Pathways to a global education in law

By Lianne Hall

The University of Cambridge is the latest addition to international partnerships established by Melbourne Law School with Oxford University, NYU School of Law and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This quartet of global partnerships gives Melbourne law students unprecedented access to opportunities for international study in the field of law.

So why are some of our brightest law students taking up the challenge of a second law degree following the rigours of a Juris Doctor? Melbourne's degree pathway programs give students the opportunity to apply during their second year to some of the world's leading law schools. Upon successful admission, most commence their international study in the last semester of their JD, effectively gaining early admission to the international program.

When Stephanie Batsakis applied for Oxford University she was aware of the fearsome reputation of the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL).

"At the time of deciding to apply for the BCL, I had heard of its reputation as one of the most academically demanding law degrees in the world. I considered it as an intellectual boot-camp that would shape me into a better lawyer and person… The mental gymnastics required for almost all of my subjects has really pushed me to the limits, and encouraged me to think creatively about the law," says Stephanie.

For those interested in honing their legal acumen in the country where the common law originated, this year's announcement of a partnership with the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law was an important development.

"We look forward to the connections between students and academics that the partnership between Melbourne and Cambridge will build and the possibilities for new ideas and collaboration in research," said Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, in announcing the partnership.

The international partnerships give JD students the opportunity to expand their experience at institutions which, like Melbourne, are at the centre of academic excellence and scholarly influence within their own countries. Many see overseas study as an opportunity to undertake comparative legal study and build on knowledge of their own legal system and to challenge their existing way of thinking.

Jack Nelson is studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) where he is completing a Master of Laws in Chinese Business Law, one of the world's only postgraduate programs in Chinese business law taught in English.

"I find that studying Chinese law has deepened my understanding of Australian law," reflects Jack.

"Studying another legal system provides a point of comparison that can help you to better understand your home legal system. This is particularly true when coming from a common law jurisdiction like Australia to study a civil law jurisdiction such as China. The many differences between Chinese and Australian law did not surprise me. The number of similarities, however, was unexpected. The fact that we were learning in Hong Kong, a common law jurisdiction within China, served to emphasise the value of comparative legal study." 

International study can also offer the chance to experience different approaches to teaching law. At NYU School of Law students engage with the Socratic method that is the principal tool for legal education in the US. At Oxford, students benefit from its famous tutorial system, based around discussions between two students and a professor, an experience Stephanie describes as intense but rewarding. "I always come out of them uplifted and feeling that I have a better grasp on what possible directions the law could take and why the current law may be wrong."

Stephanie, who was awarded an Allan Myers Oxford University Scholarship to undertake the BCL, says that its egalitarian nature whereby students are expected to bring their own opinions to the table and engage in meaningful discussion with professors is its most challenging aspect, but one for which the JD provided a strong foundation.

"The JD taught me how to determine what the law is and how to approach problem questions... The BCL is an extension upon this, where we will usually cover the margins of the law where it is not clear both what the law is, and what the law should be," says Stephanie.

Melbourne's global partners offer challenging masters-level programs that allow students to engage with the law on a deep level. However, it is no secret that their prestigious reputations are also seen as career enhancing.

"I always knew that undertaking the BCL would be great for my career in the future, as it is incredibly well-regarded by lawyers both in the UK and Australia. However, I did not really understand the extent of it until I came here," says Stephanie.

"All students in my Evidence class were offered a mini-pupillage (an internship with a barrister's chambers) purely on the basis of the reputation of our course."

Jack Nelson also considered access to the international job market when undertaking study at CUHK, which has a growing reputation for being at the cutting-edge of commercial law.

"The growing economic power of Asia means that familiarity with Asia's legal systems is of increasing importance for international lawyers. This is particularly true of China, and the Chinese legal system. The opportunity for in-country and hands-on study of Chinese law is ideal for Melbourne students who are considering an international career," says Jack.

People are at the centre of learning and the international stature of these four leading universities means unmatched opportunities to learn from experts at the very top of their fields. These are exciting and stimulating learning environments. "CUHK attracts some of the best scholars from all over China. Their insights into how Chinese law works in practice have been invaluable in understanding a system that works in ways that are unknown to Australia," says Jack.

Julia Freidgeim has just returned from NYU, where she found that studying in one of the world's leading centres for international law offered access to outstanding faculty as well as an extraordinary roster of visiting professors.

"There are lots of opportunities to make connections with people who work in the field.The law school itself houses some of the world's top professors, and because everyone passes through New York, you also get a great selection of guest speakers, visiting lecturers and all kinds of interesting events."

Over the pond, Stephanie admits she too loves "geeking out over seeing legal theory heavyweights like Joseph Raz, John Gardner and Martha Nussbaum".

"One of my favourite things about Oxford is the range and calibre of speakers that we can see. Just in the last six months, I've been able to see the presidents of Afghanistan and Kosovo, the former President of South Africa F. W. de Klerk, Nobel Prize winner John Nash, Supreme Court Judge Baroness Hale and Professor Richard Dawkins."

A highlight for Julia has been the opportunity to take her legal knowledge and apply it in real-world settings. NYU is renowned for its program of clinics that see students working with clients and communities to address urgent problems.

"One thing that really stands out at the big elite US universities is their clinical programs. These are well resourced clinics led by well-known professors who are also advocates. You work on real projects, significant projects," says Julia, who undertook the Global Justice Clinic with Professor Meg Satterthwaite.

"Half of the course is working on the field project and half is attending seminars where you are working with a small group of people and developing the essential skills for being a human rights lawyer: seminars on interviewing, advocacy, using social media, dealing with vicarious trauma. Really practical skills."

With all the intellectual challenges, career opportunities, and professional connections that come with further international study in the field of law, there is also for many young lawyers the less definable prospect of an experience that can shape lives.

For Julia living and studying in the heart of Greenwich Village, where student life revolves around the public space of Washington Square Park, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"New York is an incredibly exciting city. It really does feel like the centre of the world. Leading figures across all disciples pass through there, and it attracts people who are trying to make it in every field. There are so many talented, motivated people. There's so much energy."

Sometimes place can make all the difference.

"Oxford University is a beautiful, magical place and I am not only surrounded by history but am actively taking part in it," says Stephanie. "When I dine in Hall, I am surrounded by the portraits of other students and tutors who have sat in the same Hall before me, including John Locke, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and John Wesley, not to mention the founder of my college, Henry VIII."

"Sometimes studying at this level can be tiring and challenging, but you have to remember that you are being shaped into a better thinker, a better speaker and a better person in the process. I just remember that I am essentially living at Hogwarts and I can't help smiling!"

Banner Image: Stephanie Batsakis (right) with classmate Katharina Wagner at matriculation for Oxford University
Credit: Ralph Williamson Photography

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.