An American Law School in China

American lawyers, law firms, and law students are pinning their hopes and careers on China in rapidly increasing numbers. This much is clear from glancing at U.S.-based multinational law firms’ glossy websites (and visiting their equally shiny offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong), or browsing the many (and multiplying) China- and Asia-related course offerings at top American law schools. But as Inside Higher Ed‘s Andy Guess reports, the next wave of young American-trained lawyers interested in practicing in China may well come from…Shenzhen:

[Former University of Michigan Law School dean Jeffrey S.] Lehman was named the chancellor and founding dean of the School of Transnational Law at Peking University’s campus in the mainland city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. The institution will admit its first class of 55 students this fall, out of an application pool of about 210, [Lehman] said. Eventually, the school plans to seek accreditation from the American Bar Association so that graduates can take the New York State bar exam.

The freestanding school will operate independently of Peking’s existing, Chinese-style law school. Like any American law school, the courses will be taught in English, the cases will be from American law – and most of the professors will be from American law schools.

With “more than 600 law schools,” according to Lehman, why would China need an American law school? Lehman explained:

“The very best graduates of China’s very best law schools … were not being hired by multinational law firms unless they came to the U.S.” to study, he said.

But a deeper reason Lehman touched on […] is a hope that a rigorous application of legal pedagogy can train students who might in the future work to strengthen China’s rule of law and its institutions. “We are intended to be a proof of concept for China. We are intended to show whether this … type of education will have value for China and is worthy for greater emulation,” he said.

Over at Legal Profession Blog, Bill Henderson contemplates the splash this school could make in the legal academy and the legal world at large:

With all of China as an applicant pool, Peking University’s entering credentials could be extremely high (like any other [American Bar Association]-approved law school, its students will take the LSAT). Philanthropists interested in international affairs will be drawn to the school and help build its endowment. The school will buy the library of a U.S. law school that decides to throw in the towel. If Peking is ranked like any other ABA-approved law school, it could easily debut in Tier 1, which would further fuel demand. In turn, Jeffrey Lehman will have little trouble recruiting high profile U.S. faculty to teach at the school as visitors. The opportunity will be seen as an extremely valuable and prestigious opportunity — essentially tagging some professors as truly international scholars.

I am told that similar plans are underway at the University of Melbourne and at a Korean university. It seems to me, however, that Lehman’s franchise may be a crown jewel. As a first mover in China, Peking University has the opportunity to create an Asian analogue to Harvard Law.