Monday, May 08, 2006

Innovation through Private Initiatives

One of the events at the LSPI conference this past week was held at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg. (See ) Bucerius has the distinction of being the only private law school in Germany. This seems strange to American ears, where public and private institutions have long been contributing diverse educational opportunities. The entrance of Bucerius into the educational mix (beginning in the year 2000) has injected some new competitive and creative energy into the German system, which is bound to help everyone.

The President of Bucerius, Dr. Karsten Schmidt, gave a brief explanation of the law school and its place in the German legal education system. There are 42 state-run schools located in various cities in Germany, each of which (like our state university systems) have a responsibility to admit a certain percentage of their students from the local regions. I had the privilege of meeting two professors from these state-supported schools, and they were both most impressive. From all indications, these schools have high-quality faculty. However, with the pressure associated with admitting students from a particular region, there is always the possibility that you are not recruiting the strongest possible student body. (There is no reason to believe one region will have higher test scores and stronger candidates than others.) And student populations at some schools are large - as many as 4500 law students in one institution.

Student quality is an important indicator of the strength of any educational program. I am reminded of a quote I learned when I lived in Georgia, which was attributed to Gov. George Busbee: “If you want better prisons, give me better prisoners.” I can’t find the original source on that quote, but the sentiment behind it makes a good deal of sense: institutions reflect the quality of the people who are in them. (For those interested in knowing something more about Busbee, I found this site:

As a private School, Bucerius can be highly selective in admissions. It admits the top 100 candidates chosen on the basis of a written application and an oral interview. (The interview is a solid idea, as it reflects the reality that people are more than their paper records; evaluating all the skills and talents of a person is highly costly, but it is important if you wish to choose the most qualified candidates.) These students are also willing to pay for the opportunity to study at Bucerius: tuition is around 3000 Euros per trimester, or about 36,000 Euros for the four year program. (Legal education in Germany is an undergraduate program.) However, tuition alone is not sufficient to support the program: Bucerius enjoys the support of a private foundation, as well as gifts from leading banks and law firms (including U.S. firms like Latham & Watkins). Thus, private firms believe in their concept.

Bucerius also offers a masters degree in law and business, which is quite attractive. The director, Cliff Larsen, was gracious enough to meet with us and explain this program. This one-year program (at tuition of 15,000 Euros) operates on the principle that law is closely related to economics and business, and effective actors in business communities require interdisciplinary and international understanding. Students are required to spend time studying in another country, and to facilitate this practice Bucerius has developed exchange relationships with other universities, including some in the United States. It is a great concept, which I believe will be quite successful. (Support from law firms and investment banks suggest the marketplace agrees.)

As one of the professors at a state school observed, this program will induce the state-supported schools to rethink how they can best compete for quality students. For example, one possibility might involve offering a specialization that will attract top quality students from other regions. Competition brings some uncertainty and discomfort, but that discomfort has the potential to bring a better experience for all students. It is kind of like a shirt I saw the other day being worn by a student athlete. It said: “Pain is just the sign of weakness leaving your body.” A bit extreme, perhaps, but I like the edginess.

So, you are wondering, why is this column reading like an advertisement? In short, I am delighted to see a private institution becoming a catalyst for this kind of change. We see private institutions acting so often in the United States that we often forget the power of their influence and the richness that they add in terms of fostering change and innovation. Observing this change in another country opened my eyes to that powerful force. And I hope this force is with each of us (along with the "possibility of yes" mentioned on Friday, credited to my articulate friend Anna).


No comments: