Stephen Yandle is Vice Dean Emeritus of the Peking University School of Transnational Law (STL), having served as the school's Associate Dean 2009-2012, Acting Dean 2012-13, and Vice Dean 2013-15. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia. He has served as Assistant Dean at the University of Virginia, as Associate Dean at the Northwestern University Law School, as Associate Dean of the Yale Law School, as Deputy Consultant on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar of the American Bar Association, and as Vice President for Global Law School Programs at LexisNexis.
Q: You hold a bachelor’s degree in economics. What inspired you to choose economics as your undergraduate major? Later, you pursued a J.D. degree at Virginia Law School. What motivated you to transition to law rather than continue your economics studies?
The modern higher education environment is very different from when I was in school, a more casual, less pressured time. Back then, you didn’t need to have as clear a focus as students do today. When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after graduation, nor did I know what I wanted to study.
In those days, you didn’t declare your major until your third year. I took economics courses and liked them, but not more than anything else. I chose it by default. I declared economics as my major as late in the process as I could. It was not as though I envisioned myself having a career in economics. I was just going to do something that I found interesting, and thought might be useful.
But then, as now, if you wanted to make a career in a particular field, it often required a graduate education to have the best range of opportunities. Law school was sort of in the back of my mind. Besides, this was during a time in the United States when there was a draft for the military, and the Vietnam War was raging. I had enrolled in the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) while in college and had an active duty military obligation hanging over my head when I graduated from college unless I deferred to pursue eligible graduate studies. Even though I felt quite patriotic, I didn’t feel Vietnam was a war that we should be in, a sentiment the country now generally shares. The opportunity to avoid being called to active duty while continuing my education was more appealing to me. Law school sounded like it might be interesting, and I could defer. And so, off I went to law school. I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the University of Virginia Law School, and that’s where I went.
Moving from economics to law was not a change of direction. It was just following a somewhat haphazard path. As I said, in those days, if you had a graduate degree, you had lots of opportunities. Things were not as competitive for jobs as they are now. So, you had a certain sense of comfort knowing that opportunities wouldpresent themselves if you followed a reasonable, thoughtful path, that was aligned reasonably well with your interests. Today’s students perhaps don’t have that luxury.
Q: Would you be willing to share your experiences from law school with us? How would you describe the academic environment at the law school during that time? How was your life back then?
Unfortunately, it was a very difficult time in the United States politically, primarily because of the Vietnam War. As the war dragged on, opposition increased. In the spring of 1970, my first year of law school, major student demonstrations erupted nationwide protesting the Vietnam War. A national student protest took place during which students boycotted classes and demanded the closure of universities in response to the prevalent turmoil. Tragic incidents occurred at several colleges, with the most notable one at Kent State, where students were killed by national guards and soldiers reacting to their demonstrations. Then, I left law school in my first year. I remained enrolled, but I stopped attending class and school. Instead, I went to work with some friends of mine who were in a program called VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a program at that time where college graduates could go to underprivileged communities in the United States and help with the problems of those areas. This seemed to me, given the turmoil of the time, to be a more constructive way for me to use my time. And so, I was absent during my first year’s spring semester. However, I had my law books with me, and ultimately, the school allowed students to be away from class, allowing us to take our exams in the summertime. My first year of law school was tumultuous and not normal due to the overarching turmoil of the time.
After that, my second and third years were more normal. I settled in and started to enjoy law school. Between my second and third years, I got married to Martha Anne. When I was in my third year, she was in a graduate psychology program at the University of Virginia, working on her master's degree. So the two of us were together. That was a very nice year; we were acting as newly married students. And I enjoyed it.
Q: It appears you had an extraordinarily unique law school experience, transitioning from wartime to peacetime. How did you plan your career during law school and after graduation despite this American context? Having served as AssistantDean at the University of Virginia, why did you opt for academic administration over practicing law?
This story is part of a recurring theme. I’ll give you the key point which I think you might find amusing: in my professional life, I have never had a job that I applied for. For every job I’ve had, somebody reached out to me and said, “We have this position. Might you be willing to be considered for it?”
My first job after law school fits into that category. I had been in a program in the United States called ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp). So whenever I graduated, I received a commission as an officer of the United States Army and was obligated to serve two years of active duty. I had deferred my obligation to law school, but the 2-year obligation awaited me after law school. While in law school, I could not think about law jobs because I had to be an officer in the army. No legal employer would be interested in talking to you if you would only be available after two years. So I resigned myself to the fact that I would go into the Army when I graduated from law school.
However, the Vietnam War was winding down at this time, and the number of officers in this pipeline for these programs exceeded the number of officers that the Army needed. In the spring of my third year of law school, I received a letter from the Army saying that they offered selective ROTC graduates the option of fulfilling their 2-year obligation in 3 months due to excess capacity. I thought that was a pretty good deal, and I applied for as early of a 3-month period as possible, which I was able to secure.
My plan was to take the bar exam, serve three months in the military, and then start making career choices in law that fall. To some extent, I put that off and hadn’t thought seriously about what I wanted to do, but I assumed I would probably practice law. The problem was that at this time of the year, all of the hiring for the following year had taken place, and every firm had hired whom they would hire for the following year. I was just in a void. Martha Anne and I were trying to figure out what we would do. I suggested that we just travel. I thought it would be fun just to travel to Europe. I wasn’t sure how we would pay for that, but that was the plan.
But then, somewhat miraculously, within a matter of days, I ran into a professor of mine, my favorite law school professor, who had supported me very much. I had told him about my situation, and he said he had just come from a faculty meeting. The school was creating a new administrative assistant dean position in the area ofadmissions because there was a huge surge of interest in admissions to law schools in the United States, and the school didn’t have sufficient capacity to deal with all that. They decided to hire a recent graduate for a year or two as a sort of postgraduate fellowship position to assist in the admissions area. He asked me if I might be interested in that. I thought it sounded interesting, and after discussing it with Martha Anne, we agreed it was a good idea. This would allow us to stay in Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia is located. We were settled there, and I would be at the law school during the fall interviewing season. The idea was to do this for a year or two, and then go into practicing law.
