Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Coming Soon ... to China: A New ABA-Accredited Law School

[by Bill Henderson]

This post is about new ABA-approved law schools.  Some will struggle mightily and worsen the economic prospects of local lawyers.  Others may transform the U.S. legal profession. Let's start with the former.

There is a story in the National Law Journal that chronicles the rapid rise in the number of new law schools seeking ABA-approval--ten new schools are now in works.  See Leigh Jones, A Deluge of Law Schools.  Likewise, in April, the ABA Journal reported on a $50 million dollar appropriation by the New York legislature to underwrite the creation of three new state-sponsored law schools.

According to the stories, the rationale for many of these schools is local economic development.  Although the notion of a lawyer shortage will no doubt be met with skepticism by many, it does happen, at least in a limited form.  For example, during the 1990s, places like Austin and San Diego had a shortage of skilled transactional lawyers to service the bevy of emerging high-tech businesses.  Sensing the opportunity, a large number of Am Law 200 firms opened branch offices in both metropolitan areas. 

Setting aside the obvious question of whether new law school graduates can service effectively clients with sophisticated legal needs (the local lawyers in Austin and San Diego in the early 1990s were outmatched), the prerequisite to all this is client demand.  How is a new local law school going to spark economic development within a local economy that has a paucity of entrepreneurial activity (perhaps because many young people have decamped for Austin and San Diego)?  From a public subsidy perspective, this seems like the proverbial bridge to nowhere.  Further, it is likely to depress the earnings of solo and small firm lawyers.  See, e.g., Regional Law Schools and Lawyer Income.

Yet, the exact opposite circumstances now prevail in China, and a JD degree from an ABA-approved law school is seen as the answer.  Specifically, according to this story from Inside Higher Ed, Peking University is opening a new law school that will offer an American-style J.D. degree. 

Jeffrey_lehman There are at least three reasons why we should take notice:  (1) Jeffrey Lehman, who formerly served as dean of Michigan Law and president of Cornell University, has been named the chancellor and founding dean; (2) "the school plans to seek accreditation from the American Bar Association" so that its students can take the bar exams in all US jurisdictions; and (3) "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."

What is driving the demand?  Multinational law firms want foreign nationals with U.S. legal training.  I am told by a well-connected law school administrator that, according to Lehman and his backers, the ubiquitous LLM degree fails to fully socialize Asian students into U.S.-style lawyering. Moreover, the degree is now so common that it carries an increasingly weak signal of ability.  Assuming that Peking University can be sufficiently selective (and the first class had 55 admits out of 210 applicants), many large American and British firms will hire its graduates for their growing China offices.  If that happens, we can expect the number of applicants to skyrocket.

So consider this scenario, which is certainly plausible.  With all of China as an applicant pool, Peking University's entering credentials could be extremely high (like any other ABA-approved law school, its students will take the LSAT).  Philanthropists interested in international affairs will be drawn to the school and help build its endowment. The school will buy the library of a U.S. law school that decides to throw in the towel.  If Peking is ranked like any other ABA-approved law school, it could easily debut in Tier 1, which would further fuel demand.  In turn, Jeffrey Lehman will have little trouble recruiting high profile U.S. faculty to teach at the school as visitors.  The opportunity will be seen as an extremely valuable and prestigious opportunity -- essentially tagging some professors as truly international scholars.

I am told that similar plans are underway at the University of Melbourne and at a Korean university. It  seems to me, however, that Lehman's franchise may be a crown jewel.  As a first mover in China, Peking University has the opportunity to create an Asian analogue to Harvard Law.  It is likely that only a vision this large could attract the services of someone like Jeffrey Lehman.  Wow.


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Tracked on Jun 5, 2008 7:48:22 AM


I wonder how Peking Law will teach the American approach to "zealous advocacy" and the "right to counsel," especially in light of today's news about the 2 Chinese lawyers facing disbarment for representing Tibetan pro-independence clients:

Then again, if demand is being fueled by Anglo-US BigLaw more interested in corporate work than criminal defense, civil rights, or plaintiffs' torts, I shouldn't be surprised if this new crop of lawyers kowtows to Beijing's awful human rights policies just like everyone else.

Posted by: WL | Jun 4, 2008 5:18:46 PM

This is a brilliant move on a few levels. I see the need and the demand. I think a lot of aspiring lawyers from the US might apply there as a way to get their foot in the door in the Asian markets.

