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Spotlight on China’s law school market

A e-discovery expert and professor at the University of Florida has offered an overseas perspective on what China’s law school market looks like, in comparison to that of different jurisdictions.

user iconEmma Musgrave 24 December 2018 Big Law
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At this year’s Relativity Fest, hosted at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago, by the team at Relativity, Lawyers Weekly had the opportunity to speak with Professor William F. Hamilton. Professor Hamilton is a legal skills professor and executive director at the University of Florida’s UF Law E-Discovery Project, as well as the International Center for Automated Information Retrieval (ICAIR) and Fredric G. Levin College of Law.

In a special Q&A session, Professor Hamilton offered vast insight into a trip he took to Nanjing, China earlier this year, where he conducted a two-week intensive course on all things e-discovery at Southeast University. In the Q&A, he speaks about how the trip came about, the challenges and opportunities it provided, and what he learnt about the overseas comparison between United States and Chinese law schools.

Tell me about the trip you took to China and how that opportunity came about?


The University of Florida and the College of Law has a relationship with Southeast University in Nanjing, so what we wanted to do was build on a collaborative relationship between those schools to facilitate this international discussion and also learn about the rule of law here and the rule of law there.

When our dean was over there, Dean Laura Rosenbury, a year ago, of course one of the huge topics that she discovered at the law school was artificial intelligence and as it turns out the law school at Southeast University, which is one of the most oldest and prestigious law schools in China, indicated that they had developed a relationship with the engineering department and other colleges within Southeast University and were very interested in putting together law and technology programs.

So the more our dean talked to their dean about it, my name popped up as someone leading the charge about that at the University of Florida College of Law and so then I got in touch with some of the professors at Southeast University and they invited me to come over and teach e-discovery and artificial intelligence so I went and my wife was kind enough to accompany me.

Was it difficult to navigate differences in the law across two jurisdictions in performing this kind of work?

Yeah, it was a challenge in the sense that Chinese civil procedure really resembles American civil procedure before 1938. I don’t want to date it and say its old but Chinese civil procedure is very similar to civil procedure outside of US and other countries in the sense that the general emphasis is that the magistrate does the investigation and makes the decision and that the parties bring to the table the evidence that they have. But what they lack is a party-driven discovery process, so this was something new to the students and I had to explain that to them in some detail and use some examples and it was quite challenging but also quite interesting, they were enthralled by the process. 

How long was the trip?

We did a very intense two-week course. It was 16 hours of classroom education, which is about half the length of a typical American semester at a law school. 

It was funny because when I got there I really didn’t know what to expect. This was the first time we had exchanged professors to teach courses so when I arrived I was prepared to teach the course similarly to how I teach in the United States. I had shipped in advance some books regarding e-discovery project management, which Relativity has been very kind to sponsor here and in other places. So, I’d shipped those books in advance because we had purchased them for the US e-discovery conference and I just had some leftovers so I thought “these would be great for the students”.

I asked how many students there were there – it was 63 and we had exactly that number of books so we shipped them over so they had an e-discovery book, in English of course, in advance. I showed up thinking about the best way to teach it, and thought best to meet with the faculty beforehand to get a sense of the student body, their background, their experience and at what level I'd have to teach the course.

So we did that, we met before the class, and I found out that this was going to be a very serious course, and they wanted me to evaluate the students, they wanted me to grade them, to issue them homework assignments, so I had to put a little bit of that together on the fly.

So it was challenging and exciting but we managed to pull it off and I think the students came away with a very, very valid, positive experience – at least that’s the feedback we’ve gotten.

Based off your positive experience, would you ever embark on a similar opportunity in a different jurisdiction?

Our relationship is with Southeast University right now but yes, I think this kind of exchange is incredibly valuable. It was very valuable for me to visit China, it was the first time I’d been there so it was an eye opening experience – the organisation, the wealth of the country, all the typical stereotypes, frankly, that many Americans have grown up with.

We’re dealing with a modern, industrial society. There’s beehive of activity that doesn’t have a strong sense of government impression, it seems like its just activity after activity and excitement after excitement with a very low level of police presence compared to the states. So it was very eye opening to me, and a very exciting environment to be in. The people were very open, we talked about a range of topics – there didn’t seem to be any inhibitions about topics that would be discussed in China about what was happening there so it was very positive and very encouraging.

I think these kind of exchange programs create an Ambassador opportunity for someone like me to teach them about how US litigation works and our struggle to try and find the truth and fairness. I was struck by [CEO of Relativity] Andrew Seja’s opening at Relativity Fest when he was talking about organise the data, analyse the data, find the truth and apply it, and that’s really what the course was about and it’s really timely for them too because they’ve got an ecosystem which is just bursting with electronically stored information.