I got the job and, as it turned out, I enjoyed it. It was fascinating to me. The people I worked with gave me opportunities to get involved in different things, and I got a chance to engage beyond the admissions area. I liked the intern position but was also interested in continuing to do it and expanding it beyond the original idea. The school liked what I was doing and was receptive to that. While it was not something that could be a long-term possibility, it was something that I could do for a few years while I figured out what I wanted to do with my career after that. And so, that’s what launched me into academic administration rather than the practice of law.
Q: You were the associate dean at Yale Law School for 17 years. Could you share some stories from your time there? What kind of problems did you face then, and how did you solve them? What do you consider your most remarkable achievement?
I went from Virginia to Northwestern Law School, and one day while I was sitting in my office, the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is Guido.” For some context, Guido Calabresi is currently a Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He had just been appointed as the Dean of Yale Law School at that time. And he was assembling his administrative group. I had previously met Professor Calabresi when he gave a distinguished lecture at Northwestern. He knew of me because two of my professors, whom I had known from the University of Virginia, had moved on to Yale Law School and become part of the faculty there. He was looking for someone to fill an administrative dean position. Guido is a larger-than-life figure, a leading scholar, primarily in the field of torts during the 20th century, who is thoroughly excited by and engaged in everything he does. He always refers to himself as Guido, assuming everyone knows who he is.So when I picked up the phone and he said, “Hi, this is Guido,” I rightly assumed it was Guido Calabresi.
Anyway, he invited me to discuss the position. Yale is an exceptional law school, and the opportunity was a fantastic career move. There was no question or debate about the move.
However, once I arrived, I was struck that this law school had ceased to be self-critical despite having been preeminent for so long. It was the perfect example of what we called an ‘ivory tower’ institution. It lived in a bubble where the universe ended at its boundaries. Dean Calabresi was different. He possessed the broadest worldview of anybody I had ever associated with and was the smartest person I ever worked with. He recognized that this ivory tower view of the law school had become, and would continue to be, a major problem in the modern world. The ivory tower view of higher education couldn’t continue.
The challenge was that the school was in a state of decline in its ability to attract faculty and students. The school still had its famous name, and only those who looked closely could tell. Early on, erosion doesn’t make a big difference, but over time it does. Eventually, you reach a tipping point where you’re no longer viewed as being in the top tier. We had to solve this before the rest of the world realized that we had a problem.
One of the tasks I was assigned was to create a new financial model for the law school. The law school was under the complete financial control of the central administration. It was seriously underfunded for the challenges of a rapidly expanding legal education field, as more schools were capitalizing on opportunities to enhance their faculties and student bodies. A substantial amount of money was available because historically, tuition had been relatively low, while salaries were rising dramatically, providing an opportunity to significantly increase tuition. Many schools were doing exactly that. However, Yale was not. Its stance was, “This is how we’ve always done things; it works for us and will continue to do so.”
At the core, the first thing that we had to do was develop an independent model for the law school. The core idea was that if we could be responsible for our own bottom line, we could balance our budget with resources that we could generate, rather than having all of our income go into a university pot and the university doling it out.If we could assure our alumni that every dollar they gave to the law school was used for the law school, we could raise substantial amounts of money that wouldenable us to do what we needed. Addressing this problem required extraordinary effort as it defied traditions. It took us three years, but we managed to do it, completely transforming the law school and breaking it free from stagnation.
Then came the part of the solution that I feel particularly proud of, as this was an original work we undertook, and I was truly the driving force behind it. We built revenues by increasing tuition. For students who were planning to practice law, this created no problem because there were plentiful loan they could borrow for law school, and the salaries they would earn upon graduation would be more than sufficient to pay off their debt. Hence, they were making a strong financial investment by paying more for an education that would give them a return on investment multiple times what they spent. However, a relatively small group of students did not want to join a big law firm. Some of our students were passionate about doing public interest or government work. There was a huge salary gap between major law firms and public interest or government work. For these students, higher tuition was a problem because they would not earn enough salary to pay off their loans without extreme financial distress. Therefore, we created the first comprehensive loan repayment forgiveness program, where the amount of loan you had to repay depended on how much money you made after graduating from law school. It was a sliding scale: the more you made, the more you had to contribute. But at the lowest salary level, essentially, the program basically wrote off all of your loans. This was a powerful message to send to students. Come to Yale Law School:if you go to work for a law firm, you’ll be able to pay the cost; but if you decide to take a low-paying position, you’ll essentially receive a backdoor scholarship that will cover all of your loans.
Getting this done required an immense amount of tireless work. The university didn’t like the idea, primarily because they couldn’t afford to do this for the entire university. The law school’s view was that we didn’t ask the university to do that; we were merely asking the university to let us do this, and we would pay for it. Ultimately, we prevailed.
It was fascinating to arrive at a school that one would think was at the top of the world and wouldn’t have any major problems, only to discover there were intractable problems that required a lot of work and creativity. Ultimately, I derived tremendous satisfaction from working through these issues.
Q: The loan repayment forgiveness program is wonderful. But where does thismoney come from? Is it from the other wealthier alumni who paid more on their loans? Or is it from some alumni who donated money to the school?
It’s from both. In the short run, it does amount to a cross-subsidy, much like how scholarships function. Not everyone pays the same price. The price you pay is a function of your financial situation. For a traditional scholarship, your financial aid award is based on your and your family’s immediate financial need. Those with greater need are being cross-subsidized by students who don’t have such need. This model essentially flips the perspective from a snapshot when you enroll to a dynamic picture measured after graduation. But at its core, it’s the same concept - students with less need receive a cross-subsidy from students without need.
However, one of the things we recognized when setting this up was that it presented an opportunity for alumni and donor giving, because people would be attracted to the idea. Over time, the program has attracted a large amount of money directly into the program, thereby reducing the amount of cross-subsidy.
Interestingly, most top-tier law schools have subsequently created their own models. In this way, it has transformed law school financial aid. My law school, the University of Virginia, has created such a program. We recognized it was a great opportunity to generate gifts for the law school. Martha Anne and I recently made a gift to the program created by the University of Virginia's law school to allow the school to enhance the benefits for the recipients. So, I created a model that, roundabout, made its way back to my own institution. That brought me great pleasure.
Q: You joined STL in 2009 when it was newly established. How did you first learn about STL and what drew you to join this burgeoning law school?
