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International, U.S. Students Interact Infrequently in Law School, Study Says

Students coming to the U.S. to study law may have to make more of an effort to forge relationships.

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Since coming to the University of Oregon School of Law in August 2011, Ugandan attorney Samantha Kakuru has upped her expertise in environmental law, has formed friendships with other international students from around the world, and has been exposed to American culture.

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But one thing the 25-year-old LL.M. student says she hasn’t established is meaningful relationships with law students from the United States, despite sitting alongside them in law courses.

“We could be having classes with 2Ls and 3Ls, but the 2Ls and 3Ls have been together since their first year, and they know each other,” Kakuru says. “You get into class and everyone knows everyone—except you.”

Kakuru’s experience may be fairly common for internationally trained lawyers who come to the United States for one-year graduate programs, such as an LL.M. (master of laws). According to the 2011 installment of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), only about one fifth of the 7,501 students polled say they interact with international graduate law students (IGLSs) “often” or “very often.” One third of the J.D. students didn’t even know that there were international graduate students at their schools—even though foreign lawyers were enrolled at each of the 22 surveyed institutions.

The results don’t come as a shock to U.S. student Drew Johnson, a 3L at the Indiana University—Bloomington Maurer School of Law who joined the school’s International Peer Group Advisors organization when he felt he wasn’t interacting with international LL.M. students enough. “Being in this program, one of the things that we’ve been struggling to deal with is how to get more integration going on,” he says. “I’m not even a little bit surprised to find out that a lot of students aren’t having those sorts of interactions.”

There could be a number of reasons for the little back and forth, international students say. The transition seems to be a tougher hurdle for an international LL.M. student than for a student coming here to pursue a J.D., notes Wassem Amin, a 3L from Egypt who’s studying at the New England School of Law. As a J.D. student, he was immediately enmeshed with U.S students as first years, and he joined groups such as the International Law Society to meet like-minded peers. But LL.M. students miss that initial opportunity to forge relationships, he notes. Plus, “I’ve noticed a lot of law schools, because of the small amount of LL.M. people, don’t make a point to integrate them as well,” Amin says.

International students are not the only ones missing out from the lack of interaction, the LSSSE report says: “These results reveal an important lost opportunity for U.S. JD students in gaining experience working collaboratively with IGLSs and preparing themselves for the global economy.”

[Explore the U.S. News International Law rankings.]

For Johnson at Indiana, leading a group of international LL.M. students in social activities can help U.S. students to learn about legal markets, cultural norms, and even foreign languages they otherwise might not experience. U.S. students making the first move is critical, he says, since international students can often have a lot on their plates. “If it’s overwhelming for a first year law student, imagine what it is like to come to a new country and take law classes in your second language—it’s unbelievably difficult,” he notes. “It’s much easier for [Americans] to reach out than the other way around.”

The task might be easier when law professors take a first step toward communication. In courses in which Oregon's Kakuru and other international students were introduced to the class by professors, she says discussion started organically and grew, with peers openly interested in her international perspective, rather than conversations dominated by American news, jokes, and politics.

If international students lack an immediate support system, New England School of Law's Amin says they can still get involved in the legal community by joining student organizations like the International Law Society, and seeking out networking events.