However, I question the involvement of Mr. Lehman or any other American lawyer. Would they have done the same at Munich University in 1939?

The fact is that for all its money, China is still a more repressive, cruel, and undemocratic regime than Germany was in the 1930s. Yet greedy Americans and Europeans shrug their shoulders and run to the trough.

I personally wouldn't have taught at a Nazi run law school. I question why anyone would teach at a Communist Chinese run school. If the mission is to perhaps "infect" them with democracy, I can respect that. But, I don't detect that in this plan.

Posted by: Marc J. Randazza | Jun 6, 2008 5:44:07 AM

This is a very kind post, maybe too kind.

I'd offer one important point of clarification. While it is true that we aspire to be accredited by the ABA, and that we are determined to devote all necessary resources, and to do all that is required, to present a program of legal education that will qualify for approval, it is also true that this road from aspiration to realization is a long and difficult one. Even provisional approval (our goal for the 2009-2010 academic year) requires substantial compliance with every single accreditation standard, coupled with a 3-year-plan for full compliance. I think we can do it, but this will be a significant challenge.

And I have two small supplemental points for any lurking law professors who might be interested in teaching with us: the school is located on PKU's branch campus, in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), and the academic year is split into six 6-week modules, rather than two semesters. Students will take two only classes per module, with each class involving about 6.6 contact hours per week for 5 weeks, and an exam in week 6. That's more or less a 2.5-credit class, compressed into a 5-week schedule.

Posted by: Jeff Lehman | Jun 6, 2008 12:07:58 PM

Having spent eight years in Moscow as a practicing lawyer and yielding to no one as a former anti-communist Cold Warrior, I can assure you that what we think we know from the media about the people in a country we have not lived in, bears no relation to the facts on the ground.

The success of the U.S. economic system is well known and widely respected in Russia. 98% of the university-age population of Russia was and is eager for U.S.-style training. From my exposure to Chinese law students at MSU Law recently, I am convinced the same interest exists in China.

As one of those lucky enough to have been in Moscow as a corporate lawyer during the early years (Coudert/Clifford Chance 1995-2003) of the development of the New Russia's economy, I assure you the demand from apolitical students is there. Surely one way to assist, if not accelerate, the continued evolution of the Chinese government is to help develop excellent lawyers.

Having no interest in furthering a Nazi or other repressive government, I nevertheless firmly believe creating generation of U.S. trained lawyers in China will be a positive contribution.

Bruce W. Bean
Lurking Law Professor
Michigan State University Law School

Posted by: Bruce W. Bean | Jun 22, 2008 4:51:46 AM

Impossible Mission(Part 1) ( 2008-11-12 5:27 )

When i first read about the news that there is a Amercian style law school opened by Peking University(school of transnational law) in shenzhen,i felt very happy about it since i got the same vision quite a few years ago and now my vision came true(that is another coincidents happened quite often in my life,very amazing though hardly believable).

This time a group of dedicated people both from China and US intends to set up a precedents that US style law school could survive in China especially in Shenzhen.

The dean of the school talked about dedication which means both honour and sacrifice.I understand that their efforts should be welcomed and admired. But there are some barriers that they must overcome so that success is possible.

In order to achieve similar effects as a US JD law school ,you must get accredited by ABA so that you can take part in Bar exam in US. In order to get accredited by Amercian bar association,you must show that your student and faculties are good enough.

In order to achieve this how an American Law School did: Basically their tactics include mainly two points: At one hand that student candidate need LSAT test score good enough to

succeed in their application and the law school is quite picky in choosing proper student. On the other hand they retain quite a lot of experienced and talented professors for their JD student which means some of the lectures are experienced lawyers.

Then let us look at another approach.That how can a possible Chinese undergraduate or graduate student succeed in their application of an American law school.First they need get a proper LSAT score,then fluency in English ,then good average score for their study in China,preferably from a well known Chinese Law School.

Posted by: frank | Nov 11, 2008 2:59:02 PM

I am extremely interested in this type of school. I am almost finished with my M.A degree in the US. (Study abroad program in China) I will be done soon. Looking for a law school I wanted to be in CA since that is where I am from. My last two years living and working in China has greatly influenced my choice. If there is an ABA approved school in China I will go there for sure. I have no doubts about that. China is a mulitifaced country with many opportunities.

Posted by: Thalia | Apr 16, 2009 10:48:18 PM

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