Students Immersed in Foreign Legal Systems over Spring Break

To best understand your own country and its legal system, it helps to have a firsthand experience with an alternative. That’s the idea behind the Law School’s new International Immersion Program, which sent 17 students to China and Belize over spring break. Last year, the Law School invited students to submit proposals for international trips they would like to take during spring break, which was March 15–25. Selection was based on a set of competitive criteria including substantive academic merit.

Two projects earned Law School funding: one to Belize, with six students, and one to China, with eleven. The Belize trip focused on service, as students worked with one of three local organizations: the Belize Red Cross, the Human Rights Commission of Belize, and the National Garifuna Council, which focuses on preserving Garifuna culture.

The group that went to China was hosted by the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and was organized by Professor Thomas Ginsburg. Students attended seminars, visited law firms, and listened to speakers explain the Chinese legal system.

Belize traveler Michelle Mbekeani, ’14, and David Kurczewski, ’13, who went to China, wrote about their experiences for the Record.

Preparing for Hurricane Season with the Belize Red Cross

By Michelle Mbekeani, ’14

Belize is a vibrant country, a cultural fusion of its African and Latin ancestry mixed with its English colonial influence. I got to see that firsthand over spring break. I was the only 1L in the group, and I learned a lot in a short amount of time.

I had the pleasure of working for the Belize Red Cross at their headquarters in Belize City. I was assigned to redraft their staff policy and to make proposed amendments to their organizational constitution. Because Belize consists of multiple islands, managing the various branches of their Red Cross is challenging, especially during the hurricane season. My proposed amendments aimed to make the collective organization more centralized, requiring each local branch to have a certain number of initiatives and services proportionate to their budget. Under the proposal I helped develop, each branch would need to complete an annual report showing it fulfilled its requirements in order to receive funding the following year. The student I worked with, Jonathan Wiggins, ’13, and I did not ultimately find out whether our ideas were implemented, but we know they were presented to the Red Cross leadership.

I also had the chance to attend a meeting of all the branch leaders of the Belize Red Cross. There, I heard the local leaders voice their many concerns regarding the upcoming hurricane season. I found that Belize is a culturally diverse country where many local customs differ from place to place. This prevents a “one-size-fits-all” solution for common problems. For example, one branch leader explained that typical evacuation procedures—moving coastal families inland before the storm—would not work in his community. There, the local wives of fishermen will not leave their homes because it is customary for women to wait for their husbands to return from sea, even during a hurricane. I’ll take that lesson with me as a future lawyer—that is, one must take a community’s history, culture, and social norms into account when considering how effective a law is or will be.

The trip wasn’t all work. I enjoyed quick weekend trips to two islands in Belize: Key Caulker and San Pedro. Having traveled through both Africa and Latin America in the past, I was amazed at how certain aspects of those cultures were very similar to the Belizean culture. In some parts of the islands people spoke Spanish, while in other parts they spoke Creole. The food was a combination of Spanish rice, seafood, and plantains. The music had an Afro-Caribbean flair, and the people were every shade of the racial spectrum. Belize is a perfect example of how a territory that once consisted of displaced natives, African slaves, and English and Spanish colonizers can evolve into a nation of people who all share a common identity, Belizean. I am grateful to have had both a legal and cultural experience during my spring break.

Discovering the Chinese Legal System from Within

By David Kurczewski, ’13

We were stuck on the tarmac at Beijing Capital International Airport, so I practiced my Chinese introduction with the university student sitting in the airplane seat in front of me. A thick blanket of fog had covered Beijing and made travel impossible, even on the ground after landing. Once we finally got off the plane, we were greeted by our student guide and de facto interpreter, Stephanie, from the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. Our fog-impeded van ride to our dorm rooms at Renmin University through the bustling streets of Beijing at 1 a.m. was an apt introduction to the adventure we were beginning.

The eleven of us had been preparing for this trip for months. Before we left, we attended custom-designed seminars about the history of the Chinese legal system, the nuances of doing business in China, and the Chinese language. But once we were in China, the subject matter became immediately real. Our first day, we woke up early for the first of five seminars on Chinese law. This one explained the evolution of the legal system in recent times.

In addition to learning Chinese law, we had the chance to to sightsee and sample great Chinese cuisine. After our first seminar, we took a rainy walk through the beautiful Temple of Heaven, where Ming and Qing emperors would pray for bountiful harvests. Later, our most gracious jiàoshòu (professor), Ruoying Chen, LLM ’05, JSD ’10, arranged for us to dine with several of her Peking University law students for wonderful Sichuan Hot Pot. Though we were all growing exhausted and jet-lagged, we had a wonderful dinner comparing our law school experiences.

The next day, while our friends back in Hyde Park enjoyed unusually warm weather, we were treated to a beautiful snowfall along the Great Wall. That evening, Paul Wang, LLM ’94 and JSD ’99, President of the UChicago Alumni Club of China–Beijing, discussed his experience practicing law in China and shared a wonderful formal dinner consisting of a large spread of fantastic Chinese dishes spread widely across the zhuàn pán (effectively a large lazy Susan).

To better understand how law is practiced in China, we arranged for meetings throughout the week with an array of law firms, public interest organizations, and in-house legal teams. At the Natural Resources Defense Council we discussed the perils and progress of environmental legal advocacy in China. At Sidley Austin’s museum-like Beijing office we learned how a Chicago-based firm utilizes an office in Beijing. Baker & McKenzie hosted our delegation in both their Beijing and Shanghai offices and discussed with us their history as one of the first American law firms in China. We also were privileged to visit King & Wood Mallesons, a premier Chinese law firm. There we practiced our formal Chinese business introductions, and they discussed how they collaborate with non-Chinese law firms. We also visited the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC), where we learned about the significance of the strong preference for arbitration among Chinese businesses. Our last visit of the trip was to Starbucks’ China headquarters, where we met with General Counsel Jason Yu, LLM ’99, and enjoyed coffee sourced from beans in China.

The academic component of our trip was rounded out with seminars covering topics such as Chinese property law, the legal implications of state-owned enterprises, Chinese tort liability, and government regulation. Once our time in Beijing concluded, we took a high-speed train to Shanghai, reaching speeds in excess of 186 mph. From there, we squeezed in some sightseeing before heading back to Chicago for the start of spring quarter classes.

Overall, we had a truly enlightening experience. As the world economy and the corresponding legal issues become increasingly global in nature, this trip was a valuable chance for aspiring lawyers to immerse ourselves in the modern practice of law.