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Law Students Immersed in Studies in Foreign Countries

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January 24, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

CHICAGO --- Study abroad at foreign universities has a rich tradition that dates back many years in this country. But for students who participate in the International Team Project (ITP) at Northwestern University School of Law, study abroad has little to do with the classroom during their actual visits to a host of countries, including China, Chile, Cuba, Vietnam, Australia, South Africa, Thailand, India, Ghana and Tanzania.

At the forefront of innovative ways for law students to study abroad, the eight-year old ITP course puts students in contact with the legal systems of the countries they are studying as well as with high officials and dignitaries, such as the chief of staff of the Dali Lama. The students also come into close contact with the sometimes heartbreaking and often inspiring lives of ordinary people in those countries.

Before the students take off for their global destinations, the classroom does play a central role in the semester-long course. Working with their faculty advisor, students develop traditional course materials and a syllabus to prepare a solid understanding of the history, culture and legal and political systems they are studying. They work in teams to develop research proposals detailing the legal issues they will research while in the country and establish contact with the in-country experts they will meet.

“The students develop the syllabi for the classes, which for the most part they run, and they round up topnotch speakers to help them sort through the issues,” said J. Samuel Tenenbaum, assistant clinical professor in the School of Law. “I’ve, frankly, been very impressed with how seriously they take their work.”

Tenenbaum, who led trips to India and Thailand, will be leading a trip to South Africa this spring.

The hard work at home and hands-on experience abroad culminate in research papers that address significant contemporary issues.

“Having mastered the material available from traditional print sources, students use their in-country research to provide a comprehensive understanding of their research issues,” said Lisa Huestis, clinical associate professor of law and faculty director of the International Team Project program.

In recent years, students visiting Thailand met with high-ranking officials, including the U.S. ambassador there, to prepare a 100-plus-page manual for foreigners accused of committing a crime. Others conducted research on property rights and piracy, meeting with leading attorneys in Thailand as well as going underground to investigate the illegal operations of people who pirate DVD’s and CD’s.

In India, students met with the attorney general for an investigation of ethical and legal issues related to U.S. companies’ outsourcing of legal services to Indian lawyers. Their research report includes documentation of the types of legal services currently being outsourced and speculation about what to expect in the future. 

In Ghana, students learned searing lessons for their research on “street children” as they visited quarries where children as young as three sat amid granite slabs, breaking rocks all day long. And last year in Malawi students visited a prison in collaboration with human rights advocates with Penal Reform International.

“Most of the students feel that the trips have been life-altering experiences,” said Thomas Geraghty, professor of law and associate dean in the School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. “And they produce thorough and thoughtful work, knowing that it will be read and perhaps used by their hosts.”

For Geraghty, who took the first International Team Project students to Africa, the highlight of his ITP involvement was last year’s trip to Tanzania, where he and his students put together a gathering of leading human rights advocates and academics.

In 2000, students published an article on women in the legal profession in Tanzania. In 2001, they published a piece on legal issues involving street children in Dar es Salaam, and students who went to Uganda in 2004 are working on an article on access to legal information in Uganda. The students’ paper on outsourcing of legal sources in India is being utilized by companies planning to do business in the area.

“Each year approximately 150 students enroll in the International Team Project course, in comparison to other law school study-abroad programs that by their nature are only open to a handful of students,” said Huestis, ITP faculty director. “ITP students not only master areas of substantive law, they are introduced to comparative law, empirical social science research and the complicated issues presented by the globalization of the legal profession.”

This spring students will visit South Africa where they will do research related to the lasting effects of apartheid and will try to meet with world-renowned apartheid activists Nelson Mandela, who is universally acclaimed for his leadership in transforming a racially divided country into an open democracy, and Desmond Tutu.

Students who will visit Australia will be working on a comparative analysis of the legal response to terrorism in Australia and the United States. They also will explore legal issues that impact Australia’s aboriginal population. They will travel to Sydney, Cairns and Dar during their

research trip as they consider legal issues related to the co-existence of the 40,000-year aboriginal heritage and New World culture. These issues include legal claims over traditional lands, the infamous forced adoptions into white families and the ongoing impact on the population.

The students who visit Russia will address comparative law principles, comparing how similar issues are addressed by Russia, the United States and other countries. Among the issues the students are likely to look at are government control of business entities and Russian material resources; the tension between security and civil and political rights; the role of the state in controlling the press; and the challenges Russia faces in the integration of Russian minorities into the societies of the former Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).

Students still are deciding which research topics to explore for their spring trips. Their proposals offer a peek at possibilities with potential research topics as well as colorful statements about why targeted countries would be appropriate ITP projects.

The students who visit Turkey this spring will do so under the leadership of David Scheffer, a visiting professor at the School of Law who served as the United States Ambassador-at- Large for War Crimes issues (1997-2001) and led the U.S. delegation in United Nations talks establishing the International Criminal Court. Topics of interest in the research proposal include the Armenian genocide, border disputes with Greece, human rights problems with the Kurds, Turkey’s negotiation of entry into the European Union, its role in the stability of the Middle East and the unique tensions presented by a modern democratic nation with a population that is virtually homogeneous in terms of religion.

For the Argentina visit the project proposal says, “The effects of repeated financial crises and the devaluation of the peso present questions of bankruptcy, debt restructuring, trade deficits and foreign investment.”

“With the accelerating globalization of law, the benefits of the ITP course for our students could not be more apparent,” said David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law. “The relationships the students and faculty are making with the host countries’ people, law schools and legal organizations are invaluable.

“The benefits to the host countries are considerable, too. Today good business, government and legal practices are not geographically bounded. They are universal. And the core of standard legal practices is based on the Anglo-American model of common law. Our students are making real-world contributions with research that matters.”

Topics: People, University