Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Dean's panel at the Tsinghua U of T law conference

The future of legal education is looking international: (left) HKU Law Dean Michael Hor, with U of T Associate Dean Kerry Rittich, moderator, Dean Ed Iacobucci, and Tsinghua Law School's Dean Shen Weixing.


By Peter Boisseau

They operate in very different environments, but one thing law schools at the University of Toronto, Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Hong Kong have in common is that students are in large part leading the move towards international legal education, a recent conference that brought together faculty from the three schools was told. 

At the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, 80 students in a second-year class of 200 have applied to study abroad next year. At the University of Hong Kong, sixty percent of students already go on international exchanges. Tsinghua University has educated more than 200 foreign students in Chinese law, and has even more international exchanges and joint degrees in mind.

While the tale of the three law schools and their histories are very different in many ways, their evolving world views of legal education seem to be similar, a roundtable discussion by their deans concluded.

U of T has had student-exchange programs with other law schools for years, but applications have suddenly gone up significantly, said Dean Ed Iacobucci.

Dean Iacobucci said in some ways the law school has become a model for other divisions at U of T as the university takes an increasingly global view.

“That may be because the students have their own sense of the profession and how useful that cultural flexibility will be going forward,” he said.

“Our JD program has evolved over the years and students are more interested in a different mix of experiences than they have been in the past, and these exchanges are the most obvious example of that.”

Faculty and administrators at the University of Hong Kong still struggle with making the common law traditions they inherited from the United Kingdom gel with the Chinese legal system, said HKU Law Dean Michael Hor.

But students seem able to embrace the challenges and thrive in a global environment, he added.

“I have deep faith in the strength and resilience of students. No matter what you throw at them, they will survive,” said Hor. “In law schools such as ours, the students are always like that.”

Dean Shen Weixing of Tsinghua University said both domestic and foreign students have responded enthusiastically to a series of initiatives that have trained Chinese students in common law and English while making Chinese law more accessible to students from other countries.

“So in this sense, legal education is not only one way but two ways. Not only do our students go abroad to study western legal systems, but foreign students can study in China,” said Shen.

“We have changed the meaning of legal education at our university.” 

Global trends in the practice of law and education are a hot topic in legal circles, and the Deans’ Roundtable at the sixth annual Tsinghua-Toronto-Hong Kong Law Conference at U of T Law on February 2-3, 2018 focused on the effect those trends are having.

Law schools across the world are grappling with these changes, said U of T law professor Kerry Rittich, the associate dean of the JD program, who chaired the roundtable discussion. Rittich asked the deans what their biggest challenge is in preparing students and what they tell them.

Iacobucci noted that new law students are often fixated on trying to pick courses based on narrow assumptions about their future careers.

“With the quality of our students, we know they are going to do well, so we try to get them to take the courses that are interesting to them, and we’ll teach them how to think broadly and be flexible.”

As for his law school, Iacobucci said in some ways it has become a model for other divisions at U of T as the university takes an increasingly global view.

Beside the student exchange programs, the Faculty of Law has for decades invited visiting professors from all over the world to U of T to teach its students different legal perspectives from a global point of view.

At the same time, the Faculty is exploring co-teaching more innovative courses with practicing lawyers and developing additional experiential learning opportunities for students.

Another growing area of interest for the Faculty is interdisciplinary studies and combined degrees. It already has a thriving Global Professional Masters of Law program (GPLLM) that focuses on key areas of international legal practice such as business and technology.

The Faculty’s long tradition of encouraging critical thinking and intellectual “nimbleness,” as well as its location in an international city, makes a certain global perspective quite natural, said Iacobucci.

“It invites comparisons and prepares our students to go to places like the U.K. or Hong Kong or Beijing, because we don’t just focus on what the rules of law are, but on why the rules may be the way they are.”

Meanwhile, administrators at HKU are helping break down silos between departments by funding projects that have international and interdisciplinary elements, said Hor.

Tsinghua University is also working to focus on more interdisciplinary studies to incorporate emerging fields such as technology and health, and is partnering with Canadian and American universities on joint degree programs, said Shen.

University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young, the associate dean for research, asked the deans whether law schools have a responsibility to set an example for their students and speak out when their governments abuse legal norms or human rights.

“Our law school doesn’t take positions on those issues,” said Iacobucci. “But we have a diversity of voices on our faculty, and we are proud when we hear them take positions on the legal questions of the day.”

In Hong Kong, faculty who take positions on the rule of law often experience retribution from the government. “These are difficult waters to negotiate,” said Hor, adding he fears Chinese authorities may follow the example of Singapore, which prohibits public comments by institutions like law schools unless the government invites them.

China faces challenges as a developing country in many ways, said Shen, and those issues can only be resolved by the Chinese people.

“But step by step, we are promoting the rule of law in China, and that really is a great achievement.”