Law Schools in the International Sphere: The University of Montreal Experience

Law schools have historically been deeply anchored in their local communities. They train jurists who serve, and often lead, these communities. They operate legal clinics that seek to help the most vulnerable members of society. They produce research that, hopefully, improve the legal frameworks governing the life of citizens and the fate of organizations.

But over the years, many law schools have broadened, or pluralized, their definition of the word “community.” Even if it is a cliché to say so, the world has shrunk. As a result, not only are law schools increasingly active on the world stage, the world itself is increasingly present within their walls. From that perspective, geographical proximity cannot alone define the notion of “community.” Yet, each law school has its own views, and ambitions, about internationalization. Some might not consider it necessary or even useful; others, on the contrary, fully embrace it. This begs the question: why would a law school embark on an internationalization strategy?

I propose to answer this question by looking at the set of considerations that led my own Faculty to adopt such a strategy. Of course, the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law had for many years attracted international students, mostly from francophone countries, but this alone did not constitute an internationalization strategy. Actually, more than twenty years ago, a conscious decision was made to go beyond our “natural” Francophone terroir, and to build on our main characteristics. The goal was (and still is) to expand our international reach with a view to attracting a broader pool of students, and to integrate an international component in our curricula.

Let me observe at the outset that in jurisdictions where tuition fees are deregulated, attracting foreign students is often envisaged first and foremost as a “business move.” The classical illustration of this can be found in the LL.M programs offered by American law schools, which for years have been a magnet for foreign students, and have indeed proven to be very profitable for such schools. The context is quite different in Quebec, where tuitions fees have practically been frozen for decades. Although foreign students do pay, as a matter of principle, higher tuitions than locals, the extra-amounts they pay do not necessarily go directly to academic units. And, in any event, in the case of my law school, many of our foreign students were from France, and they were, and still are, only required to pay “local” fees under a longstanding Quebec-France intergovernmental agreement. Thus, the impetus for developing an internationalization strategy was certainly not primarily financial. Instead, it stemmed from a policy that sought to take stock of the impact of globalization on law and legal education. It was also inspired by a belief that some central characteristics of our law school, and of Montreal, were, and still are, assets in that context.

Firstly, our anchoring in both civil law and common law worlds, and our ability to serve as “decoders” between these worlds, were seen as potentially attractive features, both for students deciding where to pursue a Masters or a doctoral program, and for foreign partner institutions. Secondly, although our Faculty’s traditional image is that of a French-speaking, civil law school, the reality is more complex and richer. In practice, a significant majority of our professors are fluent in both of Canada’s official languages, and some of them are trilingual or quadrilingual. As well, the composition of our student body increasingly mirrors the cosmopolitan demography of Montreal. Although almost all of them are fluent in both French (which remains an important international language) and English, many of them speak other languages as well. Actually, Montreal is the city in North America where the level of trilingualism is the highest, with 21% of the population of Montrealers who speak at least three languages. Thirdly, Canada’s legal model that features, notably, bijuralism, federalism, Aboriginal rights, multiculturalism, legal pluralism, and a strong human rights tradition, was becoming increasingly appealing on the world scene when our institution began questioning itself about internationalization.

China was the first step in our strategy in the 1990’s, at a time where that country was opening itself to the world. It all started with a CIDA-funded senior judges training program, in which groups of Chinese judges spent several months in Montreal to learn about the fundamentals of “Western law” and judicial practice in Canada. It is worth noting that we still hold training sessions for Chinese judges every year. This collaboration led to the establishment of partnerships with several Chinese universities, to the creation of academic programs in which Chinese students now form an important contingent, and to research projects involving Canadian and Chinese colleagues. Interestingly, a number of Chinese students who come to Montreal each year elect it as their new home, hone their French skills, enroll in additional courses to bolster their curriculum, and become lawyers in Quebec. Our local students also benefit from this collaboration. Indeed, for more than ten years, we have held a summer law school on Chinese law and legal culture at Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law. Close to 80 LL.B students participate in that summer school every year. Some of them even secure internships in Chinese law firms.

Although China and Asia remain important components of our internationalization strategy, we have also reached out to non-French speaking continental European countries and to Latin America, where our civil law affiliation is quite relevant. It bears noting in this regard that the Quebec Civil Code, which replaced the Civil Code of Lower Canada in the 1990s, was one of the first major recodifications in the civil law world since the 19th century, and that both the recodification process itself and its outcome were closely followed by experts abroad.

What about the common law world, then? We have also been increasingly active on that front, particularly since we began offering a JD program. We have thus strengthened our ties with various academic institutions, notably from Australia and the UK. Colleagues from our “common law section” have played a central role in that endeavor; with the upcoming launch of a new law journal on the common law tradition, these professors will ensure that our scholarship can be shared with the rest of the world.

Bringing students from around the world in our English and French programs has certainly changed the make-up of the Faculty of Law, as English, Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese, Farsi, or Arabic are now commonly heard in the corridors of this still predominantly French-speaking institution… It has proven to be a tremendous source of enrichment for our community, and has contributed to changing some of our practices. For example, the main law review published at the Faculty, the Revue juridique Thémis de l’Université de Montréal, now publishes abstracts not only in French and English, as was historically the case, but also in Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin.

But our internationalization strategy cannot be reduced to the mere idea of bringing foreign students to our law school, and to the objective of expanding and pluralizing our research networks. We have also sought to encourage our local students to incorporate in their academic path, an international component. In addition to providing them with an enriching human experience, getting them out of their comfort zone, helping them develop their cultural intelligence, we believe that adding an international experience to their curriculum is good for their employability. We have thus expanded our offer of (credited) summer law courses in foreign jurisdictions. In addition to Beijing, we now have partnerships with the University of Costa Rica, for a trilingual (Spanish, French, English) intensive course on human rights in San José, with the University of Milan (alternating in French and in English) for a course on economic integration, with the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro for a course on intellectual property, and with the University of Aix-Marseille for a course on business law. Moreover, several students spend a term in a foreign university. As a result, a little more than a third of our LL.B students enjoy some form of international experience. Would we like to increase that number? Of course, although financial considerations remain an important issue. We already finance, in part, many of the international ventures of our students, but if, for example, we were to make a stay abroad a compulsory part of our program, we would have to find funding to support all students, which is easier said than done…

Our internationalization strategy also applies to graduate studies. For example, in one of our LL.M programs, the LL.M in comparative private law, a number of visiting professors are invited to our Faculty every year. At the doctoral level, top doctoral students attend the summer AGORA of the Association of Transnational Law Schools. Finally, we recently launched a doctoral option called “Innovation, Science, Technology and the Law,” which requires each cohort to spend some time at a partner foreign university to examine how the challenges pertaining to the regulation innovation, science, and technology are tackled in different parts of the world.

These are only a few off-springs of an internationalization dynamic that began on an informal basis, but that quickly became a full-fledged internationalization strategy. Today, when alumni who graduated before the mid-1990s come back to their alma mater, they realize how different their law school is from the one they knew. To a large extent, this international turn has mostly brought benefits, and has contributed to making the Faculty a more vibrant academic and human environment. As this internationalization strategy unfolded, we have also witnessed the advantageous positioning and image that Canada and Canadian law enjoy in most of the world. This is indeed a wonderful springboard for Canadian law schools.

Comments are closed.