By Rachel DeLetto
Each summer, after the final bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” fade and J.D. students disperse to firms and public interest placements, the law school’s hallways take on a new life as a global hub of legal scholarship.
More than 200 internationally trained lawyers are currently earning a Master of Laws (LL.M.) at Berkeley Law over two consecutive summers—instead of the traditional academic-year program. Launched in 2009, the dual-summer professional track LL.M. is the only program of its kind among top law schools. The unique format and flexible schedule means students don’t have to put their careers and lives on hold.
That’s a big draw, says Professor Charles Weisselberg, outgoing associate dean of Advanced Degree Programs (ADP) and global engagement, since most members of the 2016 1S (first summer) class are practicing attorneys, academics or members of the judiciary.
“Our 1S class hails from 40 countries, including our first-ever students from Namibia and Zambia,” Weisselberg said in an email to the law school community. The professional track students speak 29 languages and have worked in government—including the European Parliament, German IRS, and supreme courts; and in politics—including an elected member of Mexico’s Congress and a congressional candidate in the Philippines. They’ve practiced at some of the world’s leading law firms and served as counsel to major corporations—including Verizon, Barclays, Warner Music and more.
Meet the students
These students have also demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit, forming startup companies and public service organizations, and engaging in law reform and pro bono work worldwide. They’re also high achievers, exemplified by an Olympic athlete, a prize-winning equestrian jumper, and a Women’s Lacrosse World Cup competitor.
While the students come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, Amelia Miazad ’02, executive director of ADP, sees an intangible common trait among them. “These are students who can operate in the clouds and dream big dreams, but they’re also in the weeds and can roll up their sleeves to make those dreams happen,” she said.
Like the academic-year LL.M. program, summer professional track students study fundamentals of U.S. law and other areas of specialization with the school’s distinguished faculty—such as intellectual property expert Professor Robert Merges, who will take over the role of associate dean of ADP in July.
Because of the condensed time frame (21 units divided into four, three-week modules over two consecutive summers), “the courses are more intense, but the substance is the same quality as the regular, full-year program.” Merges said.
Richard Buxbaum LL.M. ’53, professor emeritus and longtime teacher of international and comparative law, describes the professional track’s unique quality as “less the text than the music.” Unlike the traditional track where LL.M. students are integrated with J.D. students, “the international students are running the show here in the summer,” Buxbaum said.
The small classes and participatory academic model are attractive to attorneys trained in other countries. “In many regions, to this day, law school is all top-down lecture, lecture, lecture—and students just sit there and take notes,” Buxbaum said, adding that they find the amount of student-faculty interaction here refreshing.
Merges pointed out that it is also enjoyable for faculty. “I learn so much from them,” he said. “Their professional accomplishments and global perspectives bring a lot to the classroom experience.”
The more (people) you know
On a sunny afternoon in early June, a flavorful aroma lured passersby to a gathering in the law school’s Steinhart Courtyard. At the annual PLL.M. potluck, students mingled with classmates and bonded over the foods of their cultures. The tradition is so beloved among professional track students that they bring special spices and food items from their countries when they return for second summer specifically for this event.
Recent PLL.M. graduate Marco Portillo ’15 of Mexico, who recently returned from Ecuador where 21 professional track LL.M. alumni traveled to attend the wedding of another Boaltie, said the close relationships between classmates is the secret ingredient that makes the summer program so valuable.
“Everyone is so different, but you’re going through this unique experience together,” he explained. Taking classes together, studying together, working so hard because it’s so much information in such a short period, Portillo said, “by the end of the summer it’s like you’ve known these people all your life.”
An energy and environmental law associate at one of Mexico’s leading law firms, Portillo said his Berkeley Law connections have significantly impacted his practice, which often involves working on energy contracts with foreign companies. “Now, I have friends all over the world who are talented attorneys that I know I can trust,” he said. “So if I need to know about compliance with the laws in Japan, instead of spending time researching myself, I can call my friend from Japan and he will talk me through it.”
Portillo also cited benefits of the certificates of specialization: Business Law, Public Law & Regulation, Intellectual Property, and Energy & Environmental Law. Learning from expert faculty and classmates who practice in similar areas provides an understanding of how lawyers in different parts of the world approach similar problems, Portillo said. In addition, workshops with practitioners helped him build a network of key players in his field that have led to referrals of clients from different parts of the world who want to do business in Mexico and vice versa.
A global network
Berkeley Law’s international community includes more than 2,600 alumni from nearly 100 countries and is growing exponentially. On June 23, the International Association of Boalt Alumni hosted European alums at a reunion in Berlin. Regional reunions are also being planned for South America and Asia. In the coming months, Berkeley Law will launch a new portal to help alumni keep in touch with faraway friends and connect with the law school’s community across the globe.
The remarkable professional track LL.M. students represent the expansive diversity of the larger law school community. Here are just a few of their stories.