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Iowa students learn about law in London

 London Law Program is the largest effort of its kind at an American university

When Iowa Law students traveled overseas for 14 days this winter break to study British law, they didn’t just learn about the differences between the legal systems in the United States and United Kingdom, they got at a first-hand look at some of the most important legal institutions in Britain.

That valuable learning, coupled with a shorter time commitment than a semester-long study abroad program, are two of the reasons why the University of Iowa’s London Law Program is so popular—more than 100 students vied for spots in the most recent session. With space for 60, the program is the largest of its kind at an American university, according to Iowa Law Professor Stella Elias, director of the program.

The winter term version of the program—a semester-long version previously existed—began with only 28 students in 2016–17. In its second year, 44 enrolled. The program has grown every year since.

“We’ve learned how to effectively run the program so we can scale it up without compromising on quality,” Elias says. “It’s very clear there is a tremendous appetite for our program.”

Participating students can choose between two courses—the British Legal System, taught by Elias, or Comparative Corporate Governance, which is taught by Randy J. Holland, a former Delaware Supreme Court chief justice who works for a Wilmington, Delaware-based law firm.

Elias’s husband, Iowa Law Clinical Law Professor Bram Elias, is co-director of the program.

The 10-day courses began on Dec. 28 with students checking into their housing and attending orientation. The London Law Program partners with Florida State University so UI students can stay in apartments maintained by FSU. Classes take place on FSU’s central London campus.

The learning experience extends beyond the classroom. The students tour the United Kingdom Supreme Court, where they most recently met with the Chief Judicial Assistant to Lady Hale, president of the UK Supreme Court. Other tours include Parliament, the Inns of Court, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Central Criminal Court. A symposium was held at the University of Oxford, Stella Elias’s alma mater.

“We’re doing everything we can to give students a feeling of what it’s like to study law in a different legal culture,” Bram Elias says. “We want it to be as immersive as possible.”

Students also visited the London offices of the American law firm WilmerHale to reinforce the idea that a career in law could take them anywhere in the world.

“You cannot avoid interacting with the wider world as a lawyer,” Stella Elias says.

Because the British legal system served as the foundation for American law, the Eliases are providing law students with a better understanding of their legal roots.

“You can better understand your own system by looking at another system,” she says. “The feedback we often get is, ‘I have a new understanding of the law of Iowa. I appreciate why we do the things we do.’”

Bram Elias says learning about another country’s legal system also challenges students to think critically about the American legal system and how it operates.

“What if there was another way?” he says. “There is no better way to think about that than take students who have seen the way things work one way and show them a fully functioning society that does things differently. It builds up the students’ ability to think critically about their own legal system.”

Finally, the Eliases say the program helps students see firsthand that their Iowa Law education can lead to opportunities around the world.

“It just makes the whole world feel within arm’s reach,” Stella Elias says. “I really think this program contributes to our students feeling a degree of comfort with that. They can take their Iowa Law degree and go anywhere in the world with it.”

Stella Elias says that during their time in London, they meet with Iowa Law alumni and explore the careers that brought them to England.

Recognizing that the course takes up a portion of the students’ winter break, the Eliases work in some extracurricular activities to allow students to have some fun while abroad. Orientation includes a scavenger hunt around London that takes students to many well-known locations. Winners of this year’s scavenger hunt received tickets to the musical Hamilton.

Other activities include a tour of filming locations for the Harry Potter movies in Oxford and New Year’s Eve fireworks on the River Thames in London.

The London Law Program was the first study abroad opportunity for Melissa Sharp, a third-year Iowa Law student from Chicago. When she learned she could take Comparative Corporate Governance as part of the program, after having taken other corporate governance courses at Iowa, everything “fell into place,” Sharp says.

“To be able to study abroad without committing to an entire semester away was definitely appealing,” Sharp says. “I wanted the chance to learn somewhere else and see somewhere else. This was the perfect storm of all of those things.”

Sharp says she learned both from the informative field trips to important legal institutions in England, as well as through her coursework with Holland, the former Delaware Supreme Court justice.

“It was so much better than I imagined as far as the blend between class materials and the trips we took,” she says. “Learning from a former judge is a unique experience and I had no idea how helpful the field trips would be in understanding some of the things we were talking about.”

Mary Grace Warren, a second-year Iowa Law student from Jefferson City, Missouri, says participating in the program made her a better student.

“It’s been a different style of study,” Warren says. “I’ve yet to take a course that was comparing cultures in this way. I think that is a skill that will help me in persuasive writing. It’s just giving me one more tool in the tool box to carry into the future.”

Warren, who previously studied in England, describes herself as someone with an interest in British culture and literature. Even though this wasn’t her first time studying abroad, Warren says she was “blown away” by the London Law Program experience.

“There were a couple of moments when I would look around — in the United Kingdom Supreme Court or at Oxford—and in those moments, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that I got to be in a room with these people and hear from them,” she says. “I can’t imagine going to Washington, D.C., and being able to meet with the clerk of the chief justice. It seems almost out of reach, so being able to do that in the United Kingdom was amazing.”

Lee Hermiston, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-467-0033

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