Foreign Lawyers Pursue Career Goals in Growing Graduate Studies Program
This fall, the University of Virginia School of Law welcomed its largest graduate studies class in the past decade — 43 students from 18 different countries. The majority of these students come from abroad, and for many of them, a U.S. law degree provides the chance to advance professional and academic goals beyond what they've already achieved as lawyers in their home countries.
The Graduate Studies Program, which began in the 1960s, allows its participants to take classes toward a master's in law (LL.M.) or doctorate in law (S.J.D.) alongside the school's 1,100 domestic J.D. students.
"Our ideal applicant combines an excellent academic background with several years of practical experience in practice, government, academia or the NGO sector," said Professor Paul B. Stephan, who directs the Graduate Studies Program. "The current class is exceptional in that regard, already bringing with them an enormous amount of legal experience into the classroom environment."
One member of the LL.M. Class of 2013, Iranian Leili Monfared, last worked as a researcher for UNESCO and holds an LL.M. in public law. But as her research for the United Nations expanded into such areas as abortion and stem cell research, she realized she wanted to study in an LL.M. program that would give her optimal access to Western health law experts as well.
"I was looking at the rankings of the U.S. law schools, especially health law rankings, and I found the University of Virginia ranked high on both general and health law rankings," said Monfared. "And I also heard good feedback from other international LL.M.s about Virginia Law and the city of Charlottesville."
Monfared was among 539 LL.M. applicants from around the world. The most heavily represented countries in the LL.M. Class of 2013 are Japan, China and Belgium, followed by Australia, Brazil, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands and the United States, according to Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies Polly Lawson.
"Our applications grew 15 percent this year," Lawson said. "These students are highly experienced lawyers and are interested in studying in a range of legal fields, from international human rights and public international law to international corporate finance."
The Graduate Studies Program and the Law School's corporate law offerings attract numerous students with an existing background in international business in particular. Kimiko Isoyama, an associate at the law firm Anderson Mori & Tomotsune in Tokyo for the past five years, was accepted into the program along with her husband, Kai, who is also employed at the firm. Kimiko Isoyama's practice is in finance, mergers and acquisitions, and other domestic and international matters.
"I work a lot with U.S. clients and I did a lot of international projects," Isoyama said. "Frequently U.S. clients would say, 'It's like this in the U.S., how is it in Japan?' By understanding what the rules are in the U.S., I will be able to obey the Japanese laws more efficiently and understand their concerns."
Isoyama said classes such as Securities and Regulations are a perfect match to that end. She added that being able to network in her classes with not only U.S. students, but other international lawyers, is an added benefit.
One of the key decisions an LL.M. student has to make when entering the program is whether to take the New York Bar Exam after graduation. The prerequisite courses typically account for about a third of the coursework and credits.
"We provide extensive advice and individual academic counseling, starting in the early summer prior to their arrival, on courses that meet the requirements set forth by the New York State Bar," Lawson said. "Our goal is to ensure that each student has designed a curriculum that will satisfy his or her professional and personal objectives."
Isoyama said she chose the bar exam track, while Evelyn Van Raemdonck, a student from Belgium with transactional law experience, said she preferred to take more classes of her own choosing. Van Raemdonck said Virginia Law's collegial learning environment, which teaches both practical and intellectual solutions to law problems, will serve as good preparation for a return to law firm practice in Belgium. She previously completed a summer traineeship with Allen & Overy in Antwerp.
"I would like to work in a corporate department in a law firm where I would to really be thinking and designing the solutions, more than just executing the decisions," Van Raemdonck said.
She said class size also attracted her to Virginia Law, since other top U.S. programs sometimes have more than 200 students.
While Virginia's Graduate Studies Program is slated to grow, the class will be capped at 50, which allows the program to continue its practice of placing LL.M. students into classes with J.D. students, Stephan said.
"We believe that 50 is the optimal size for the class, given that we are in Charlottesville rather than a large urban center, and [given] the unique UVA Law School culture, with its emphasis on community and inclusion," Stephan said. "Our concern about a larger class is that it would be harder to integrate the LL.M. students into the J.D. program, and running a segregated program would be the antithesis of what UVA Law stands for."
Van Raemdonck said the Law School has lived up to its reputation for a personalized experience. As soon as she arrived, she said, administrators greeted her by name.
While many students like Van Raemdonck seek out the Graduate Studies Program for practical reasons, some students attend the program for academic scholarship alone.
Friedrich Ostendorf is working toward his doctorate in comparative legal issues, which he will complete at the University of MÃ¼nster in Germany, where he is a teaching fellow. Ostendorf said when he learned his school offered a scholarship opportunity to study at Virginia Law for a year, he leapt at the opportunity to further his research.
"My thesis will be looking at the different constitutional systems of Germany and the United States from a comparative legal perspective and see how they deal with hard cases," Ostendorf said. "I've already done some work on the torture debate that arose after 9/11."
Ostendorf said Virginia's relevance to U.S. constitutional history and Virginia Law's reputation for exceptional teaching convinced him to apply. "This is Thomas Jefferson's university, and there are a lot of famous and known professors here, particularly when it comes to constitutional theory," Ostendorf said. "So for me it was the perfect decision."