Charting a New Path

From The Practice September/October 2016
Chinese law schools rethink the American educational model

What does the future hold for legal education in China? In a recent article, “Preparing for the Sinicization of the Western Legal Tradition: The Case of Peking University School of Transnational Law,” Philip McConnaughay and Colleen Toomey examine the transformation of one of China’s newest law schools, Peking University School of Transnational Law (STL), and the school’s efforts to respond to changes in both the American and Chinese legal markets. Founded in 2008, STL was explicitly intended to prepare Chinese students for work in the American legal system—what some call the “American education made in China” model.

According to McConnaughay and Toomey, who are both professors at STL, the school was conceived as a way for Chinese students to have access to an elite American legal education without the financial burden of studying in the United States. With the intention of gaining accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA), STL hired professors from elite U.S. law schools, incorporated American law curricula into its classrooms, and even brought on the former dean of the University of Michigan School of Law and past president of Cornell University, Jeffrey Lehman, as its founding dean and chairman. However, the 2008 economic crisis and resulting downturn in the American legal market put an end to  STL’s dream of gaining accreditation. In 2012 the ABA voted against accrediting foreign law schools, a decision driven largely by members’ concerns regarding a flood of attorneys in an already crowded market.

While the American legal market was reeling from the effects of the economic crisis, China and its legal profession were beginning to identify new areas of opportunity. Rapid economic growth in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, as well as the expanding influence of Chinese businesses in global developing markets, signaled new opportunities for Chinese lawyers to work outside of the once hegemonic Anglo-American legal system. While STL continues to offer its students an education that will prepare them to work in an American legal system, it is increasingly incorporating courses that are more focused on Chinese law as well as legal skills that are important in a global context. McConnaughay and Toomey argue that this shifting landscape in legal education and the global legal market might lead to a sinicization of global legal norms, an outcome that would reflect China’s new position as a global economic and political leader. Although it is too early to assess  STL’s impact on Chinese legal education, three cohorts of graduates have already entered the job market, and many were placed in reputable law firms and large business corporations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

What to learn more?

Check out “Internationalizing Chinese Legal Education in the Early Twenty-First Century” by Zhizhou Wang (University of Wisconsin), Sida Liu (University of Toronto), and Xueyao Li (Shanghai University of Finance and Economics).