Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Being Who You Are

I am in Vienna right participating in one of the best things my Law School or any law school can do for its students. The event is the annual Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot. Over 200 teams are here from over 50 countries. For many students it is life changing, magical if there is such a thing.

One thing the American students learn is that outcomes can be arbitrary – and I do not mean as in arbitration. (Europeans are so much better at handling arbitrariness as you know if you follow soccer at all.) Although American law schools have done well in the competition it has also been my theory that they must do more “better” than their competitors. Many of the arbitration panels prefer a more formal style than Americans are used to. It is great for the students to recognize and experience this. In addition, the competition is in English and the general sense is that the benefit of the doubt goes to those for whom English is not the first language. Finally, although I think the vast majority of judges strive to be neutral, when they are not, the feeling here is that that are not pro American. The English matter is particularly strange. First, the fact that a team is from a particular country does not mean the team members are. We competed against a French team with a native from Tennessee (not part of France) and a Dutch team with a member from Wisconsin (at least they are connected by cheese). Second, the preferred English here is a very formal British style – the kind most Europeans learn when they learn English. American students, on the other hand, usually learn English from their parents who, let’s face it, may not pass Jim Chen’s test for English usage.

After all that build up, what does this have to do with Money law? Here is what I tell my students. You are American and, while I want you to clean up the slang, no one will doubt where you are from. It means things may be slanted slightly against you but just accept it, enjoy the experience, and move on. It is what it is and you are not going to change it.

The same message may be equally meaningful to a growing number of law professors. (I do not mean the American part.) If you entered law teaching before the age of massive self promotion and before 10 page articles began to count as much as year long efforts to work through difficult topics, you are in a new environment. This would be before deans counted lines on resumes without regard for originality or coauthorship. And before anything actually put on a printed page, no matter what printed page, was deemed to be an “article.” Many of you are in a world as different as my Arbitration Moot students. And my advice to you is the same. Just accept it and enjoy. And, in particular don’t become part of the process that substitutes form for substance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like a very interesting experience, Jim. I'm curious, though, how you think this sort of experience is very different from the sort of "study abroad" programs many law schools have that, if I recall correctly, you've been highly critical of. I'm certainly not sure that they are not different, but it's not obvious to me so I'd be very interested to hear how you think the two are different.

I do think the preference for "British" English (obviously only a small and largely imagined bit of the English spoken in the UK anyway) is funny and a bit silly. When I was teaching English over-seas I tried to convince my students that they should want to learn American English since that was clearly the future of the language, in the same way that it would make sense to learn Brazilian Portuguese or, in the South West at least, Mexican Spanish.

3/19/2008 10:19 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Matt: Thanks for the question. I think Jim could answer this but I will since I wrote the blog. My concerns about summer abroad programs stem from three things:
1. In large part what is taught could be taught in the US.
2. The locations selected -- most often western Europe -- are saturated with programs. If Schools really want their students to have the opportunity, why not refer them to a program already in existence.
3. The locations are often selected to be in what I call adult Disney World -- places appealing to middle class and upper middle class law professors and which are very low on the "exposure to a diverse culture" scale, e,g, France, England, Germany.

The program I am describing in the blog lasts a week and in that week there is constant contact with diverse cultures. You might imagine an American law school not having a summer abroad program but allowing its students to attend one that includes students from 50 countries with whom they are required to interact.

My problem has never been with internationalism but with the choices schools make that seem more "faculty friendly" than "student enriching."

3/19/2008 12:49 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...


I agree with much, perhaps all of Jeff's post and Jeff's comment. I've written a blistering post against the preference for British English.

Vienna is a nice place, for those with the means and the cultural affinity. Some other sites where I've had international experiences, such as Tunis and Porto Alegre, Brazil, might be even better in terms of exposing American students to the rest of the world.


3/19/2008 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. I can certainly agree with that. (Sorry for misatributing the post too. I'm not sure why I did that at all since I was thinking of your other posts as well.) I do think the utility of a program that teaches just what would be taught in the US, in English, in a pretty normal European country (or such) is pretty dubious.

Thank for the link to the Britsh English post, Jim- I agree!

3/19/2008 2:24 PM  

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