The promise and problems attending legal education are old. In 450 B.C., the Roman commoners, the “plebes,” forced the elite patricians to make the laws publically available for the first time, posting them on 12 bronze tables so everyone could learn and assert their rights. According to the greatest Roman republican lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, they were written in an easy metrical form so that children were taught to sing the Twelve Tables, the “carmen necessarium,” as part of their basic education.
By 50 B.C., however, Cicero lamented that the old way of universal childhood legal education had ceased. Modern law, he complained, even if necessarily grown more copious and complicated than children could sing, was again hidden from the plebes and known only to those who completed arduous private studies.
Tully urged new methods of legal education drawing the laws into a more intelligible, manageable order. Even as the Roman Republic fell into civil war and imperial tyranny, he urged the rising generation to a refreshed legal, oratorical training so that the law could be liberated from its crabbed, inexpressible forms and its justice offered more appealingly and universally to the public again. Although the Ciceronian plan to safeguard liberty through legal education failed in his own age, his writings on law energized the love of the rule of law from Renaissance Italy, where they were rediscovered, to the early American Republic ― where Cicero’s legally driven anti-imperialism was explicitly emulated.
We still struggle, however, with the basic Ciceronian problematic: if the rule of law is to support the rights of the people, then legal education needs to be accessible to the people. If social development requires more complicated law than all people can learn, we still hold to the Ciceronian promise that improved legal training will open the law to all, at least through well-trained intermediaries, and increase the real freedom of the people.
As is true around the world today, the transplanted legal forms and educational methods of foreign nations were critical in the development of Roman legal education. The Roman drafters of the Twelve Tables, the Decemviri, traveled to find model laws among the Greeks, who themselves had been inspired by the Phoenicians and Persians, whose own influences we can still read in the laws of the ancient Babylonians and Israelites.
Unsurprisingly, 400 years after the Decemviri, Cicero returned again to study among the Greeks, whose novel legal classifications and oratorical models he imported back to Rome. Like the Decemviri and Cicero, the nations of Western Europe made their first great reforms of legal education in the 12th century by introducing university study, not of their own national laws, but of the laws of the Byzantium, as codified by Justinian in the sixth century.
Modern Western legal education was profoundly influenced from even further afield by contact in the 18th century with the Chinese civil examination system, as Teng Ssu-y traced out in his classic article, Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System (1943). Prior to contact with China, written examinations were unknown in the West and the legal profession was open only to men of upper classes through personal contacts and apprenticeships. Appreciation for the Chinese system brought the first systems of public examination in France and England in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The ultimate success of the civil examination systems in Europe and then the U.S., inspired by the objectivity of the Chinese imperial system, led by measures to the uniform written examinations of contemporary Western legal systems.
Today, the problems and promise of legal education remain analogous to those faced historically by Cicero, though much intensified. As the global commitment to democracy and the rule of law has increased, the increased complexity of modern law with its concomitant public obscurity poses greater challenges. The promise of legal education to meet these problems has grown in importance. On the other hand, today, there is also an unprecedented communication between legal systems and a necessity for international cooperation in areas such as trade, environmental and human-rights law. This means that the resources available to legal education to solve these problems have also increased. If the Decemviri and European nations once turned abroad for models of legal improvement, today legal educators have far more access to comparative material and motivation to expose their students to the successes and models for legal improvement found in other countries. If history is a guide, then we can take some comfort in the growing resources contemporary legal education possesses to face its growing challenges.
By Eric Enlow
The writer is the dean of Handong International Law School at Handong Global University in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province. ― Ed.