International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2012 Issue



Shifting Legal Education in China

Peking University’s School of Transnational Law (STL)By: Taryn Marks, Research Clerk to Justice Robert H. Edmonds, North Carolina Supreme Court and Former Lecturer, Peking University School of Transnational Law, Shenzhen, China

In 2008, Peking University’s School of Transnational Law (STL) opened its doors. This institution, the “brain child” of renowned deans Hai Wen and Jeffrey Lehman, is designed to provide Chinese law students with both a Chinese J.M. (Juris Master -China’s equivalent to a J.D. degree from the United States) and a United States J.D. degree, allowing them to shift fluidly between Chinese and American laws and legal systems. Although the future success of the school is not yet known, the school’s four-year history provides unique insight into the current state of Chinese legal education and offers an optimistic hope for the future of reform within China’s legal education system.

Like many aspects of Chinese society, the legal system, law schools, and lawyers were substantially weakened following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Although the PRC initiated legal reform measures soon after its inception, including establishing several new law schools, any progress that the PRC initially made was quickly reversed when an anti-intellectualism, protectionist movement swept the country in the mid-1950s. The adverse impact on lawyers was exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, resulting in an almost non-existent legal profession and legal education system in the late Maoist period. Although the Cultural Revolution ended in 1977 and several law schools were re-opened in the 1980s, the profession did not grow in any meaningful way until the 1990s. Economic reforms, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 and further solidified in 1992 when the Chinese government declared its intention to move towards a “socialist market economy,” provided significant support to the re-emergence of the legal profession.

China’s new law schools tended to follow European-style legal education, in which undergraduate students, who must demonstrate fluency in English in order to be eligible to enroll in higher education schools, major in law and earn an LLB, a rough equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in the United States. Upon graduation, students may take a bar examination and become a judge or practicing lawyer, or can choose to pursue a graduate law degree.

Unlike in the United States, a person in China, to practice law, need only have a bachelor’s degree before taking the bar examination. Then, upon passing the bar exam, students must complete a one-year internship before they can be awarded a license to practice law.

Earning an undergraduate degree in law and passing the bar exam, however, are frequently insufficient to prepare a student for life as an attorney. Undergraduate law programs tend to focus on “teaching to the test,” providing students with knowledge applicable only to the bar exam, which does not easily translate to the practical knowledge necessary for actual legal practice. Indeed, a high percentage of those who graduate with an undergraduate degree in law or who pass the bar exam do not become attorneys, but rather use their law license to support another career path. Those with a graduate degree in law frequently do the same.

The unfortunate result of graduating so many unprepared lawyers has been to decrease the status of lawyers in China, a status that had already been adversely affected by the impact of the Cultural Revolution, by the general lack of legal education opportunities in the years before 1986, by cultural factors that favored mediation over litigation, and by a prevalence of corrupt attorneys between 1980 and 1996, when lawyers were defined as arms of the State. Combined with the suspicion with which ordinary Chinese citizens viewed the legal system as a whole, lawyers came to be seen as uneducated tricksters who relied on guanxi rather than intellect as a means of winning cases. Reforming the legal education system has thus become much more prevalent in recent years in order to address this low opinion of lawyers.

Those who choose to pursue a graduate degree in law must first pass two tests, typically administered by the law schools, before they are admitted to the graduate-degree programs.  Students seeking a graduate degree have several possible options, including an LL.M. (a Master of Laws degree), a Ph.D in law, or a J.M. degree. The J.M., initiated in 1995 by China’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education, is modeled after the United States J.D. program and requires students with an undergraduate degree other than law to take a specialized entrance exam in order to be accepted into a J.M. program.

All legal education programs and curriculum, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, are under the control of the National Guidance Commission on Higher Legal Education, which evaluates legal education and proposes reforms, researches trends in legal education, and disseminates suggestions among the law schools in China.