As soon as I got there they put me on WeChat, which is their local, all-purposed communication device and that’s how I communicated with my students ... It’s almost a cashless society in the urban environments. They pay digitally or by WeChat and of course, not having a Chinese bank account, we were unable to use that feature but to the point that when we tried to pay cash it was like, “you really have cash? Why don’t you use your app?” It was that kind of reaction. So you’re talking about a very digitised culture and we spent a lot of time in class talking about the e-discovery tools that are available, especially via Relativity, that helps one get the bottom of things very quickly, notwithstanding the massive amounts of information. Students really responded to that understanding and to Relativity very positively.

Is the Chinese adoption of e-discovery stronger than that of other jurisdictions?

No, not at the moment. Their civil procedure process doesn’t include e-discovery, so we talked about it in the context of when doing internal investigations but actually what I did was use one of my own cases from my practicing career as a model.

So I advised a Chinese company that manufacturered computers in Nanjing (Nanjing Electrics), and they had a relationship with a company known as US Computer in Miami, which is where I practised for many years.

There was a dispute which saw Nanjing Electrics being dragged into this dispute into American court and so [the students], they’ve got to respond and understand the American discovery process – how are you going to defend?

I made the students the “counsel” for Nanjing Electric, so I said “how are you going to defend your company against these allegations and prove that they’re not true? Lets talk about that process, the American process and what needs to be done so you can advise Nanjing Electric and also you can advise other clients when you graduate and get involved in e-discovery and disputes involving American companies and/or American investigations.”

What were some of the trends you saw in the law school environment in China?

I was impressed with the tremendous growth that’s still going on in all regions, in all verticals if you will, within China.

Southeast University is one of 16 universities in Nanjing. It has 40,000 students. All of these students have to take English-qualified examinations to get into the university. I taught my class in English – it’s a very competitive environment.

I asked if I should grade the students on a curve and they said “of course you have to grade on a curve” and I said “well what does the curve look like?” And to my surprise, they said “well we give out a few As and we also don’t pass all students in the class”, which is not your typical American model, which is more of a bell shaped curve with the ends truncated for most. 

Also, I think its competitive in the sense that the parents of many of these children have made sacrifices to get them to the school. There is a cost of supporting the students.

They are carrying forth family traditions and they’ve got to do well and they feel they’ve got to do well, so I found these students very friendly, very engaging, excited about what we’re doing, love to get into Relativity and work the program and do the exercises, and they were responsive to me on a personal level as well as a professional level.

How does it compare to the US law school market?

Legal education in the states is undergoing a bit of a reformation and challenge that started back in 2008 with the Great Recession. Things were moving in a certain direction before that but its kind of shaken things up a bit because there was a real downturn in the economics and that meant there was a real downturn in the lawyers’ market and then law students began looking at law schools more competitively in terms of what was being offered and their career options.

So I think law schools in the United States are becoming a little bit more selective about their students. There’s more competition for fewer students, which is good in the sense that it's continuing to keep our standards up but at the same time we’re thinking more and more about integrating students into the workforce more directly.

Just to give you a personal example, when I graduated from law school back in the early 80s ... I was a little bit older when I went to law school, fortunately, by a few years, so I had a little more experience than some of my classmates in the world, but the law firm took me on and there was an apprentice period. I was basically trained to be a litigator and I went with a litigator to watch depositions for six months and then they gave me the opportunity to take depositions but only with a partner standing beside me and supervising me and of course she would take me out whenever I made a mistake in front of everybody and made corrections but that was just kind of the price of the game.

That apprenticeship model is being weakened and has weakened if it hasn’t collapsed in the United States. Our law students need to go out into the field a little more practice-ready than they have been in the past.

In my e-discovery class, I have students coming back and saying frankly that they were able to educate the attorneys at the firm’s they went to on e-discovery based on taking my class. My class is a little bit different because e-discovery didn’t exist 15–20 years ago but we’re now teaching how to use Relativity, we’re teaching them different models, how to handle practical problems in terms of managing clients, all in addition to the law, which is: what are your legal responsibilities and duties? 

So we had to teach the critical skills and we had to teach to some degree the practical application so that the runway to actual practice is a little bit shorter.

Would you say that the role of a lawyer has evolved to be so much more than pure legal advice?

Yes and that’s exciting. You walk around [at Relativity Fest] and going back to what Andrew said in his opening, artificial intelligence is expanding beyond the traditional notion of e-discovery.

What we have now is an ecosystem where investigations are taking place proactively more and more so these tools, such as Relativity, are going to be needed in every day practice. Contracts are being evaluated in large corporations, not by having attorneys look at them one at a time but using programs that go through the contracts that determine whether there are certain clauses that are weaker than they should be and need to be strengthened.

On one hand there were loads of attorneys that did that in the past. On the other hand its creating more work for attorneys that know how to apply and deploy and the potential for these kind of tools and that’s what firms are really looking for, so the demand is strong for creativity.

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