Fordham Law

ABA Accreditation for Law School in China Runs Up Against U.S. Job Fears

Michael Martin in, May 24, 2011

Media Source

by Anthony Lin

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."

The ABA has responded by postponing any decision on the matter while it consults with "stakeholders" like the state supreme courts that oversee admission of foreign lawyers to practice. Lehman says that he's glad that there hasn't been an outright "no" yet. But he's frustrated that so many of the arguments against accrediting foreign schools don't seem relevant to the only actual school interested in seeking accreditation right now.

"A lot of these arguments would be found to be completely without merit if the ABA would just come here and take a look," says the dean.

With barely 50 students set to graduate in its first class in 2012, compared to the more than 4,000 foreign lawyers who take the New York bar each year, STL could have little impact on the U.S. job market, even if it sent that class en masse to America. As it is, most of those students, graduates of China's elite undergraduate universities, are actually expected to stay in China working either with international-minded law firms or multinationals. The visiting professors who have taught them rave about their brightness and enthusiasm. Lehman says the job prospects of STL students, who pay a little under $10,000 a year in tuition, will likely be undiminished whatever the ABA's decision.

But he still wants that decision, the earliest date for which he thinks would be the ABA's annual meeting in August. Lehman hopes the bar group will consider the benefits to the U.S. profession to having a high-profile educational outpost in a rising superpower like China.

Harvard's Goldsmith also made that point in a letter to the ABA in which he noted that U.S. law's dominant role as the "legal currency" of international transactions was facing more competition than ever. Training lawyers abroad was one way to maintain the influence of the American legal system as well as spreading Western ideas about the rule of law, Goldsmith argued in support of accrediting STL.

"The ABA should want to further these by offering its accreditation to any law school that meets its usual standards of excellence," wrote Goldsmith. "The geographical locus of the American education, especially in today's very small world, should not matter."

But if the ABA is ultimately swayed by arguments about the bad U.S. job market for lawyers, Lehman thinks that the organization should be forthright about it.

"Then the ABA should announce they aren't accrediting any more law schools anywhere because there are too many lawyers," he says.