One reform implemented in China was the introduction of clinical programs at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels.  These clinical programs are intended to provide students with hands-on legal experience through the law school. The first clinical program began in September 2000. In 2002 the Committee of Chinese Clinical Legal Educators—a unique non-governmental organization that aims in part to cultivate clinical skills in the students, provide legal aid to groups with little access to the legal system, and to promote legal change—was founded. There is some indication, however, that the innovation of increased clinical education has not had as significant an impact as had been hoped: financially-constrained schools, faced with students who have no desire to practice law or take a clinical course, have been reluctant to contribute necessary funds to clinical programs and have not placed an emphasis on, or encouraged student involvement in, clinics. The exponential growth of law students since the 1980s has also left law schools scrambling to come up with the resources and professors necessary to educate so many new lawyers, which additionally impacts the low-quality education some students receive.

In addition to clinical programs, schools such as STL could contribute to legal education reform in China.  A four-year program, STL first introduces students to United States law by substantially adhering to the traditional first-year United States law school curriculum, albeit “with a ‘transnational twist,’” under which classes emphasize comparative law and students take an ethics course as well as a transnational legal practice course. The last three years of STL’s program are a combination of the classes required for a Chinese J.M. and a United States J.D., culminating in a thesis that is written and presented during the fourth year.  Although STL’s program aims to fill the dearth of attorneys who are fluent in Mandarin and English and who have the ability to practice within China and have substantial knowledge of the United States legal system, a problem that has been a long-term complaint of international law firms, it is yet unclear whether the program will generate students able to fill that niche.

Aside from whether students will be capable of shifting between Chinese and United States law by working at international law firms, the most pressing issue is whether qualified students will wish to pursue such a career path.  I taught at STL for a year, and in speaking with some of my students, it was clear that some of them would prefer to work in the United States using their J.D., rather than practice in China at an international law firm.  There was, however, an equal number of students who indicated that they likely would not pursue a legal career following graduation or that they would rather work for a local Chinese law firm than for an international firm.  There was also a substantial amount of skepticism among the students, an undercurrent of pessimism that sometimes seemed to sabotage their goals, as to whether they would even be able to get a job in a legal market that has been severely impacted by the financial recession of 2007. 

The question also remains whether STL can help foster the reform the Chinese legal education system desperately needs.  In many ways, STL provides a level of hope and optimism that greatly exceeds that which existed when the J.M. was first introduced in China in 1995. STL directly transplanted into China a J.D. program, using an all-foreign faculty, each of whom was educated in the United States J.D. system and who tend to rely on the Socratic method of teaching.  Students who graduate from STL will have a significantly different educational experience than their J.M. counterparts, and as more STL students graduate and begin disseminating their experience among China’s legal community, the possibility of change increases.

The future is not entirely rosy, however.  The location of the school on mainland China (rather than in Hong Kong or Taiwan, for example) ensures that the student body is almost entirely mainland, Han Chinese, and it is thus a student body that remains Chinese to its core.  The students are used to a Chinese-style of education, in which a teacher lectures and students memorize.  Students also have a distinctive interpretation of cheating and ethics that may not pass muster before many United States bar associations.  These differences are exacerbated by the direct transplant of the United States J.D. system into the school, a transplant that ensures a United States education but also runs the risk of ignoring that many aspects of a good education rely upon cultural knowledge.

I frequently worried that the students were simply going through the motions of learning to provide the answers that the faculty expected, without actually absorbing the necessary information about the United States legal culture.  For a student body that should be well-versed in United States law when it graduates, it is troubling to think that some may graduate without having truly examined the United States legal system and its differences with the Chinese legal system.  These students appear staunchly resistant to anything different from the educational system to which they are accustomed. They are thus likely to graduate and proceed with their legal careers within the traditional Chinese framework without considering the international possibilities of their new education.

Although I have concerns, I will end this treatise on a positive note for STL’s ability to impact the Chinese legal education system.  When STL started, it was the first law school of its kind in China, an experiment in training transnational lawyers.  The students who opted to attend STL in its first years, before there was a graduating class and before there was any data as to its success or failure, bravely took on the challenge of attending a fledgling school.  Whatever may happen after they enter the doors of STL, the mere fact that they were willing to take on the challenge of a new and untested school resonates a potential for change.  And in many of them I see the future of legal reform in China.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2012 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editor at