This narrative continues the theme of never having actively applied for a job. After many years at Yale, I had the opportunity to manage public housing in the city of New Haven, which provides housing for low-income individuals. Due to concerns about a potential conflict of interest between this public role and Yale University, the major economic force in New Haven, it was necessary for me to resign from my position at Yale. I spent many years there and had a fabulous experience, but I did believe there were times when a change was in order. I viewed this as an opportunity to contribute to the community in an important way, so I made the move. It was a limited term appointment as expected, and next I had the chance to return to Chicago to work with the American Bar Association as a deputy consultant on legal education,which was also a temporary position. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to work with LexisNexis to develop an international program for them.
While at LexisNexis, one of my tasks was to find key law schools around the world that might be interested in partnering with LexisNexis for their legal research programs. While searching, I came across STL, which seemed a perfect school for a match due to its American J.D. style program taught in English. The students there would need either LexisNexis or Westlaw, the latter being LexisNexis’s main competitor at the time. So, I reached out to the Founding Dean of STL, Jeffrey Lehman, whom I had known from his time as a junior faculty member at the University of Michigan and as a visitor at Yale Law School. I initiated a conversation on behalf of LexisNexis. Jeff said, “Might you be interested in coming to China and helping us start this new school—STL? It’s really exciting!” Upon looking at the opportunity, I found it truly exciting. I was captivated within 2 minutes. I visited STL in the fall of 2008 shortly after the first class had enrolled there. The experience totally took me. Jeff then suggested that he’d love to have me join the administration. And off I went.
I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that my association with STL has been the most significant professional engagement of my career. It is the most exciting development in international legal education that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Being part of it has been truly thrilling.
Q: What was the most appealing aspect for you when Dean Lehman asked, “Would you like to join us?” Was it STL’s creativity, innovative spirit, or the opportunity it presented for global education? Which of these was the key factor that persuaded you to join STL?
I believe the chance to be involved at the ground level of this exciting project was most appealing to me. It presented an opportunity to draw upon my extensive experience in legal education in a completely different environment and in an entirely novel way.
At that time, and even now, there is no other law school in the world like STL. I was thrilled by this opportunity, which met and exceeded my expectations. One of the things that makes it so exciting is not only that it’s novel and different, but also that STL is important. I think that it plays a significant role in international education and international legal education, and it’s deeply crucial to China-US relationships, as wellas the economic success of both countries, and subsequently, the rest of the world.
At the core, I believe that the law school could play an extraordinarily important role in forging bonds between China and the United States, the two most influential economic and political forces in the 21st century. This could act as a powerful counterbalance against tensions that may arise as these two countries compete. It builds a unifying fabric neither country can afford to tear, if they consider it in their own self-interests. To me, this is of incredible importance. I believe our little institution plays an exceedingly important role in this context.
Q: You have a wealth of experience with more established law schools in theU.S. When you came to China to initiate STL with Dean Lehman, did you essentially transplant your experience and the American law school model, or did you attempt to reform or modify it in any way?
From day one, it was important to me, and for the rest of the world to understand, that STL is a Chinese law school that has adapted the American J.D. model for its J.D. program.
I brought my expertise in that model to STL, but it was not a matter of Dean Lehman, me, and others in the faculty imposing an American J.D. model. It was about facilitating the Chinese law school’s adaptation of the J.D. model. The school is a Chinese law school that has chosen to use this model because it offers important training for students to become the future lawyers of the transnational world. And I always thought that was a very important distinction. I believed it was a crucial distinction for the durability of the school, the longevity of the school, the succession of the school, and for it to be embraced internally in China and recognized externally in the rest of the world.
Q: How would you describe STL when you first joined? What were the early days of STL like? What changes have you witnessed over the years, both within STL and among its students?
The first class was a remarkable gathering of students. There were only 50 or so students in the class. We used to refer to them as “the pioneers.” Imagine if you were a student interested in law school and a new school that didn’t exist before just popped up. You had no idea what it was like, whether it would be successful or not, or what opportunities it might provide, other than what you read on a few pages ofintroductory material. You would have to be part of a highly selective class to gain admission. Despite having excellent opportunities at more traditional law schools, other law schools, international law schools, or in China, this group of people chose STL.
I’ve always held them in extraordinarily high regard for their bravery. They just stepped off the cliff’s edge, not knowing what was down there, and said, “Let’s give this a try.” They were amazingly dedicated, incredibly serious, worked hard, and bonded nicely as a group. It was a small enough class that everybody knew everybody. There were no upper-class students; they were the entire school, and it became a close-knit social group. Everybody did everything together, and they were fabulous.
For the first group, the number of candidates with English proficiency equivalent to what is typical in the school today, was substantially less. The English ability of several students was marginal, posing a struggle. However, in all my years, I’ve never been associated with a group of students who were as serious, dedicated, and joyous about their educational opportunities. It was a wonderful environment, akin to a big family. While they shared characteristics similar to American law students, they were unlike any other students I’ve encountered in their focus, intensity, commitment, resilience in the face of challenges, and dedication to their work. It was a special environment.
Interestingly, over time, a couple of things changed. At first, the classes grew. Second, and most importantly, the school had four classes rather than one, and a student body which was many multiples of the original student body. And fairly quickly, English proficiency rose dramatically early on. In the early days, you would have students with compelling academic credentials, had done well on the national test, had outstanding grades. But they were not as fluent as would be useful in complex studies. I always described studying law as studying a foreign language and studying a foreign language in a foreign language has always struck me as mind-boggling. There is a translation on the translation going on to deal with complex legal materials. When I first got to law school, I couldn’t believe how long it took me to read materials. I had to stop and read the sentence repeatedly, despite English being my native language. So, I’ve always admired any students studying law in a second language.
But over time, the student atmosphere became more and more like the Americanmodel. Students became more likely to cut corners in the way that American students cut corners. They were not universally diligent. One of the problems in American legal education is that if you are at a top school, you will have lots of opportunities, even if you don’t have great grades. It’s simply a reality. Some students recognize this early on and develop a pattern of “I’ll do what’s necessary to maintain a respectable record, but I’m not going the extra mile to achieve total mastery of this material.”
