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Northwestern Law Experience: From the Classroom to the World

August 06, 2015

Delving into the particularities of Brazilian copyright law with record labels in Rio de Janeiro, having breakfast with the consul general in a historic residence in Casablanca, meeting the worldwide leader of the Orthodox Christian community in Istanbul — these are just a few of the reasons why hundreds of students over the years have signed up for International Team Project (ITP) courses. A semester-long class that melds academics with cultural exchange, ITP has built a substantial history of expanding the student experience far beyond the classroom.

Sixteen years ago Northwestern University School of Law conceived this unique comparative law program to expose students to global legal structures through a group project based on intensive, in-country research. Driven by student interest and organization, ITP continues to send students and faculty across the globe, providing comprehensive and meaningful perspectives on a variety of legal, political, and social issues.

The program has covered 37 countries over five continents, with an average of 150 students participating each year in the one-semester course. This year students traveled on ITP trips to Morocco, Turkey, and Brazil.

“ITP represents one of the strongest course offerings at the Law School, with its combination of travel, legal research, and coordinated teamwork,” said ITP faculty director Maureen Stratton (JD '84). “We want as many students as possible to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Projects have included examining the environmental court system of Chile, measuring the effects of the military junta during the Dirty War in Argentina, and assessing gender equality in Morocco. Students have found the experience of fieldwork—identifying and interviewing sources on the ground—to be invaluable. “It forces you out of your comfort zone as you simultaneously meet people and try to get the information you need, while also empathizing over what can at times be difficult circumstances,” noted alumna Suzanne Alton (JD ’14).

Much of ITP’s uniqueness stems from student involvement and leadership in organizing the trips. While the faculty members selected this year’s destinations based on a combination of their expertise, student interest, and the legal climate, the students were responsible for developing the curriculum for the courses and organizing the trips. For each trip, four students serve as committee leaders overseeing curriculum, logistics, finance, and in-country interviews. The student committees draft syllabi, plan the weekly curriculum, devise travel budgets, organize group interviews, and make travel arrangements. For Ashley Kirkwood (JD ’16), the curriculum lead for this year’s ITP trip to Morocco, the process of building a syllabus and coordinating classes aligned with her career aspirations. “I’m very interested in academia and teaching, and so the opportunity to help build a course was invaluable.”

The weekly class meetings during the semester are a significant component of the ITP experience. They offer a mix of speakers, student-led presentations, and training in preparation for the upcoming trip. This year’s classes included discussions with former Peace Corps volunteers and LLM students from the countries they planned to visit, Skype calls with former ambassadors to discuss the political climate, and presentations by scholars with expertise in the groups’ various research topics.

Kirkwood found that bringing in speakers who had spent time in Morocco proved invaluable once the group arrived in the country. “Being aware of certain cultural sensitivities before going made the process of doing research and interviewing people go so much more smoothly.”

One training common to all ITP groups was a cultural competence seminar led by Shannon P. Bartlett, the Law School’s director of diversity education and outreach. Through a series of interactive exercises, Bartlett encouraged students to consider the preconceptions and cultural expectations they bring to their experiences with new and distinct cultures. “One of my goals in crafting this training is to get students to understand how concepts like time and body language are culturally derived and may create significant cultural barriers if they’re misinterpreted,” said Bartlett. “I want them to step back and consider whether they have enough information before drawing a conclusion. These are skills that will serve them well not only on their trips but also in their careers as attorneys and advocates for their clients.”

The group research project is a vital piece of ITP because it helps students find a focus within countries and topic areas that are teeming with possibilities. It also requires students to develop field research skills, using a variety of resources—from online social networks to alumni—to find interview subjects and arrange meetings. While the number of interviews can vary, they consistently form the basis for the trips, allowing students to explore cities and neighborhoods through their sources.

At the end of the semester, students present their field research to fellow classmates and submit a 50 page co-written paper. A number of final ITP papers have been recognized with awards, including a 2014 project on the South African economy, which won Northwestern Law’s Charles Cheney Hyde Prize for the best paper related to public international law.

Professor Cindy Wilson (JD ’86), who led an ITP trip to Chile in 2013, believes ITP prepares Law School students for the global nature of their legal profession. “ITP provides a deeper understanding of global systems than is possible in the classroom alone, which is an invaluable asset for our graduates. Regardless of what jobs they take, there will be a global nature to the work, and this experience really prepares them for it.”

Professor Chris Martin describes the ideal ITP trip as one that combines cultural attractions with a distinct legal climate. With its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the conservative government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the country’s proximity to Syria, Martin believed Turkey would be an ideal place for students to develop legal, political, and social perspective.

