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Promoting public interest law in China, continued

On Tuesday, we got our first update from David during his trip to China. Here's an update! On Tuesday, Ted, Susan and I went to the China University of Political Sciences and Law. With 10,000 students, it is the largest law school in the world. Considered one of the top universities in China, the university is located roughly an hour outside of Beijing. At the university, we delivered a talk to roughly 40 students who were involved in clinical education and who expressed interest in public interest work. Our host, Professor Xu Shenjan, is a clinical professor.

[caption id="attachment_501" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="David gives an overview of the Equal Justice Works Fellowship model"]David gives an overview of the Equal Justice Works Fellowship model[/caption] After our presentation, students asked how they could put their public interest skills into practice in China. The promise of higher paying jobs - achieving prestige and fulfilling familial obligation to earn money and support relatives - is something that these students have to reconcile with their desire to do public interest work. Like many American law students, these students wonder how they will be able to survive and support their families if they take low-paying public interest jobs. Another concern that arose was how young lawyers like them could make a difference in fighting injustices. We assured them that lawyers can make a difference and that public interest pursuits are often more satisfying than working in higher paying private or government jobs. Undoubtedly, sacrifice is required - but the rewards are great, too. Public interest lawyers are often able to come across more leadership opportunities earlier in their careers, and satisfaction can be found daily in helping under-served communities and causes to achieve justice. In China, attending law school is not a pre-requisite to practicing law. Undergraduates can secure their bachelor's degree in law and become a lawyer. In addition, there are students who pursue graduate degrees (master's or PhD's) in law. For the vast majority of graduates, they will go into government service or private practice. One interesting statistic - according to Daniel Ping, an expert on Chinese law based at NYU - is that there are 200,000 judges in China and roughly only 150,000 lawyers. Very few students graduate and work in public service. Currently, there is a government-funded poverty legal aid program that places relatively few lawyers across the country to provide direct service to low-income clients. However, the vast majority of both criminal defendants and civil cases are handled by individuals representing themselves. Nine out of 10 criminal defendants are unrepresented. There is also a small but growing network of public interest legal organizations that focus on issues such as the environment, women's rights, migrant workers, and disability rights. These are primarily advocacy organizations that handle some litigation, but that often use alternative strategies, such as media relations, to change policy. Finally, there are private lawyers who take on public interest cases. While they are not part of the NGO network, my impression is that these private lawyers do some of the most important precedent setting litigation, and they are a vital part of the public interest law community. Given this setup, one of the most significant challenges of creating a postgraduate fellowship for Chinese lawyers is to figure out appropriate placements. Most legal aid offices are not working on legal reform - they only provide direct representation to clients. The law-related NGO's are small and unstable in terms of staffing and supervision and private lawyers are balancing paid work with public interest work. Further complicating the issue of fellowship placement is the fact that in China, unlike in the U.S., there are no summer internships between each year of school. The result is that students do not have the same 10-week experience that many American law students have prior to applying for fellowship. This makes it more difficult to assess the student's abilities and whether the host organization is a good fit. Hopefully the feedback we've been able to provide will help the Public Interest Law Institute build a strong fellowship placement model. And now for the promised food commentary. My account of this amazing visit to China would not be complete without mentioning it. At each place we have visited, the host has arranged for us to dine with them - and each meal has included a whole fish and various meat and vegetable dishes. For dessert, watermelon, tomatoes and orange slices are the usual fare. Without exaggeration, there are usually around 20 dishes served at each meal, with each meal lasting a minimum of 90 minutes - and I have no complaints about that!

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