I used to say that what distinguished the best students in China from the best students at Yale law school is that the best and most diligent students at Yale would reach a point in dealing with something extremely complex. Yale’s best and most diligent students would stop when they achieved about 98% comprehension of something extremely complex, stating, “I’ve dealt with this long enough. I’ve got a good handle on this. I’m going to do something else.” In contrast, my best Chinese students, who comprised a larger portion of the class than my best Yale students, were obsessed with mastering the final 2%. They refused to let go until they had complete mastery.
I haven’t been at the school for three years, so I don’t know if there have been any changes, but I did notice an evolution. There seemed to be less of what I’d call “obsessive dedication” in a complimentary sense than earlier. As the school became more successful and opportunities for graduates expanded, more students behaved like their American counterparts, not as diligent as they might be at every turn.
Q: Some students are deeply committed and aim for complete mastery of the material. However, I find myself adopting what might call a“cut corners”approach. My mindset is that“If I can grasp 98% of the material, pass an exam, and avoid exhausting myself with additional discussions and efforts, why should I exert perhaps an extra 10% effort to comprehend that final 2%?”In your perspective, how can that last 2% level of understanding make a difference?
First, I must confess that I was certainly a corner-cutter as a student. I had a hierarchy of priorities. For certain courses, I decided, “This is a course that I’m going to focus on,” while for others, I thought, ‘I don’t find this all that important or interesting. I’ll do what’s necessary to get through it.” Now, I’m not being critical, as this is somewhat human nature. What I found unique, particularly in the early stages, was the almost universal total dedication among the students. It’s not that I think STL has gotten worse; it’s just become more similar to the rest of the world.
I believe this is an important life lesson. While I was a student, I felt I had the freedom to make those kinds of judgments without significantly compromising my educational experience. When I entered the working world, I underwent a complete transformation and have since maintained a completely dedicated mindset. As a student, you’re preparing yourself for an undefined future, a sort of general preparation. Once you start working, you have a defined universe. You have a specific mission for that work and a defined role within that mission. I’ve always felt that any job I truly want is one in which I would be 100% dedicated all the time.
I believe there’s a difference between school and work. Although it might be ideal to be 100% dedicated in school, it’s quite likely that you’ll fall short of that. But once you enter the working world, I believe success is directly related to 100% dedication. The rule of thumb for me has always been that if you’re ever in a job where you’re not excited and completely dedicated, then it’s time to do something else.
Q: What do you think the best legal education can, should, and does offer its students?
What law school teaches you is critical thinking, and an associated skill you develop in this process is problem-solving. Every job that would interest me fundamentally requires these two skills.
We can deconstruct these skills back to a law school curriculum. There are theoretical courses and skills courses in law school. In theoretical courses, both the content and the approach are important; these are the courses where students develop critical thinking skills in some traditional legal education models. More problem-solving skills come from the application of these critical skills to a practical set of problems, often referred to as the “skills course.” This is somewhat of a misnomer in law school, as the important part is not learning a specific skill but learning how to apply critical thinking to a problem in a specific area.
However, the world changes every day, and the law varies from area to area. Thus, spending your time in law school learning how to apply, say, a certain element of the tax code to a corporate tax problem, and expecting to walk into a law firm on day one and solve that problem, is of limited use. The problem could arise in a different country with entirely different tax laws, or the tax code might have changed between your study time and when you start work. There could be a judicial opinionthat changes the interpretation. So, your specific skill might be of limited use. However, your ability to apply your critical thinking and problem-solving skills is universal because you understand what type of issues may arise, and you carry that understanding with you.
Remember your first-year Property classes, where you’re reading about 17th-century England, discussing someone chasing wild foxes. You may have asked,“Why am I spending my time on this?” You were learning to think about basic principles of law, what they mean, how they could be applied, and how changing facts alter the situation. The first step is understanding the questions, and the second is applying them to the problem.
I resisted this model when I was in law school, and it even angered me. My professors kept asking me questions. Then they would change the hypothetical and ask what I thought the court should do in that case. I’d think,“What do I think? You’re the professor! Your job is to tell me what the core issue is! I’ll write it down, memorize it, and then write the answer on the exam.” I believe the critical thinking approach runs contrary to our mindset as students. This is especially true in China, where the traditional approach is a lecture format. An expert stands in front of the class, shares their knowledge on a subject, and the students listen intently, read associated materials, take notes, and then reproduce that information on an exam. Critical thinking is a completely different model. However, it does give you a set of tremendously transferable skills, providing you with the flexibility to make what may seem to someone in the outside world a dramatic shift. Even though the subject matter or setting may change, the basic skill set serves you well.
Q: In the early stages of STL, what kind of students did the school aim to develop? Could you describe the ideal student profile that STL seeks to cultivate?
Dean Lehman would give a great orientation speech each year, which referred to a concept he called “sympathetic engagement with counterargument.” His point was that to be the best law student. You need to be able to hold two competing concepts in your mind simultaneously and subject each to counterargument.
Imagine you’re studying a case. One argument makes a point that would support a holding in your favor, and there’s a completely different alternative. You have to hold these two ideas in your mind, subject them to equivalent cross-examination, and ultimately arrive at what you believe is the better argument. In the early days, we usedto conduct a moot court exercise for students as part of orientation. We would ask a student to argue on behalf of their client’s interest and explain why they should prevail. Then Dean Lehman would say, “Now make the opposite argument. You’re the opposing counsel.” This is the primary exercise to develop critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t developed just by reading good critical thinking, although that might be part of it. You have to do it in your mind, keeping your mind open to contradictory ideas as you assess them.
There’s a famous law movie called“The Paper Chase”. One of the students in the Harvard class had a photographic memory, meaning he could memorize anything, but he was having a terrible time in law school. He wasn’t succeeding because he could memorize everything he read but couldn’t analyze it or put it in context. His ability to memorize everything was useless when the professor asked questions in class or when he had to write an exam.
Some people have this ability to remember a lot of information. While it’s useful, it’s something very different from critical thinking. We believed in the importance of seeking and developing students who had this capacity for critical thinking, particularly students who were interested in applying this skill in a transnational environment, not only looking at problems that have different possible explanations, but examining them across cultures, legal systems, geographies, and time. Another early term we used was “developing bridge people.” We talked about students who had the interest and capacity to be “bridges”, recognizing that the modern world is becoming increasingly complex and interdependent, with the field of law very much at the forefront. That was what we were looking for, and that was what we were trying to develop.
