Int’l Student Views on Legal Education in US

By: Junyong An, 3L
Contributing Writer

Pursuing legal education is an arduous journey that requires aspirants to bear a multitude of qualities: brilliance in intellect, audacity to withstand heavy workloads, and ability to self-motivate academically and professionally. Beyond these factors, which have been well discussed among law students and experts, I am going to take this opportunity to examine the discrepancy in the methodology of legal education between the U.S. and South Korea.

One of the biggest challenges that I faced my first year of law school was the way in which courses and textbooks are structured, which were radically different from what I was already accustomed to in Korea. I studied law as my minor in Korea. At the time, students studied the law at the undergraduate level, although the Korean government has since decided to reform the legal education system to a post-graduate program. However, the overall curriculum remains substantially the same as the old undergraduate program.

In the Korean system, law students first learn fundamental concepts and underlying mechanisms in certain areas of law that establish core parts of the Korean legal system. When they become familiar enough with the comprehensive structures, they move on to upper-class courses such as “case study on constitutional law,” where third and fourth-year students delve into deeper details and specialized contexts of the subjects for which they have built foundation during the first two years. Simply speaking, Korean law students are given the big picture first and then focus on how to apply the frameworks into specific contexts.

An's biggest style was a different style of teaching. | Courtesy of Junyong An's Facebook

An’s biggest style was a different style of teaching. | Courtesy of Junyong An’s Facebook

In stark contrast to the Korean top-down approach, American legal education takes a bottom-up approach. Law students in American law schools begin with learning specific contexts where the issues arise; textbooks are designed to teach students by the process of collecting pieces of a puzzle from case law. Consequently, they get to reach the overall legal frameworks when they finally put the puzzle together, which is akin to the process of discovering a scientific truth. Granted that it is pointless to try to conclude which approach is better, but this upheaval was a great source of confusion for me when I had never been to the country before law school. Imagine what my face looked like when I was reading my first case in law school: Pennoyer v. Neff.

Where is the difference derived from? My tentative suggestion is tracing it back to the cultural difference because the legal system in a country is the outcome of intersections among its culture, history, and societal values. My proposition can be reinforced by reference to studies conducted by Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist. In his book The Geography of Thought, he introduces an experiment that exemplifies the difference in the cognitive process between East Asians and North Americans. In the experiment, the subjects of different origins were shown animated video clips with fish, water plants, and rocks in the background. They were later tested on what they remember from the scene. While the first statement given by American subjects usually referred to details of the object in the foreground (“There was something like a trout swimming to the right.”), responses from East Asian subjects were more related to the environment, such as “There was a lake or pond.” (Not directly on the point of this article, but other studies introduced in the book indicate that Europeans are roughly placed in the middle between the two groups.) The outcome of the experiment presumably provides a clue for the methodological difference between the two countries: the top-down approach taken by Koreans is linked to their preference for a holistic view, while the bottom-up approach embraced by Americans is associated with their inclination to directly zero in on a specific matter.

The difference among jurisdictions is declining as the increasing complexity of economic and social relationships demands the trend towards code-based laws. Nevertheless, this difference remains rooted in the integral areas of law, and lawyers and educators should be mindful of the fundamental contrast.

Categories: Opinions & Editorials