Global Skills for U.S. JD Students

The practice of law in the United States is changing, rapidly advancing the U.S. legal profession to a truly global stage. Nearly 10 years ago, 44% of early career U.S. lawyers were already dealing with international or trans-national issues within their first six years of practice. Today, as the business world becomes less U.S.-focused, as law firms search for new revenue streams and as American internal demographics become more diverse, we can expect that all U.S. lawyers will eventually need to be prepared for global practice.

During the professional lifetimes of today’s U.S. J.D. graduates, it is predicted that the economic might of Europe and the U.S. will decline while the strength of Africa and Asia will increase. We see signs of this shift already as the U.S. has had more companies fall out of the Fortune Global 500 company rankings since the beginning of this century than any other country. At the same time, the number of Chinese companies on the list has increased nearly tenfold.

Unsurprisingly, law firms are adapting. More than 90% of the 100 top-grossing law firms in the United States identified by the American Lawyer (referred to as Am Law 100 firms) had offices outside the U.S. by 2014 and, when 56 U.S. firms opened offices abroad in 2012, half of these new offices were opened in Asia. Considering a broader landscape, we know that law firms from all countries are competing intensely for new work, driving many to seek out new markets. Of the 100 top-grossing global firms identified by the American Lawyer (referred to as The Global 100), 70% have offices in five or more countries and the most globally engaged firm, Baker & McKenzie, has roots in 47.

Lawyers at the largest U.S. law firms—those with more than 1,000 lawyers—(referred to in the U.S. as “Big Law”) will undoubtedly need to be globally competent to forge successful careers. However, lawyers at the grass roots level will need to be equally prepared. American lawyers dealing with local business issues are more and more likely to encounter global legal matters. There is not a single state in the Union that had less than $1 billion of either exports or imports in 2014. Moreover, the new economy of technology-enabled services, which by its nature eschews national boundaries, is destined to deliver global legal issues squarely on the doorsteps of local lawyers. Attorneys in the American college towns where these businesses are booming, places like Boulder, CO, Charlottesville, VA, Ann Arbor, MI and Lawrence, KS, must be able to grapple gracefully with international legal problems as well as with parties who come from worlds quite different from their own.

Local lawyers dealing with non-business issues are also destined for global engagement thanks to the demographic changes taking place in the U.S.. According to the 2010 Census, 13% of the U.S. population was born abroad and 20% of U.S. households speak a language other than English. Adding to America’s increasingly international flavor are the more than a quarter million children from abroad who have been adopted by U.S. citizens since 2000 and the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants who are estimated to be calling the U.S. home. A more transient population, bringing their own legal problems, is the international student contingent, nearly one million of whom studied in this country last academic year. Not only are our schools and neighborhoods becoming more global, but U.S. citizens themselves are getting out more than ever before, creating the opportunity to bring home legal issues with international components. In 1989, only 3% of the U.S. population owned a passport. By 2014, that number had risen to 46%, again increasing the likelihood that local is global.

So, how do we prepare our JD students to engage successfully in this global environment? How do we teach them to be flexible and savvy enough to navigate different cultures, languages, countries, laws and legal systems?

First and foremost, they must have solid lawyering skills which include both academic knowledge and advocacy expertise. Critical reading, comprehensive research, concise writing and clever analysis are the backbone of U.S. legal education and, to date, have served the bulk of our graduates quite well. However, these skills alone are no longer sufficient. To cultivate lawyers ready for the legal landscape of today and tomorrow, our JD students need to develop limbs that will help them take that sturdy backbone for a global stroll. The following five global competency generators are suggested to achieve just that.

Attend Events

JD students can create space for new ways of understanding by exploring their areas of interest outside the classroom. The law school, the larger university and the local community likely provide lots of opportunities for broad-minded thinking and engagement. Guest lectures, roundtable events, discussion sessions and special presentations are easy ways to play around with ideas, experience various perspectives, and gain useful knowledge about specific subject matter and the context in which it lives. Even festivals, celebrations and other social gatherings can help reveal new ways of being in a world outside our own.

Build Networks

The most successful lawyers not only know law, but they know people. Developing personal and professional relationships with a global scale in mind will help JD graduates navigate the complicated web of social norms and legal systems that vary markedly around the world. Those who can pick up the phone and get accurate answers to thorny questions of international import will be at a premium. JD students may begin developing these networks with their peers and professors, but they should branch out by joining student groups, volunteering in the community, connecting with alumni, attending conferences and joining professional organizations.

Develop a Second Language

No one will argue that English is by and large the language of the legal world in the U.S.. However, learning a second language serves purposes other than communication. It helps to develop mental flexibility by destroying what you know about grammar and vocabulary and then rebuilding it in a completely different, but equally functional, way. Even rudimentary knowledge of a second language provides a window to another world, further stretching brain cells to encourage creative problem solving and to develop intercultural competencies. It also provides an empathetic viewpoint for native English-speaking lawyers when they deal with clients whose first language is not their own. Moreover, even meager attempts to learn another language suggest respect for other cultures and softens relationships with non-US partners or clients from the very beginning.

Gain Global Work Experience

There is no substitute for hands-on experience. Whether in the U.S. or abroad, practical experience in a global context will let our students dip their toes in the pool so they will know the temperature, the depth, the survival skills and expectations before being thrown in the deep end. Clinics that take on international clients or international issues as well as competitions that tackle legal problems in a global context will help students build the necessary soft and hard global skills. Internships and externships in an international environment will do so as well.

Go Abroad

Finally, American JD students must get their feet on non-US soil. Being the “other” on a 24-7 basis conjures skills, competencies and perspectives that can be gained no other way. There simply is no proxy for immersion. Law students outside the U.S. do it all the time, either through semester or year-long exchange programs, such as Europe’s Erasmus program, or by going away for an LL.M. degree. U.S. students must follow suit to gain equal exposure to other legal and judicial systems, to develop language skills and intercultural competencies, and to build valuable global networks. Opportunities exist for summer or semester-long coursework at law schools abroad, for dual degrees between US and foreign law schools, and for externship placements outside the U.S., just to name a few. Nudging our students out of the nest and pushing them perhaps beyond their comfort zone is a transformative moment that crystalizes their understanding of the global legal profession and their place in it.

These proposed additions to JD legal education in the U.S. are not intended to be particularly onerous. In fact, many are things students “should” be doing anyway and are things all law schools should be able to provide in one form or another using their current resources. These mobility generators, however, do need to be consciously addressed so that law students realize their importance and make good choices about how to engage in them. A JD student’s three years passes surprisingly quickly. It is a very short time for us to help them grow the legs that will carry them across and even beyond national borders. At the same time, it is an opportunity we must not let pass if we are to deliver attorneys fit for the realities of a global world.

Editor’s note – this article is republished with the permission of the suthor, with first publication on the official website of IALL, the International Association of Law Libraries.

University of Michigan Law School

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