Q: You mentioned that STL’s initial objective was cultivating“bridge people”. Could you elaborate on what is meant by this term?
“Bridge people” is a broad term encompassing a wide range of definitions and areas of inclusion. It refers to individuals who have successfully connected across differences, using the metaphor of a bridge to illustrate the concept of bridging gaps. This term is more general than specific.
We used to tell our faculty and visiting faculty that while our curriculum, especially the required curriculum, would closely match that of a U.S. law school (consider the contract course as an example), there should be at least 10% of thematerial with a transnational twist. We’re teaching at a transnational law school, so while discussing common law concepts like “specific performance” or “consideration,” we should at least ensure that we discuss how these might differ or be interpreted differently in a transnational context.
Let me give you an example. Early on, I had an enlightening conversation with a businessman in Shenzhen. In the early days of China’s economic opening, there was a huge influx of business from the United States. Many Americans were involved in developing economic activity in China. A common sentiment among them was that they couldn’t trust their Chinese partners. This businessman in Shenzhen told me that he couldn’t understand the American obsession with contracts. From his perspective, writing contracts that speculated about future occurrences that couldn’t be projected seemed foolish. He believed in developing relationships with business partners, so if unexpected events occurred, they could decide what to do based on their working relationship. In contrast, the American notion was to write every detail of the contract, which was for the Shenzhen businessman a disconnect.
Recognizing these cultural differences is critical to creating a business deal both sides understand and will comply with comfortably. This is what we strive to instill in our students, applying their critical thinking to improve outcomes in a transnational context..
Q: In your view, what constitutes the greatest obstacle to transnational legal practice? Is it language proficiency, or is there another factor?
Mastering the language is a prerequisite for success. Even when two people are fluent in their languages, there will still be issues when trying to bridge these languages.
I have a friend, a transnational lawyer based in the United States. He described the difficulties they had when translating documents. Even though they had translators who spoke both English and Mandarin, there were often misinterpretations that required revisions. However, addressing the fundamental language problem is the first step before getting to the substantive issues.
The more challenging questions concern cross-cultural differences. Language is a finite problem; although it might not be entirely solvable, significant progress can be made. However, there are deep-seated differences in worldviews and cultural perspectives. What frustrates me, particularly in relation to my association withChina, is the American tendency to view every issue in China as if it were an issue in the United States. The American viewpoint seems to be, “Well, if I were Chinese, I would see it this way.” This perspective completely misses the point because the observer is not Chinese. The individual on the other side, who is Chinese, perceives the situation differently. They aren’t saying,“If I were American, I would see it this way.” I haven’t practiced transnational law, so I’m not certain how this works in the legal trenches, but I witness this mentality in politics every day. The United States often critically views China’s actions because they don’t resonate with how the U.S. would handle similar issues.
There’s a terrible American arrogance that assumes that the way that we look at the world is the way that everybody should look at the world, and everybody should conform to that. The failure to acknowledge and respect alternative perspectives without passing value judgments is a substantial hurdle we have yet to overcome. That’s why I believe that graduates from STL, who have been trained in cross-cultural exchange, are better equipped than others around the world to bring about real resolutions and agreements, at least in the realm of law.
Q: Recently, an increasing number of graduates are opting to pursue careers in civil service, possibly reflecting the current socio-economic climate. What is your perspective on this trend?
I believe this is a logical progression that has occurred in the United States over the last several years, so it’s not surprising to see it happening at STL. What typically draws people to law are the work and the ideas. They see interesting, complex problems that are important to society and their clients and want to address them. In many settings, you can earn a good living doing so.
However, once people delve into the study and practice of law, they often find a conflict between their idealized vision of life in the law and the realities of income. Money is a factor; everyone wants to do well financially. When this conflict arises, I think it takes two primary forms. First, there’s a fundamental work-life balance problem. High-paying employers will make significant demands on your time, which may clash with other life interests, like family or leisure. People then need to decide whether the trade-off is worth it for them. Typically, outside of law firm practice, the work-life balance tends to be better. Second, the expectation of billable hours has greatly increased over the years. For instance, when I graduated from law school in1972, the billable hour expectation for a major law firm was 35 hours a week. Now, it’s much higher, but the salaries are also much higher.
Over time, law firm practice has increasingly become a business. It used to be an association of lawyers who did well financially and viewed their work from a broader perspective, including community involvement and service elements. As salaries and partnership shares have grown, conflict has arisen between this community orientation and individual profit maximization. This shift has made some people uncomfortable about the decisions being made within their firms. At times, you might have clients whose actions you don’t entirely agree with, and yet you’re providing them legal advice and using the power of high-profile lawyers to possibly produce certain results with which you are uncomfortable.
I believe people find more comfort in public or public service positions, where they perceive their role as serving society and making it better, rather than simply making rich people richer. This shift is an evolution that has taken place in American legal education, and it’s not surprising to see it occurring now at STL.
Q: What was the biggest challenge STL faced during its initial stages? What do you think might be the challenges STL is facing now?
First, I should say that when the history of STL is written, the person who deserves the most accolades is Professor Hai Wen, the early chancellor of PKU’s “Shenzhen Graduate School”. It was Hai Wen’s idea to create STL, and he recruited Jeffery Lehman as the Founding Dean. Hai Wen was always a dependable and strong supporter of what we were trying to do at the law school. He helped us identify our mission and to understood what that mission was. We could always count on him for the support we needed.
What concerns me today is the increasing hostility toward China coming from the U.S. It began in earnest during the Trump administration, with the initial wave arriving with the tariffs. More importantly, however, was the constant China-bashing. President Trump never missed an opportunity to denounce China. Unfortunately, this stance became politically popular in the United States. Then, when COVID struck, it was easy to direct blame at China. The Trump administration intensified its critical stance, and the media ran with this narrative. The negative sentiment towards China continued under Biden’s administration. It became clear to politicians that votes could be gained by taking a negative stance towards China.
What I’m really concerned about is the impact this is having in China. While in China, I found that the person in the street and the students held a very positive attitude towards the United States. I believe it’s important to maintain a positive relationship between the United States and China. But this constant bombardment of negativity, often delivered in the most insulting form possible, must have some impact. This impact could potentially be felt in the context of STL. What keeps me awake at night is whether this larger conflict between China and the United States is having any adverse impact on the school and the university, and by extension, on the government’s support for the school. That’s my primary concern, which centers around the potential effects of increasing tensions between China and the United States on STL.
