November 19, 2012 12:07 am

International law: Legal studies in a globalised era

student in a classroom

Class act: breaking students' national mindsets will broaden their legal reasoning

The legal landscape has been fundamentally altered by the march of globalisation. As individuals and businesses conduct complex interactions across borders, lawyers are increasingly required to understand and engage with multiple legal systems, both national and transnational. Law schools are facing a corresponding challenge to equip today’s lawyers with the skills to operate in this evolving environment.

“Law can no longer be looked at in national terms, as it has been historically,” says Luís Barreto Xavier, dean of the Católica Global School of Law, part of the Catholic University of Portugal. Law schools have not, however, responded to the demands of globalisation as quickly as businesses have and many have lost ground, he adds.

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Hans Micklitz, head of law at the European University Institute, agrees that the response by academia to the challenge of internationalisation has been insufficient. “Unfortunately most schools remain tied to their national perspectives,” he says, citing the barriers of tradition and language that have hindered reforms.

Legal education at the EUI, an Italian-based autonomous institution established by EU member states, is unequivocally international. Graduate students on the Master of Laws (LLM) in comparative, European and international laws are exposed to what Prof Micklitz calls the “intermingling” legal jurisdictions of national and transnational bodies. Emphasis is primarily placed on the EU, which, he says, has catalysed the implementation of international legal norms and rules into legislation across Europe.

“Our first challenge is to break up students’ national mindsets and introduce international approaches,” says Prof Micklitz, noting the diversity of nationalities on the EUI’s masters programmes. Though it is a challenge to integrate so many different legal perspectives, he says the range of outlooks and experiences is a great asset for the institute.

Paul Cardwell, deputy head of the University of Sheffield’s school of law, also stresses students must see international law as inherently part of national law. It is essential for European schools to embed EU law in their curricula, he says, as EU legislation and directives have been adopted into the laws of member states.

Emphasis has been shifting, Mr Cardwell notes, beyond EU law to reflect the increasing relevance of global laws – in fields such as international trade – as the world economy becomes more integrated. This is the explicit focus of the Católica Global School of Law, which was established in 2009 to develop teaching and research focused on the transnational dimensions of law, says Prof Xavier. “To allow the direction of study to move beyond Portuguese law to fully incorporate European and international law ... we founded a new school within the [university’s] law school.”

The school, which teaches exclusively in English, offers two LLM programmes. The first, law in a European and global context, is a broad-ranging programme designed for younger graduate students without experience in law. The second, an LLM in international business law, is aimed at legal practitioners looking to progress within the corporate sphere.

“Law schools must equip students with the intellectual tools – by developing their legal reasoning and by broadening their minds – to engage with law at an international level,” says Prof Xavier. He suggests academic institutions alone can successfully nurture graduates with a “sophistication” that may not be substituted by corporate in-house training. This comes despite a concession that business has, over recent years, been more responsive to globalisation’s effect on the practice of law than universities.

Approaching contemporary legal studies with an international perspective, the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University is closely affiliated with the university’s school of international affairs. “Traditionally US [law] schools have been silos within universities,” says Karen Bysiewicz, associate dean at the school. “The world’s problems are of such magnitude, however, that law can only ever be part of the solutions.”

Dickinson has collaborated closely with the school of international affairs – in teaching and research – since the latter’s establishment in 2007. According to Prof Bysiewicz, law students recognise the importance of the international context, but need to understand the world beyond the lens of the media. During their time at Dickinson, each is strongly encouraged to pursue internship opportunities abroad, or to join Penn State business and engineering students in sustainable development projects in developing countries. “The legal market in the US is on the cusp of a downturn,” says Prof Bysiewicz. “There is great value in students gaining international exposure at this time.”

Mr Cardwell of Sheffield highlights the job opportunities for students who have a grasp of comparative, as well as international law. “Schools [in the UK] have moved away from the study of foreign legal systems ... but understanding the distinctions is as important as ever.”

Despite the international direction of law, and the legal industry, Prof Xavier says it remains a paradox that law continues to be practised through local bars. “Local law will continue to be relevant,” he says, adding that students must understand the interaction and tensions between national and transnational systems of law. He invokes the example of international law firms wishing to do business in a country such as China. “It would be unthinkable for them to succeed there without an appreciation of the local context,” he says.

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