Seeing Chicago Through the Eyes of the LLMs: Graduate Program Creates Global Connections

One day late last fall, a French judge went on a distinctly American road trip: He rented a black Ford Mustang, a car not available in his native Paris, drove from Chicago to Michigan, and spent three days exploring the dunes along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan with two other graduate law students. Trips like this — along with baseball games, deep dish pizza dinners, and Lyric Opera performances — have given Marc Meslin, LLM ’15, the chance to experience the US while earning his Master of Laws.

“I came to the Law School because it is internationally recognized for law and economics and, also, because of the location,” Meslin said. “You can have the big campus experience, but in a big city.” Since he arrived, Meslin has explored the Art Institute (“one of the most interesting museums in the US”), seen the White Sox play the Kansas City Royals (“baseball is a very long game, but a good moment with friends”), and listened to music at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park (“so amazing — your style of jazz is very relaxed.”)

Exposure to American life is a side perk of the year-long LLM program, which caters primarily to international scholars, offering them both advanced study in American law and a chance to live abroad for a year. But the 73 LLMs also offer the Law School and its domestic community much in return: international recognition, a rich layer of global perspective — and the chance, of course, to see Chicago and America in a new way.

“You get to experience the quirkiness of our American traditions, and it gives you an opportunity to appreciate the little things about our culture that you might take for granted,” said Elena Moreno, ’16, who has helped introduce the LLMs to Chicago as an International Fellow. She and her LLM group have visited at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a century-old jazz club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, eaten Ethiopian food, and played tactical laser tag, often talking about law and their respective cultures along the way. “It’s been interesting to learn about their experiences as lawyers in their home countries, and about the differences between our legal system and their legal systems. It’s also interesting to see how much of a focus there is on American law and our legal system in other countries.”

In today’s market, these are valuable lessons and relationships, both for the LLMs and for the American JD students, said Richard Badger, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs. “As law becomes more international, more cross-border, knowing people in other countries can be useful from a professional standpoint,” he said. “And in many of the places they’ll travel in the future, there will be people they know.”

This year’s LLM program includes men and women from more than two dozen countries, including Brazil, China, Israel, Indonesia, Australia, Belgium, Ecuador, Turkey, Japan, Sweden, and Venezuela — a breadth that gives the Law School a truly global presence. “It broadcasts the message of the Law School around the world,” Badger said. “They go back to their home countries, and they’ve had the UChicago exposure.”

The program has inspired increasing loyalty, too: Reunion attendance among LLMs has increased significantly in the last decade. Ten years ago, fewer than two dozen returned to Chicago for Reunion, but by the 2014 celebration, LLM attendance was close to four dozen. The two most recent LLM classes — 2013 and 2014 — had 58 members contribute to the Graduating Students Class Gift Campaign. Some also continue their studies through the Law School’s longer JSD program, which draws largely from the LLM program and allows students to work on their doctoral dissertations from their home countries.

Pumpkins, Architecture, and a Green River

Badger enjoys talking with the LLM students about the politics of their native countries, and he makes it a point to introduce them to American traditions. For more than 30 years, beginning when he was the Law School’s Dean of Students, Badger and retired D’Angelo Law Library Director Judith Wright and their families have co-hosted large Thanksgiving gatherings for the international students at Badger’s Madison Park home, often averaging 55 to 60 attendees. Professors Saul Levmore and Julie Roin often host a Superbowl party at their Hyde Park home, and Badger has set up pumpkin carving stations in the Green Lounge before Halloween and taken the LLMs to baseball games and on the architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. He said the students are often tickled to board the distinctly North American yellow school buses — recognizable from movies and television — for such outings.

This immersion in American culture is an important part of the experience for many of the students, who have come not just to learn about the law or how Americans might approach a particular legal issue, but to gain a deeper understanding of people, traditions, and values.

Nicolás Rivera Montoya, LLM ’15, of Bogotá, Colombia, celebrated his first Thanksgiving at Badger’s home last November and was drawn to the holiday’s message. “It is a moment to be thankful for what we have, and that is something very special,” he said. “So many holidays are about receiving, but Thanksgiving is very different because it represents the other side.”

Theater, opera, and orchestral music are popular draws; Eleanor Healy-Birt, LLM ’15, of London, has played the violin since age 7, and she has especially enjoyed hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Some LLM students have made it a point to visit Navy Pier and to see the green-dyed Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, and several have spent time learning about Chicago’s architecture and geography.

“I’m not an expert on modern architecture, but even I can appreciate that the skyscrapers here are not just boxes — they are all different styles,” Healy-Birt said. “Before I got here, I also didn’t appreciate just how vast the lake is. When you’re in Hyde Park, and you look north toward the downtown skyline, it frames the whole thing — it’s a great background.”

Rivera Montoya has relished the food, particularly pizza and burgers. “I’ve been going to the best burger places in Chicago,” he said. “I enjoy Ukrainian Village because there is a place called Fatso’s Last Stand. It is cozy and cheap, and the burgers are just spectacular.”

Masaaki Aono, LLM ’15, of Tokyo, has enjoyed visits to Millennium Park, Second City, and Chinatown, but he has especially enjoyed the people of Chicago.

“They are friendly,” he said. “They tend to make small talk. Waiting for a bus, people — strangers — will speak to me.”

Of course, many have also reveled in opportunities, both in and out of the classroom, to hear leading scholars discuss international issues they have followed at home. Nathalie Smuha, LLM ’15, of Brussels, in October attended an International Human Rights Law conference organized by Eric Posner, the Kirkland & Ellis Distinguished Service Professor of Law, and Assistant Professor Adam Chilton.

“The people who were giving talks are the kind of people that you read about in newspapers and law reviews, and it was a great opportunity to hear them talk in person,” she said in October.

But despite all the advantages that come from the differences between the LLM students and the domestic Law School community, one of the greatest takeaways is that many similarities exist. “It’s really striking how much we have in common,” Moreno said.

Added Badger: “That’s always the most interesting part: the international students are really not that different from each other or from the JDs. In the end, they’re all lawyers and law students.”