Another concern is similar to one I had at Yale Law School. It might seem a little odd. The pioneering students at STL were deeply committed to the STL model. They chose STL because they sought a specific type of education. However, over time, the school has achieved significant success in terms of admissions and has cultivated an allure similar to Yale Law School. People aspire to be part of the school because of its exclusivity and prestige. Yale is quite distinct from most American law schools—it’s a place one should choose if they resonate with its style of education, not merely because it’s consistently ranked number one in U.S. news reports. I sometimes wonder whether people are drawn to STL more for its prestige rather than its unique mission. If that’s the case, it could change the school’s character. Still, I should clarify that I haven’t been closely involved in recent years, so this is purely speculation. These potential changes are the challenges that come with success. It’s not a deep-seated worry, more a background concern.
Q: After working in higher education in both the United States and China for many years, what observations do you have about the differences and similarities between the two countries higher education systems?
The strengths of higher education in China versus the U.S., is that China has a strong familial commitment to education that doesn’t have an equivalent in the U.S. One of the things that astounded me when I was in China was the high percentage of STL students coming from a very modest economic background. In the U.S., top-tier education is dominated by students from affluent backgrounds. At Yale Law School, a third of the students received no financial aid, despite the high costs, meaningsomeone in their family could afford to write a sizable check—less than the top 1% of the U.S. population could afford. These families were disproportionately represented. Additionally, many other students from well-off families received some form of assistance due to the high cost of education. In contrast, the lower economic quartile in the U.S., representing about 25% of the population, is dramatically underrepresented in elite U.S. schools at about 2%.
During my time at STL, the majority of our student population hailed from limited economic backgrounds. They had managed to succeed academically with the force of their families, sometimes even their communities. They were pushed and assisted to take advantage of the best opportunities. Over time, I noticed that this was beginning to shift, a change that mirrored China’s overall growing prosperity. In the United States the educational experience of students from poor backgrounds attending underfunded public schools differs vastly from those from affluent backgrounds attending expensive private schools or receiving tutoring. This disparity makes it challenging for students from lower-income brackets to gain admission to highly selective schools. I am curious if China’s increasing economic success might create an environment that will eventually resemble that of the U.S., where students from modest backgrounds could be overwhelmed due to a lack of resources available to more affluent students.
What I loved about STL was that, unless I had seen their applications, I had no way of knowing the students’ backgrounds. Students formed friendships based on personal compatibility rather than economic status. In contrast, in the United States, students tend to form social groups based on socioeconomic background. What I genuinely loved about China was the democracy of educational opportunities and the mix of excelling students.
Q: The law school’s original objective was accreditation by ABA, similar to U.S. law schools., but the ABA decided not to extend its accrediting authority beyond the United States and Puerto Rico in 2012. Could you tell us in detail the causes and consequences of ABA’s refusal to certify overseas and how you view this matter?
In 2012, we received the final letter. I can still envision the letter before me, and the language sticks in my mind: the ABA will not accept applications for accreditation from a law school located outside the United States, even if that school can meet all of the accreditation standards as applied to a law school in the United States. Professionally, this was one of the most frustrating outcomes of my life, primarily because it was wrong and appeared to be motivated by protectionism. This action, in my view, brings shame on the ABA.
The opportunity for law schools outside of the United States to apply for accreditation was more important in terms of the evolution of global legal education than it was specifically for the benefit of STL. STL students have other avenues to gain access to practice anywhere in the world, including the United States. Our students, who have managed to qualify through other means, have performed well on the bar exam, resulting in a very high pass rate. This situation was an opportunity for the American legal profession to internationalize its brand. American law has played a critical role in the modern evolution of transnational law. We have a legal system to be proud of, and in recent years, we have been able to influence global law through the expanded acceptance of American legal concepts. Opening up accreditation to international schools teaching American law presented the ABA with an opportunity to extend and deepen its impact. But instead, the small-minded protectionism for American bar-passed lawyers was a cheapened way of denying and limiting that impact, which I found incredibly unfortunate.
Moreover, the entire process was conducted in an extremely dishonest way. In my view, it marked a low point for the American Bar Association. There’s no adverse reflection on STL, except for the occasional misconception that STL applied and was rejected. But STL was never denied ABA accreditation; it was denied the opportunity to apply for accreditation along with any law school not located in the United States including Puerto Rico, even if the school met all of the standards as they would be applied to a school in the United States. STL was denied the opportunity to apply for accreditation on process grounds, and there was never a substantive evaluation. I view it as a serious error on the ABA’s part to miss this opportunity.
What made this especially hard for me is that I once served as a deputy consultant on legal education for the ABA. My job was about American law school accreditation. If this issue had come up while I was there, I would have leapt at the opportunity. Although the decision was misguided in my opinion, it was made by a council of representatives overseeing the accreditation process. Unfortunately, people who were very good friends of mine ended up on the wrong side of this issue, damaging several personal relationships over the years. Thus, my reaction reflected more my deeply felt disappointment with my former colleagues at the ABA for theirfailure to recognize the opportunity than with any adverse impact on STL.
Q: STL was born in an era that, compared to now, was more believing in cooperation and win-win rather than conflict and mutual exclusion and was more full of optimism. But the times are not linearly forward but are full of twists and turns. Ideological and political interference, the deterioration of Sino-US relations, and the gradual “decoupling” in the economy are causing serious divisions and opposition in the world. Given these circumstances, what do you believe is the significance of the J.D. education model?
I believe that nothing has occurred to render the model less relevant, less important, or less useful. Unless there’s a total collapse in the economic exchange between the United States and China, I can’t envision any scenario where an STL education becomes less important or creates fewer opportunities for graduates. One of the things that excited me about STL was creating a group of lawyers who would facilitate increasingly intertwined economic relationships between China and the rest of the world. This is now so deeply ingrained that I don’t see it unraveling. It may become more difficult to achieve, but the harder it gets, the more we’ll need lawyers to navigate it.
To some extent, when things become easier, you could use an AI program to draft your contracts and everyone would be content. But as things become ever more complex due to disagreements and conflicting treaties, the role of lawyers only expands, particularly for those from STL who have this unique training. Therefore, the demand for STL graduates is on the rise.
