Jeffrey Lehman sat down with about 50 brand-new law students last month and watched The Paper Chase. At the end of the movie, they wanted to know one thing: Were all American law professors as mean as Professor Kingsfield?

Lehman, dean of the just- launched Peking University School of Transnational Law, didn’t show the movie featuring John Houseman’s browbeating character to intimidate the group of Chinese students enrolled in the school’s inaugural class.

Instead, the film from 1973 served as a kind of introduction to the pressure and competition bred in American law schools, something that these students — at least to a certain degree — could expect while attending the School of Transnational Law’s U.S.-style program.

“They were a little anxious,” Lehman said. “I told them that not all professors were as mean as Kingsfield.”

The first of its kind in China, the School of Transnational Law exemplifies the global spread of U.S.-style education in foreign countries. Like the school in China, a number of higher education institutions around the world are emulating the United States’ three-year J.D. program and the admissions processes.

The trend not only is an endorsement of American legal education, but it also is creating a consistency of training that many observers say is critical in a global legal market.

Last month, South Korea announced the debut of 25 law schools that have adopted U.S.-style programs. Recently, several Canadian law schools announced that they would switch to offering juris doctor degrees as opposed to LL.B. degrees.

Melbourne Law School in Australia this year began offering a juris doctor degree program. Japan also has revamped its legal education to a system more akin to a juris doctor program, in which students have an undergraduate degree before attending law school. [See Page S3.]

The primary difference between the new programs and traditional legal education in foreign countries is that students in the U.S.-style programs study law as a post-graduate degree.

In many countries, students still study law as undergraduates, often earning their LL.B. at the same time as a bachelor’s degree in the arts or sciences in a combined program.

Because traditional programs are not exclusively law-oriented, a higher percentage of those studying law as undergraduates opt for careers in fields other than law, usually in business or government.

A ‘compatibility’ factor

What makes the U.S. system particularly attractive are the rigors of its law school programs, said James White, who served as the consultant on legal education to the American Bar Association (ABA) from 1974 to 2001. In addition, foreign countries like the fact that students in U.S. law schools, having completed a bachelor’s degree, are more mature when they start, he said.

Foreign schools also want “compatibility” with U.S. programs due to the globalization of law practices and the spread of U.S. firms abroad, he said.

“Ten years ago I would have said this was impossible,” White said.

In the case of the School of Transnational Law, where all courses are taught in English, it is seeking accreditation by the American Bar Association, which would enable its graduates to sit for bar exams in U.S. jurisdictions. No foreign law school has ABA accreditation.

“Membership in an American bar association, particularly in the New York bar, is really the gold standard of credentials for someone looking for a broad and varied career in a transnational practice,” said Lehman, who previously was the president of Cornell University and the dean of University of Michigan Law School. New York currently allows some graduates from foreign law schools to take the bar exam if they meet certain requirements.

Preparing students to become attorneys at top international law firms is a key objective for the School of Transnational Law, Lehman said.

“Our goal is for them to walk out and work for Paul Hastings, Akin Gump and other similar firms,” he said.

The law firms Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld so far have both donated $25,000 to the school.

A ‘new cadre’

Paul Hastings partner Timothy Dickinson said that the transnational law school program will train a new “cadre” of lawyers educated to handle international work.

“We now can create lawyers well-equipped to practice in a global environment without leaving China. It gives them a huge competitive advantage,” he said.

Dickinson, whose practice focuses on international commercial matters, was a member of the U.S.-China nongovernmental organization that helped establish the School of Transnational Law.

Although the ABA does not specifically prohibit foreign law schools from obtaining accreditation from its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, meeting the stringent ABA requirements that are designed for U.S. law schools may be difficult for foreign schools, said Hulett Askew, consultant on legal education to the accrediting section of the ABA.

In particular, law schools accredited by the ABA must admit only those students who have bachelor’s degrees from schools accredited by bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. He added that the School of Transnational Law had not formally contacted the ABA about accreditation.

Also offering a juris doctor degree this year for the first time is Melbourne Law School, the oldest law school in Australia. It is phasing out its LL.B. program.

Preparing students for a global legal market was a major reason that the Australian school decided to make the change, said James Hathaway, dean of the school.

Like Lehman, Hathaway has strong roots in North American education. He was director of the Refugee and Asylum Law program at Michigan Law School, where he worked with Lehman. He also taught at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, where he received an LL.B.

The Melbourne J.D. program takes the best of the U.S.-style legal education and combines it with a program that is “a lot more inventive and thoughtful,” Hathaway said.

His school is not seeking ABA accreditation, which gives it some flexibility in the course work offered. For example, the first class that students take is a two-week immersion into legal method and reasoning, which has a heavy emphasis on statutory interpretation. The courses that follow build upon that foundation, Hathaway said.

But the Melbourne school more closely mirrors a U.S.-style system in other ways. It has just formed a career services office and also has established a development office to augment the revenue it gets from tuition and the university.

The first class of the J.D. program has 75 students. The school expects to increase the incoming class size to 200 during the next few years, Hathaway said.

Tuition at Melbourne is about 25,000 U.S. dollars annually. Tuition at the School of Transnational Law is about 9,000 U.S. dollars annually.

Melbourne recently became the first foreign law school admitted to the Law School Admission Council, which produces the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). All schools accredited by the ABA must use the LSAT as one of its admissions criteria.

Requiring the LSAT is an “equity-inducing measure,” Hathaway said, and shows that a law degree from the Melbourne school is on par with a U.S. law degree.

Interest in standardized tests

The Law School Admission Council has engaged in “a number of conversations with foreign law schools,” said Ellen Rutt, chairwoman of the organization’s board of trustees. She also is associate dean for admissions, student finance and career services at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Many countries are interested in devising their own standardized tests and want to learn more about how the Law School Admission Council devises and administers the test in the United States, she said.

But not everyone is rushing to Americanize their systems. Asian countries are embracing change, Lehman said. But the direction of European countries is less clear. There is a move to standardize higher education across Europe through the Bologna accord, a declaration originally signed by 29 European countries, but whether those countries eventually will adopt U.S.-style law programs is uncertain. Lehman points to one school, Bucerius Law School in Germany, which offers doctoral and post-doctoral degrees.

And for countries that have made changes, they still face challenges. Japan, for example, which instituted legal education reform four years ago, continues to have shortages of lawyers and declining admission numbers.

Even so, observers say that the implementation of U.S.-style programs in recent years has been surprisingly rapid.

“It’s bold on so many levels,” Rutt said.