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Amanda Jones, Tara Knitz, Alli Mabbs and Alicia Olive.
Amanda Jones, Tara Knitz, Alli Mabbs and Alicia Olive during the London Maymester at Gray's Inn.

USC law students have uncommon experience in London

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-5400

When Tara Knitz walked into the Great Hall of Gray’s Inn she was overwhelmed by its stateliness and the myriad coats of arms that lined its stone walls, some dating back centuries. Knitz is among nearly two dozen other University of South Carolina law students who had the rare opportunity to study law at one of London’s four Inns of Court in May.

“I was a little awestruck. I’ve never been anywhere with such historical significance,” Knitz said. “When you go to London and study at Gray’s Inn, it is like you are one of the student barristers. You are at home there and not treated like a visitor. The student barristers get to know you and want to learn about your experience as an American law student as much as you want to learn about their experience as a student barrister.”

Knitz, a second-year law student, was one of 23 law students who took an international law course in May at The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. The course, jointly offered by USC and Gray’s Inn, is in its ninth year and is taught by USC law professors Martin McWilliams and Joel Samuels.

While other U.S. colleges offer study abroad programs in London, USC’s School of Law is the only law school that offers a course at the Inn, McWilliams said. The Inns of Court are professional associations where all barristers and judges are trained.

The three-week course is an intensive study of comparative U.S./English legal institutions, international civil litigation and international arbitration. In addition to the pair of USC professors, it features a series of guest speakers drawn from the English bar and European courts. This year students learned about the European Court System from Czech Republic Supreme Court Justice Zdenek Kuhn.

McWilliams, who worked in the London offices of Davis Polk & Wardwell before joining the faculty at USC, says he loves introducing USC students to legal London.

“In order to be an English judge or barrister (British for lawyer) you have to be a member of an Inn of Court. Since the 14th century, England has turned over the governance of barristers to these Inns,” McWilliams said. “One of the first things I do is to give our students a walking tour of legal London, where the Inns were built between the city of London and the royal borough of Westminster.

“It is pretty impressive to see Temple Church by the Thames River, which is home to the Inner and Middle Temples, also members of four Inns of Court; Westminster Palace, where Parliament is and Gray’s Inn and its Great Hall, which is lined with the coats of arms of every treasurer that has served since medieval times.”

McWilliams says the British and U.S. legal systems look a lot alike because much of the law in both systems is common law or law formed by court decisions, not legislation.

While they grew from the same roots, the countries’ legal systems are different. Those distinctions fascinated William McKinney, a May law graduate who attended the London Maymester in 2010.

“Much like the ‘special relationship’ we hear about when the president visits the prime minister, or vice versa, we learned about the give and take between the common law as it developed in England and how those ruling continued to influence American courts long after the Revolutionary War,” said McKinney, who wants to work with international clients. “Professor Samuels helped us think about which system would offer advantages for clients doing work in both countries.”

Knitz, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Pacific Lutheran University and a master’s education in higher education from the University of Central Missouri, said a highlight of the London Maymester was USC winning a debate against the Gray’s Inn student barristers.

“It was a hot air balloon debate in which three students from each team had to portray a historical or pop-culture figure – among them were Eve, Thomas Jefferson and Bear Grylls from the TV show ‘Man vs. Wild’ – and make their case why they should be able to stay in the balloon and why others should not,” Knitz said. “I was definitely impressed by our talent. The English students sounded so eloquent and well spoken, which is intimidating, but our students gave them a running. The crowd, which had more student barristers than our students, overwhelming voted for us.”

It was the second consecutive year that a Gamecock team was victorious against Gray’s Inn. This year’s USC team featured Alex Pate, Mary Winter Clark Teaster, Lindsay Crawford, James Perl, Betsy Bull and Henry Clarke. Knitz said after the debate the teams dined together in the Hall of Gray’s Inn.

McKinney, who grew up in Greenville and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, called competing at Gray’s Inn a “great privilege.”

“I could have read 100 books about Gray’s Inn and its role in framing the law, but that would never compare to sharing a meal with its barristers in the Great Hall or stepping into the Treasurer’s room after a moot to understand how that process developed and how important it is for us today,” McKinney said.

In addition to full days of instruction, assignments and study, the students tour Westminster Palace and attend a court proceeding in the Royal Courts of Justice and Central Criminal Court. With weekends open, most of the students travel to cities throughout Europe to get a deeper sense of culture and connectedness through trade and travel.

“I always talked to fellow students about the global perspective of studying abroad, but I didn’t have that,” Knitz said. “The London Maymester gave me that. I spent a week in Italy before we went to London, and then I went to Munich and Paris during the weekends while I was there. Communicating with people was challenging, but everyone was so generous and kind and attempted to speak with us in English or help us.”

McKinney said the study abroad experience helped shape his thinking about international trade.

“As lawyers, one of our responsibilities is to help solve problems for clients, which can be particularly challenging in international contexts,” McKinney said. “Thanks to the foundations established by Professors McWilliams and Samuels, I have been able to develop an understanding of how international trade works, where problems have historically risen and how those problems can be smoothed over or ‘fixed’ going forward.”

Whether they are able to attend the London Maymester or not, every USC law student benefits from the school’s relationship with Gray’s Inn.

As an extension of the program, members of Gray’s Inn visit the USC School of Law each fall. Last year student barristers competed against USC law students in two moots, with S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal presiding as a judge for one. McKinney won his moot, which was a hypothetical contract dispute.

Treasurer Sir Michael Burton, the head of Gray’s Inn, will come to the USC School of Law to lecture in September.

“It’s astonishing that a head of the one of the Inns of Court is coming to the United States solely to meet with our students, faculty and alumni,” McWilliams said. “It is huge compliment to our university. It is equivalent to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice making a special trip to London to address student barristers.”

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Posted: 06/20/12 @ 3:15 PM | Updated: 01/29/13 @ 1:46 PM | Permalink

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