We might be in a less pleasant world now, but things typically move in cycles. I believe that the Biden administration recognizes that reducing the conflict between China and the United States would benefit both countries. It’s possible that they could frame this in a way that would make it politically beneficial to move in that direction.
Besides, one of the fabulous developments of STL has been strengthening theJ.M. program curriculum. We were initially focused primarily on the J.D. program, but now we have a very robust J.M. program. The J.M. degree is part of the equation. Students are receiving a much stronger educational background than the earlier classes did. I believe that the combination of the J.D. and J.M. programs has a very promising future.
Q: What do you consider to be the most fulfilling aspect of working at STL? Could you share some STL-related stories with us?
I have exceptional colleagues and close friends, but being involved in legal education is all about the students. My STL students hold a special place in my heart; they’re extraordinary beyond words. My wife and I don’t have any children of our own, so I feel as if I have hundreds of children who have passed through STL and with whom I’ve had the chance to associate with. I love following their lives.
For STL-related stories, what sticks in my mind is more the cumulative experience of living and working in STL. Now, with time, I’ve seen students graduate, embark on their careers, get married, and have children. This brings to mind those early days at STL when we were like a family. We were a tight-knit group of individuals working extremely hard to create something new—something fragile, enduring, and significant.
Through email, I remain connected with a vast network of former students. I recently received an email notifying me that one of my students, pursuing graduate legal education, just won the award for the best graduate law student at Oxford. This news brought me immense joy and excitement. Seeing students now flourishing as partners in major law firms or succeeding in other areas of law or having their family is immensely satisfying. Each individual story may seem relatively simple and unextraordinary, but the accumulation of them constitutes a life experience that I cherish deeply.
Q: Life at law school is inevitably stressful, particularly in the first year as students adapt to an all-English teaching environment. If an STL student were to come to your office and express feeling stressed, depressed, and questioning their decision to study law, what advice would you offer them? What advice would you give if students encounter difficulties, whether in their studies or work?
These are conversations that I’ve had throughout my entire career. The scenarios aren’t that different, and they’re just magnified now. The first thing I’ve always done is to rely on the Socratic Method. For instance, I might ask,“Why do you think this place isn’t for you? What’s making you feel this way?” Often, students have worked themselves into a mindset that feels incredibly real and unavoidable to them due to the pressures and challenging situations they’re facing. By talking through these feelings, we may arrive at a different perspective. Sometimes we don’t, and the person hascorrectly decided that this place isn’t for them. But mostly, it’s like“I’m feeling awful and I need to escape.”
In the United States, professors often have office hours during which students can visit. My approach for office hours was keeping my door open and inviting students in whenever they wished. When I went to China, where students weren’t accustomed to such a policy, indicating yet another cultural difference. Nobody ever walked in. So, I asked,“Why doesn’t anyone come to talk to me?” They said, “I can’t just walk into a professor’s office. The only time I remember being in a professor’s office was when I had done something wrong and was about to be criticized.” So, I explained to students how they could communicate with me during STL orientation. Gradually, I think they began to feel more comfortable.
When confronting difficulties, I believe that speaking to people who understand what you’re experiencing is the best approach. I understand that this perspective may run contrary in different culture. In China, students often hesitate to reach out to others for help initially, thinking, “This is my problem. I need to solve it myself.” But in my experience, simply sitting down with someone and discussing the issue can lead you to a different perspective.
I had a student who was struggling with all her classes to the point that it completely undermined her confidence. She worked hard but wrestled with a mental block that affected her performance. In such cases, I advised her to reach out to her professors. That strategy worked. It turned out she was an outstanding student. So, I would suggest using your professors as a resource.
Moreover, talk to your friends. Many people may feel embarrassed to share their struggles because they attribute them to their own failures. However, if you start a conversation, you might find that others are feeling the same way. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself and attempt to work it out alone.
On the flip side, the tremendous family support for education in China often means that your families will probably not be helpful. Sometimes, your family may not understand what you’re going through. They might singularly focus on things like “Just do it and study harder!” Students often feel uneasy because they think they’re disappointing their families. Some of the most intense pressures I’ve encountered among students came from their families. I’ll never forget a conversation with a brilliant student who had won significant recognition and excelled in her class. In a casual conversation, I said,“Your family must be very proud of youraccomplishments.” But she said, “They’d be happier if I had a boyfriend and was going to get married and have a baby.” It was clear that while she was one of the top students at one of the world’s leading law schools, her family was primarily concerned with her getting married and having a child before she got too old, and “nobody wanted to marry her.” I was astounded. So, while the family is wonderful, sometimes their support may not align with your aspirations and goals.
Q: Based on your many years of work in law schools and your own career choices, what advice would you give to current law students facing the challenges of career planning and job searching?
I believe it’s essential to acknowledge that my past experiences and the current environment differ significantly. As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to grow up in a time when the job market felt less competitive and less prescriptive in terms of the background one needed. It was more about hiring people who seemed intelligent, capable of doing the job, and had at least a general background that aligned with the employer’s work.
Today, however, we live in a more specialized era. There’s an expectation for candidates to possess a more comprehensive, detailed background that directly aligns with what the employer seeks. That being said, these employers are still keen to hire talent. They are interested in individuals who will perform well for them. And they are more open to considering someone with a non-traditional background. The challenge is, if they have five candidates and four have the exact background they’re seeking, and one doesn’t, it may be difficult for them to convince the hiring committee to opt for the unconventional choice, even if they prefer that candidate.
Nonetheless, I believe that modern students should not become overly constrained by the prescribed path to a particular profession. If you observe today’s realities, there are indeed variations. It’s beneficial to be thoughtful and pragmatic in preparing yourself, but try not to confine yourself to a narrowly defined pathway. Things change. For instance, you may want to become a tax lawyer and prepare yourself thoroughly for that role. However, once you’re in it, you might realize it’s not as interesting, challenging, or enjoyable as you thought. Perhaps you’d prefer to do something else, or something that isn’t directly related to practicing law, or even something outside the legal field. While unconventional paths can sometimes be more challenging to define, it’s crucial not to shut those doors prematurely.
