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Attorneys From Around The World Come to America to Learn More About Law

Whether it is a good or bad phenomenon is subject to debate, but no one can deny that America has had a pervasive cultural influence on the world.

Things like rap music and Coca-Cola can easily be found in villages where few Americans have ever tread. And the increasingly globalized nature of communications and economics seems to guarantee that America's cultural influence will continue to grow.

But the world has not always been a passive recipient of this influence. Sometimes people have actively sought the "American" approach - as VOA discovered during a recent visit to Columbia University's office of Graduate Legal Studies.

We met Martin Sigal there. He is a public interest attorney who works for a human rights organization in Argentina. For the next nine months, Mr. Sigal will be living in New York City, attending classes full-time at Columbia University's law school.

He is here to get what is known as an "LLM." It is an internationally recognized Master of Law degree, and Mr. Sigal says he deliberately chose to come to the United States to get it.

"I wanted to study other kinds of technical matters which are starting to be developed at home, but are quite developed here, like anti-trust law," he says. "Anti-trust law has been developing here for 120 years or more, and at home it's just starting. The NGO I'm working with, we are working with control of economic institutions, so getting to know all the technicalities of anti-trust law would be a great advantage when I get back home."

Martin Sigal is one of more than 6,000 international attorneys who come to the United States each year to supplement their professional training. Graduates of American LLM programs have gone on to become quite influential in their home countries.

Mary Robinson, for example, became the first female president of Ireland after she left Harvard. Beatriz Merino, who also got her degree at Harvard, became the first female prime minister of Peru. And Mikheil Saakashvili, who got an LLM at Columbia in 1994, went on to lead the so-called "Rose Revolution" in the Republic of Georgia, where he now serves as president.

According to Syliva Polom, dean of Graduate Legal Studies at Columbia University Law School, the training foreign attorneys receive in the United States is quite different from what they get at home. "In most countries in the world, students show up in class, they get lectured to, they take notes or don't, and then they go home and prepare for exams," she says. "Here, that's not the way it works. Students are typically given a very detailed syllabus - reading assignments for every week. The expectation is that they are going to read the assignments, and that class is going to be a discussion with a faculty member. Sometimes the faculty member actually plays a very minor role in the discussion, but the student is always an active participant."

That method of teaching can have a profound impact on a lawyer's understanding of what the rule of law is, according to Martin Sigal of Argentina. "I think that lawyers have a critical role in society, which is (to) try to have some participation when discussing which laws are good, which are bad," he says. "And it's very hard to find lawyers who dare do that if they are not allowed to discuss the basis of the law when they study it."

The creation of a group of critical lawyers, trained to discuss, analyze, and even develop the laws that bind them, is the goal of the Palestinian Rule of Law Program at the Open Society Institute, a private, grant-making foundation. Joseph Glicksberg, who manages the program, says since 2003, when they first started handing out grants, 20 attorneys have come to the United States to get LLM degrees.

"Basically, the idea behind the program was that because Palestine has a pretty small population, and it also has a pretty short history of domestic legal education, law has only really been taught there since the early 1990s," Mr. Glicksberg says. "The ratio of lawyers to the population is pretty low. So the idea is that even a small group of networked lawyers who are committed to the rule of law, and also have advanced legal training, can quickly become an influential force."

The Open Society Institute is just one of many organizations offering money to international attorneys who want to study in the United States. Just last year, the U.S. government gave out more than 120 LLM scholarships, through its Institute of International Education. And for many years now, the Ford Foundation has offered fellowships to Chinese attorneys who want to earn LLM degrees at American institutions.

Many of these U.S. trained lawyers have gone back to China and become professors,

and because of that, experts say China's legal education system now has an undeniably "American" tone to it.