Peking University

January 18th, 2016 / By

In August 2012, the ABA’s Council of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar decided not to accredit any law schools located outside the United States. Many observers assumed that action would put an end to Peking University’s upstart enterprise, a School of Transnational Law. Instead, the school, popularly known as “STL,” is thriving.

Philip McConnaughay and Colleen Toomey, STL’s Dean and Associate Dean, explain the school’s success in a recent paper. Their insights are important for anyone seeking to understand the globalization of law practice and legal education. The story of Peking University and STL also offers a cautionary tale about American protectionism.

STL’s Success

STL’s founders hoped the school would become an elite American law school located in China. They designed a JD program, taught in English by visiting American faculty, that would offer Chinese students the education and credentials previously available only in the U.S. When the ABA refused to accredit JD programs operating outside the United States, STL changed course.

The school’s leaders realized that they had–somewhat inadvertently–created a unique educational institution. STL offers its students both a JD in American law and a Juris Master (JM) in Chinese law. Students learn both bodies of law, while benefiting from the opportunity to compare the two systems. They emerge as highly educated lawyers and natural comparatists. Since JD classes are taught in English, while JM ones are offered in Chinese, they also refine their fluency in both languages. (Students must establish fluency for admission, but refine their language skills and ability to communicate about the law in both languages.)

Law firms, multinational corporations, and government agencies have been eager to hire these graduates. Their education, language facility, and cultural awareness are hard to duplicate. STL has also been able to focus its offerings on the type of practice favored by sophisticated Asian rim employers. Here is a law school that offers “Advanced Mergers and Acquisitions,” “Advanced Transnational Law,” and “Ambiguity–The Problem of Bilingual Contracts” (and that’s just a few of the courses that start with the letter “A”).

Equally important, STL’s graduates promise to become leaders within both China and the international community. As China develops its legal system, and as transnational interactions accelerate, it is hard to identify a group of individuals better suited to advise China and the world on emerging legal issues. Graduates of elite law schools in the U.S. and U.K. will continue to lead governments, businesses, and nonprofits, but STL graduates will be at their side. (Those are my words, not those of Deans McConnaughay and Toomey, although I’m sure they share my sentiment.)


That prediction brings us to the cautionary tale about protectionism. As McConnaughay and Toomey show, the ABA Council’s decision to exclude foreign schools from JD accreditation was largely protectionist. Both legal educators and practicing lawyers feared competition from foreign-trained lawyers. With legal employment sagging and law school applications declining, who needed more competition?

We did. As McConnaughay and Toomey explain, STL’s original vision would have helped preserve the dominance of U.S. law. STL’s students, and perhaps others like them in other countries, would have been trained in U.S. law and applied those perspectives to their legal careers.

Instead, those students are learning both U.S. and Chinese law. Their education is much richer, and they are able to pick the best points from both legal systems. Their comparative focus also allows them to see where both systems fail and new approaches are necessary. The world probably will benefit from this creativity, but American lawyers and JDs will not.

American lawyers and legal educators have assumed that we, and our legal system, hold a unique, irreplaceable status in global interactions. That’s not the way things are panning out. We will continue to play a dominant role, but we’re not the only legal culture with good ideas.

Bringing STL and other foreign-based law schools into our fold wouldn’t have hurt domestic lawyers or law schools; it would have increased our power. Now we will watch as a new breed of law school challenges us globally. We’re also left to wonder: How many similar mistakes are we making? Rather than circle the wagons around a traditional concept of legal education and law practice, should we be expanding those concepts?


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