I’ve changed jobs many times throughout my career. My father, who was very traditional, could never understand why I chose not to practice law after attending law school. Whenever I changed jobs, moving from one great position to another, he always felt uneasy. He wondered if I could not hold down a job because, in his time, it was assumed that you’d work for the same employer until retirement. That expectation has now changed, and job changes are more common. I believe it’s essential to understand that both your interests and the available opportunities evolve over time. Hence, it’s wise to keep an open mindset and ensure your preparation is as broad as possible, allowing you to adapt to any shifts that may occur.
Q: The legal market initially experienced a boom but has since undergone considerable changes. Some may have lost confidence in the global legal market, in China, or in the U.S. Could you please share your views on the current state and future of the legal market, both in China, the US, and globally?
I’m strongly optimistic about the long-term prospects of the legal market for what I would term as sophisticated, transnational skills. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that there are peaks and valleys, and they can be sharp at times. Just six months ago, from my perspective, law firms were hiring a substantial number of lawyers. Now, they’re saying, “Oops, we hired too many,” and they’re cutting back, asking some new associates to delay their start dates by a year. Unfortunately, several people got caught in that crossfire, creating a difficult moment. Looking back to 2009, in the aftermath of the significant recession of that period,law firms dramatically reduced hiring. Similarly, individuals who had been offered positions were also told they had to wait for a year. Sometimes the firms even withdrew their offers, saying, “Sorry, we don’t have room for you now.”
Around the same time, STL was restructuring its legal writing program. For the first year of STL existence, the instructors for this course were general writing instructors rather than legal writing instructors. The following year, the program was adjusted to resemble the legal writing program in the United States. We urgently needed to hire 6-8 law-trained graduates to teach this program. It turned out to be an opportune moment, as many individuals had lost their jobs due to law firms’ hiring freezes. We hired a group who initially thought their career prospects were bleak because their job offers had been rescinded. They came to STL, performed exceptionally well, and subsequently moved on to enjoy great success. They hadgraduated during a challenging period and initially feared a bleak future, but then a new opportunity emerged. They seized it, used it as a stepping stone, and have since thrived.
Currently, we find ourselves at another such juncture. It’s hard for me to imagine that there won’t be another shift. I believe those most vulnerable during these moments are individuals with narrowly defined skills, which align with a specific market. When that market contracts, they suffer.
As you are trained to be transnational lawyers, you are developing a skill set that is quite broad. Firstly, the field of law itself is diverse and varied. Secondly, I’ve never practiced law in my life, yet I’ve never had difficulty finding a fulfilling job. It wasn’t my plan not to practice law; rather, I discovered that my legal education provided me with a versatile skill set that opened doors to a variety of opportunities. Thus, as far as I can see, nothing should pose more than a short-term issue for future law school graduates.
Q: STL can play a crucial role in the process of globalization. In recent years, however, we have seen a trend toward deglobalization. In the post-Covid-19 era, the younger generation faces new pressures brought about by changes in global circumstances. In light of this, do you think the philosophy of STL should also adapt accordingly?
I believe that globalization is here to stay. The only question is how smooth it will be. Once we’re on this path of globalization, there is no turning back, except for major disruptions like war and economic collapse. If that happens, then we’ve all got bigger problems than the curriculum at STL. But I think that the only question is, how smooth will global interactions be going forward?
It could very well be the case that the smooth era is behind us for the time being, and we might be entering a “bumpy era,” but it may smooth out again in the future. As I said before, the more we engage in this “bumpy era,” the more important STL graduates become. Ultimately, things will need to be regularized, requiring sophisticated lawyering to handle them. In these more difficult areas, they’ll need sophisticated lawyers of the type that STL is producing. The core model of giving you critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities becomes even more important in times of conflict.
Q: I was impressed when you referred to globalization as us entering a bumpy era rather than a smooth one. This perspective feels rejuvenating, especially when recent global shifts, like Brexit, have gradually diminished our faith in the future of transnational law. I believe many of our peers grapple with apprehension due to this prevailing uncertainty, particularly surrounding international markets and relations. Despite these challenges, you appear to uphold a robust and optimistic outlook on globalization and future international ties. Could you kindly elucidate the underpinnings of your persistent optimism about our global future and the source of your confidence?
My optimism is innate. Some people are just born that way, and I’ve always been an optimist, but my confidence comes from experience.
I’m now 76. I have lived through a long enough period of time to understand cycles. I think when you’re young, you see things only in your time frame, and may not understand what happens beyond that. But now, I’ve seen enough time frames. Basically, there are waves in terms of events, but there are trend lines that continue. There was a great line that a former mayor of Chicago used to be famous for, and he says, “Never waste a crisis.” He meant that a crisis can be a strong motivating factor to push for progress on opportunities that were not perceived before.
And, I think that makes a lot of sense. Let’s take your Brexit example – Britain left the EU. So people said, “This is going to be a catastrophe for British EU lawyers.” However, Britain then had to reconstruct everything that the EU agreement did for them, on their own! It was a lawyer employment act. And so what was a crisis on one level became an opportunity that actually resulted in more lawyers having jobs. As I said, from my lifetime, I’ve seen that on a macro level. On the micro level, there are big blips that can have an impact, but on the macro level, there is a reason to be an optimist.
Q: This year marks the 15th anniversary of STL. What, in your opinion, are the new challenges that STL is facing, and what untapped potential does STL have yet to realize? Is there anything you would like to say to STL students, alumni, faculty, and staff?
I’m handicapped by the fact that I haven’t been there for three years, which is a long time. I have always been somewhat skeptical of long-range planning because it’s hard to predict a long-range plan while keeping yourself nimble enough to respond tochanges.
STL is now well-established, and it can take leadership positions on a broad array of issues around the world. It should ensure that it continues to prepare its students to deal with those issues. To me, that is a sort of long-range plan. As for exactly what it will be, read the paper tomorrow, and you will get a better idea than if you read the paper today.
I think the messages are twofold. One is to have confidence in your importance and impact because you should. And two is to constantly be self-examining and thinking about what we need to be doing to keep ourselves in a position to have a major impact upon changes in the world and to prepare our students to work in those environments.
* This interview was conducted, written, and translated by students Chen Xinyuan, He Zixuan, Li Xuechen, Lu Qing, and Yuan Meizi. The Chinese version was proofread by Zhou Tingyu, He Zixuan, Lu Qing, and Sun Fanshu.