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Thinking About Legal Teaching: Cultural Heritage and International Law

First off, many thanks to Ole and everyone here at International Law Observer for the kind invitation to post a little bit about my research on cultural heritage law.  I’d like to begin by thinking about how and why we choose what to teach and study.  I was interested to read the recent discussion of the issue of whether law students should study international law generally, including contributions from Kenneth Anderson, Eric Posner, and your very own Ole Pedersen.  The merits of that argument seemed to turn on whether a law student planned on using those skills in practice, or how important and relevant we might think international law is in everyday lawyering in our respective jurisdictions.  International law is a very broad subject, and can include comparative scholarship and private international law along with the typical treaty interpretation, examination of international organizations, and discussion of substantive international laws—which we all normally think of when we think of international law.

Perhaps some of that discussion defaulted to the usual chest-puffing of academics elevating the importance of their own specialty as part of the debate seemed to focus on how important international law is for a first year law student.  I’d like to focus on a narrower question which I think goes to the heart of what we should be teaching law students generally.  Is law school nothing more than a prestigious trade school; or is it an extension of a liberal arts education which allows students to pick and choose from a variety of courses?  I think that is at least part of what these writers are debating when they consider the role of international law in a law school curriculum, irrespective of where that law school is.

I teach two sections of a basic introductory writing and research course here at Loyola in New Orleans, and of course I’d be upsetting my students and the Dean if I hijacked the course and talked only about the theft of works of art and the commoditization of culture.  Those are terrific and thought-provoking ideas, but they don’t belong at the center of any introductory legal course, I reserve those for my upper-level seminar.  But I do take examples from them.  When discussing a hypothetical case, nothing gets a student’s attention like a stolen painting hypothetical and a good James Bond anecdote.  I think we underestimate sometimes how much the law builds upon a core set of tools.  These are comprised I think of doctrine, terminology,  and interpretation of enacted laws.  These core skills are transferrable across a broad variety of courses I think.  I think we may make a mistake in forcing law students to learn all the law they will need when they begin practice.  Rather I think we should focus on how you go about making yourself an expert in a field within a set of time constraints.  There are good lawyers and bad lawyers, and the mark of a good lawyer is an ability to teach yourself something you knew very little about.  If you have a client with a contracts dispute, you’ll need to thoroughly research all of the contracts issues implicated in the story they’ve told you; not necessarily return to your law school notes and textbooks to remember what you covered in a law school classroom.  So though it may not be advisable to teach art law or international law in the first-year, I think students should be encouraged to follow their muse, and take some of these non-traditional courses.

I take my seminar on Property and Heritage very seriously, but it is a niche area.  I still think though that the cases and disputes we look at provide a great set of interesting stories with which to look at how the law can impact individual parties, and policy generally—and it is this examination of outcomes and legal evolution which will serve lawyers in any specialty.

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