Borders no barriers for young lawyers

By Lianne Hall

Melbourne law student Harini Amarasinghe has just returned to Australia from London where she spent a semester participating in a unique program that brings together students from across the world to learn about international, comparative and transnational law.

While in London, Harini went to the cinema with classmates to watch the 1950s classic Twelve Angry Men. "The discussion after the movie was incredible," recalls Harini. "Suddenly it was civil law and common law battling it out.  'Why do we have jury trials?' 'How can a jury be accountable?' This was just a movie night – and we were debating!"

Harini and her fellow moviegoers are graduates of the Center for Transnational Legal Studies (CTLS). Their spirited dialogue is an important part of a curriculum that encourages students from different legal systems and cultures to learn in a uniquely collaborative way.

Set up in 2008 by Professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff, former Dean of Georgetown Law, now Deputy High Commissioner in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, CTLS is an intensive program that draws students from 20 countries to classes taught by legal scholars from across the globe.

Their spirited dialogue is an important part of a curriculum that encourages students from different legal systems and cultures to learn in a uniquely collaborative way.

 Melbourne Law School was one of 11 founding members, and is the only Australian law school in the global partnership. Former Dean, Professor Michael Crommelin AO, was quick to recognise the potential of a program that enriched the traditional notion of an exchange program.

"Georgetown's proposal really did take it a step further because it was creating an association of like-minded  law schools to collaborate in providing something rather different … It was a great idea," says Professor Crommelin.

"The whole way the centre is set up and managed in practice is very much driven by the desire to bring students from all over the world together, but also to bring together academics."

The program has developed an unconventional educational model that meets head-on the challenges of a globalised world where people, goods, money, politics and law transcend national boundaries. Students from different legal systems spend a semester at the headquarters in London. Most attend in the last year of their legal studies.

"When you realise how closely connected we are, you realise you have to understand very basic things about the differences between common law and civil law systems," says Harini, who was awarded "Best Student" by CTLS in the subject Brands and Commercial Reputation. "We saw that play out in a more social context, as opposed to only in class. That's a unique perspective provided by CTLS."

Basing the program in London has been a clever strategy that makes the most of the city's status as an international legal hub. CTLS can be found just off Chancery Lane in the heart of London's legal district.

"I had the impression that the whole world – academically, legally, socially – was moving through London and moving through the centre," says Melbourne LLB student Penelope Ward who completed her semester at the centre last year. "There was a sense of being involved in the legal life of the city and the continent."

In many ways CTLS has been a lesson in what happens when you put talented law students from across the globe in a classroom together. Encounters across cultures have produced a dynamic that fosters intellectual discovery.

"It's fascinating to see the different views," says Penelope. "There's a range of perspectives conditioned by people's socio-political demographic background in their home country. And that often provides tremendous insight that you otherwise wouldn't have."

"There's definitely an emphasis on interactivity … I found that wonderful because a lot of the conversation that was generated became honest and of a high standard," says Penelope.

Diversity of nationality, language and legal perspective is the key to this program. But putting together different cultures in the hothouse environment of a classroom is not without its challenges. For teachers this can be an intense experience. Reflecting on her time teaching at CTLS in 2011, Associate Professor Cally Jordan says that it can take both students and teachers out of their comfort zones.

"You have such a diverse group of students with different intellectual backgrounds and expectations. Things that are absolutely obvious to the common law students are completely unknown to the civil law students," says Associate Professor Jordan.

"As a teacher, you're faced with a mixed group of assumptions. Tapping the interaction among the students in terms of testing those assumptions is the potential that is in the classroom."

The school attracts academics from 23 universities across five continents, many of them leading scholars teaching to their passions. The program is deliberately structured to facilitate student and academic interaction, with the result that students build up networks all over the world, both amongst themselves and with visiting lecturers.

I certainly came back feeling prouder of the legal system we've managed to build in Australia in 200 years than I did when I left.

For students, the program's key strength is also its biggest challenge. Apart from the day-to-day realities of communicating across cultures, there is the new skill of expressing often complex legal concepts in language that everyone understands.

"There is definitely a communication barrier issue," says Penelope. "I think that is very true of transactional law firms, transactional corporations; it's something that we all have to face today. But it does tax the speed and pace of conversation. And often it requires a lot more mental preparedness and engagement to really understand what people mean."

With students from more than a dozen different legal systems in the same room, it is not surprising that they are encouraged to think on a very deep level about how similar legal problems can be approached in different ways.

"If you're humble about it, it can help you realise the holes in your own system. There are great advantages to a German civil system, for example. Whereas the common law system is often very slow; it often means a lot of time in court," reflects Penelope.

Sarah Zeleznikow (LLB 2010), who completed the program in 2010 and is now a lawyer with King & Wood Mallesons, agrees that there are insights to be learnt from other jurisdictions.

"I think we become so steeped in our own legal tradition after just a few years of law school that it's very easy sometimes to become complacent about it. Being at CTLS and learning about different legal systems – which might on the surface look very disparate but actually have a lot of things in common – really gives you a much broader vision of how you deal with problems in your own legal system."

"I certainly came back feeling prouder of the legal system we've managed to build in Australia in 200 years than I did when I left," says Sarah.

"CTLS brought everything I'd learnt at Melbourne Law School together: how domestic law interacts with international law and how different domestic regimes interact with each other. But I think it also taught me very important skills like analysing complex concepts quickly and trying to reduce that complexity as much as it's possible. I think it really teaches you how to be an independent thinker."

Going to CTLS from Melbourne is a big commitment. Students must use four of their elective subjects to pursue the international opportunity and although they receive some financial support from Melbourne Law School, the costs of five months living in Europe's financial and legal capital are significant. However, the overwhelming message from those returning from London is that this is a program that can actually change the way you think.

"I don't think I would be the lawyer that I am today without that experience," says Penelope Ward. "CTLS represents a step up. To being a global citizen, and a global thinker."

Banner image: Professor Sam Ricketson and student Harini Amarasinghe have recently returned from the Center for Transnational Legal Studies.
Credit: Peter Casamento

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 8, October 2012.