Monday, May 30, 2011

ABA considers accrediting foreign law schools while attorneys here fear more lost jobs

From the Asian Lawyer via Law.com:

Dean Jeffrey Lehman is generally pleased with the progress of the new law school he oversees. The former dean of University of Michigan Law School and onetime president of Cornell University has seen enrollment at the three-year-old school go from 53 extremely bright and highly motivated students per class to 80.

He will also soon have recruited eight full-time faculty members to work alongside a star-studded roster of visiting faculty that has included Harvard professors Charles Ogletree and Jack Goldsmith. Ground will be broken later this year on a stunning new Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed law school building.

The one sticking point has been accreditation by the American Bar Association. Which seems like it should be a no-brainer, except that this law school is located in Shenzhen, China.

Lehman has long hoped to make the Peking University School of Transnational Law (STL) the first law school outside the United States to be accredited by the ABA, which would allow its graduates to take the bar exam in any U.S. state.

Though its students are almost all Chinese, the school teaches a predominantly U.S. law curriculum in English and employs a faculty whose members mostly hold J.D.s from American law schools. Lehman and other supporters see the school as promoting U.S. law and the values behind it as a sort of legal lingua franca in an increasingly globalized world.

But that aim has run headlong into the still-weak U.S. legal job market. Fears of a tide of new overseas competition for scarce work were evident in many of the 60 comments the ABA received in response to a special-committee report released last fall recommending the accreditation section begin considering foreign schools.

"As a long-time ABA member, I have no doubt why so many people refuse to join the association or leave shortly after joining," wrote Kelley Drye & Warren partner Steven Moore. "This proposal makes absolutely no sense, unless we just want to implode the legal field in the United States and get our unemployment rate in the double digits for decades to come."

A number of law student groups have voiced similar economic arguments. The student bar association of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law said the proposal would have "an unjustifiable impact upon employment for current and future attorneys from the United States."

Several law school deans expressed concern that accrediting foreign schools would undermine their L.L.M. programs. Such programs, they argue, offer foreign law students critical immersion in U.S. culture they would not receive at overseas schools like STL. Fordham Law School Dean Michael Martin wrote that lower-cost overseas schools could under-price U.S. schools, leading to a "race to the bottom" that "would ultimately have the effect of eroding our system of legal education."

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