New Law Professor Trains the World’s Lawyers

Lexington, VA • Friday, August 14, 2009

James E. Moliterno

Legal Systems Around the World
Listen as Professor Moliterno explains some of the key differences between the U.S. legal ethics code and those found around the world.
James E. Moliterno, the Vincent Bradford Professor of Law at Washington and Lee School of Law, knows a thing or two about jet lag. In the last few years, his well-stamped passport has seen him to Kosovo, Thailand, former Soviet Georgia, Spain and most recently China.

But Moliterno is no mere sightseer. Rather, he is one of the world's foremost consultants in legal ethics and skills development, traveling the globe to help foreign legal systems develop ethics codes and training programs that guide lawyers, judges and law students through the conundrums they face in their professional careers.

"At times, I help develop codes for judges and lawyers in countries where none existed previously," says Moliterno, who joined W&L this year after a twenty-one year career at William and Mary, where he directed the law school's award winning legal skills program. "But more often, I'm engaged in facilitating the teaching of what their code is, trying to make education about it more effective and sophisticated."

Moliterno begins with comparative explorations of U.S., European Union, and Japanese ethics codes, which are three of the world's most developed systems of law governing the behavior of lawyers and judges. He then uses hypothetical situations and role playing to explore how a given country's legal culture might approach different ethical problems.

Most countries in which Moliterno works are civil law countries, which derive legal precedent from legislative statutes rather than case law, as is the case in the U.S. and other common law countries. That distinction is the starting point for even more complicated differences, driven by history and culture, that create varied interpretations of the lawyer's role in society, the understanding of judicial impartiality, and the definitions of conflicts of interest.

A country like Kosovo, where Moliterno runs a judicial ethics program, shows just how complicated things can get. Still not recognized worldwide as an independent nation, Kosovo's original legal doctrines based on French and German law are now buried under years of communist rule, a lawless period of war, and lingering United Nations and European Union authority. This turbulent history makes it difficult to establish which documents actually control the law.

"In situations like these, the hardest part of the work is to learn enough about the legal culture in a particular country to say something that makes sense and is helpful," says Moliterno. "It's not enough to simply say this is the way we do it in the States because I'm certain our legal system and culture won't, and shouldn't, fit perfectly with the legal culture in these countries, nor would the Russian code do particularly well in Spain, or the Czech code in Tiblisi, Georgia."

While Moliterno believes that his work with practicing lawyers and judges is important in helping upgrade a country's legal systems and institutions, it is his work in foreign law schools where he sees the greatest potential for long term positive effect.

"Serbia, Georgia, Armenia, Thailand—none of the schools in these places had a course in legal ethics previously. So the schools get a new course, and we have partners there who help keep it going."

Moliterno meets with law professors in Bangkok, Thailand to help develop a new lawyer ethics course for their students.

At W&L, Moliterno will teach all sections of Professional Responsibility and will also consult with faculty teaching the School's third-year practicum courses. His recent trip to China served as a bit of a warm-up for this role. There, he worked with Chinese law professors on integrating experiential teaching methods into their own traditional courses.

"Even in a country as different from the U.S. as China, there is great interest in developing the kinds of courses we are implementing throughout the new third year at W&L," notes Moliterno. "The Chinese professors are creating simulations and role play exercises for a wide variety of courses, from Criminal Law and Procedure to Civil Procedure to the Law of Obligations (our contract law) to Jurisprudence, that expose students to subject matter areas through activities done in the role of lawyer."

For all the personal and professional fulfillment Moliterno derives from his work abroad, he returns that experience to his classrooms at home, and the benefits to his students are substantial. He notes that his travel has enabled him to meet legal professionals all over the world, contacts that can lead to career opportunities for students.

"Every time I go abroad for one of these projects, I learn more and more about the international market for legal services," says Moliterno. "This is where many of our students will live for much of their careers as law practice becomes increasingly global in scope."

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