13th Annual Gelatt Dialogue puts the spotlight on legal education in China

January 31, 2008

Chinese legal scholars discuss the next step in legal education in China at the Timothy A. Gelatt Dialogue on Law and Development in Asia.

By Elizabeth Lynch

“There is no excuse for legal education to be boring,” said an emphatic Professor Jerome Cohen, and so began the 13th annual Timothy A. Gelatt Dialogue on Law and Development in Asia. Sponsored by the U.S.-Asia Law Institute in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations, this year’s dialogue focused on the role and responsibility of legal education in China’s rapidly changing society.

Dean Chenguang Wang of Tsinghua Law School in Beijing, the night’s keynote speaker, highlighted the importance of legal education in China’s reform process. “Through the development of legal education,” he said, “law has become an independent subject, separate from politics and party policies.” Wang reminisced about his decision to enter law school at the end of the Cultural Revolution, during the late ’70s: “There were only two law schools in China. When I told my father that I was going to study law, he just asked, ‘What? Is there any law in China?’” In the 30 years since Wang graduated from law school, the landscape has completely changed. Today there are 604 law schools in China, and more than 300,000 law students. However, this growth has not been without problems. According to Wang, the greatest obstacle facing legal education is the growing disparity between what is taught in law schools and the skills needed as a practicing attorney. “Many law professors say we should teach doctrine, something more abstract and philosophical,” said Wang. “But what about professional skills and professional ethics?”

Wang’s comments were echoed by many of the night’s panelists. Taiyun Huang, deputy director of the Department of Criminal Legislation of the Standing Committee Legislative Affairs Commission, the legislative-making body of the National People’s Congress, stated the issue succinctly: “The biggest problem is that teaching is separate from practice. Law schools do not teach how to use legal knowledge to resolve the practical problems.” Dean Yixin Liao of Xiamen University Law School, located in Southern China, agreed, but noted that there had been some progress in bringing education more in line with practice, especially by introducing some U.S. teaching methods. One such example is the growing use of clinical legal education. Ira Belkin, program officer for law and rights at the Ford Foundation, discussed one of the foundation’s largest legal projects in China, the development of clinical courses in Chinese law schools. The foundation first began that undertaking in 2000, when clinical education was completely absent from the law school curriculum. There are now more than 6,000 clinical courses offered throughout China, ranging in subject from environmental pollution and labor law to human rights and legislative drafting. In addition to providing professional skills to the students, Belkin noted that clinical legal education also helps foster the growth of public interest law. For Belkin, this is key: “Currently there is not a well-developed public interest legal profession. The challenge going forward is how to increase the number of lawyers who serve underrepresented and vulnerable groups in China.”