Eunice Buhler (JD ’15) had an academic interest in Turkey and its diverse religious communities for years prior to entering law school, so she jumped at the opportunity to meet and interview government officials and religious leaders. She spoke with a diverse array of sources, from His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, New Rome to the former vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Not only did I have incredible access to people and resources while in Turkey, but meeting people there and hearing them talk about the religious climate really put me in their shoes. I have a deeper understanding of their perspectives and more empathy toward them.”

The faculty member with the most extensive ITP experience is probably Professor Samuel Tenenbaum, whose visit to Morocco this year was his 11th trip for the program. Tenenbaum believes the program offers a far more in depth travel experience than is possible any other way. “You meet a variety of interesting people and visit places you wouldn’t normally see. Over the years we have been to prisons in Thailand and met the Dalai Lama’s chief of staff in India.”

This year Tenenbaum chose Morocco because of its political atmosphere and the influence of both African and Middle Eastern politics on the country. On March 20, 20 students flew to Casablanca and spent the next eight days scheduling and conducting interviews, touring Marrakesh and Fez, and even finding time for a visit to the Sahara Desert. Project groups divided up into their teams and pursued leads, at times finding new sources through scheduled interviews.

Lauren Howard (JD ’15) and her research group concentrated on Morocco’s cultural and legal barriers to female entrepreneurship. They found that while commercial codes don’t mandate discrimination, numerous social factors are at play, something that became apparent once they landed in Morocco and began interviews. “We learned that while there were pockets of organizations focused on supporting women, they hadn’t actually come together to build an environment conducive to female entrepreneurs.” Howard cited an interview with the director of Morocco’s Association of Female Entrepreneurs as especially helpful in illuminating the challenges women face, because she was “so honest about it, from the lack of startup capital to more culturally engrained factors that keep women from the entrepreneurial space.”

Brazil was an obvious choice for Professor Karl Lutz, given his interest in BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and his prior experience leading trips to India and South Africa. Lutz believes ITP offers students a real diversity in perspective as they engage with differing viewpoints during the interview process for their research projects: “The field research experience is extremely important. Many students develop viewpoints based upon traditional research techniques, only to find these viewpoints challenged, and often changed, by what they discover is happening on the ground.”

With 15 Brazilian students currently enrolled at the Law School, curriculum lead Bruce Ratain (JD ’16) knew he would be able to assemble a rich and varied syllabus, exposing the class to a range of perspectives and topics. “One of the great facets of ITP is that we get to collectively build the curriculum we want,” said Ratain, “which gives everyone more ownership over the learning experience.” Brazilian students assisted the group by sharing information ranging from local interview contacts to the best barbecue, allowing the visitors to get off the beaten path.

Tackling Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasilia in a week, the group covered a lot of ground both geographically and in terms of research. Class projects spanned media and copyright law, anticorruption laws, and affirmative action in higher education. Interviews were interspersed with hiking trips to the top of Corcovado and an excursion to check out the surf culture at Copacabana.

The intensity of an eight-day cultural immersion was not lost on the students as they moved between sightseeing, conducting interviews, finding new research leads, and taking in the experience of being abroad. Ratain noted that while groups did a great deal of research prior to the trip, nothing could match the experience of talking to citizens in person: “So much of how law operates is culturally driven, and we wouldn’t have learned that unless we started talking to people.” David Boyles (JD ’16), who went to Morocco, found it “profound to be so culturally interactive. Our project required spending hours talking to everyday people and drawing them out because the subject was so sensitive. I learned a lot from those interactions.”

Final presentations gave students an opportunity to learn where research and interviews had ultimately taken their fellow classmates’ projects. Alexandra Caritis (JD ’15), who worked on affirmative action in Brazilian higher education, anticipated a constitutional analysis between US and Brazilian policies but found herself engrossed in a more anthropological approach. “Talking to university students in Brasilia was the most helpful and exciting part of the whole experience,” said Caritis. “Their attitude toward affirmative action and race really shaped our thinking and our final conclusions.”

Perhaps one reason ITP most resonates with students is its capacity for bringing people together across Law School programs into an intensive experience. Close-knit relationships are often born from hours spent in flights, airports, and hotels, navigating a new language and cultural customs. Ratain described this as one of the program’s most incredible and unexpected benefits: “Even though we had been in class together, being on the trip helped us forge one community. ITP is undoubtedly one of the most powerful community-building tools in the Law School.”

As ITP continues to evolve and grow, its initial goal remains constant: to transform the Law School experience into a truly global education. Andrew Yerbey (JD ’15), who went to Turkey, summed up the experience and its lasting effect by quoting English writer G. K. Chesterton: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”