductive in the long run.

Although the school’s tuition -- less than $10,000 a year -- will be more than double that for a typical Chinese legal education, that will still be less than a quarter of what students would pay at a private American institution, Lehman said. But faculty members won’t be taking a pay cut. To fill the “gap,” Lehman explained, the school will be subsidized by revenues from Peking’s executive MBA program ($500,000) and by a grant from the Starr Foundation ($500,000).

To justify that cost, the school will offer the kind of intellectual workout familiar to most American students – what Lehman termed as the ability to categorize and compartmentalize information on demand, as well as practicing the art of “sympathetic engagement with counterargument.” In addition, the law school will focus on English mastery for its students.

“American law schools are not about having their students memorize or master a particular structure of legal rules…. Rather, we are stressing the development of intellectual skills,” he said.

 

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