Comparing the Legal Education in the U.S. and China

Comparing the Legal Education in the U.S. and China

Cara Tang, MJIL Articles Editor

Before I started the J.D. program in Minnesota, I received my bachelor’s degree in law from Renmin University of China. During my time in the U.S., I always get the question on what the differences are between the two legal education systems. I’d love to write down some of my reflections here.

The most fundamental and obvious distinction may be that in China, a student can choose law as her undergraduate major, while in the U.S., law school is only graduate school. Undergraduate in China is normally a four-year program and there is no special scheme for the law degree. This distinction leads to many other differences. One difference is in how the law students determine they want to practice law in the future. It’s not common that a 17-or-18-year-old knows exactly what she wants to do upon graduation. Some of the law students, after studying law for a while, may find arts or physics more interesting and decide to change their majors, which is often allowed and facilitated by Chinese universities. Some law students may land in internships not law-related but find they like that kind of work and pursue it after graduation. As a result, many students studying law in college will not practice law in work. On the contrary, in the U.S., almost every J.D. candidate at least had a bachelor degree before they start law school. They tend to be more mature and confident in that they plan to practice law in the future.

Another difference resulted from the undergraduate/graduate distinction is the design of courses. For undergraduate students in China, the courses are divided into three categories. The first category is mandatory courses for every college students in China, including Basic Military Knowledge and Training, Introduction of Mao Zedong Thoughts and Marxism, etc. The second group is the mandatory courses for a specific major. For law students, the mandatory courses are constitutional law, jurisprudence, western legal history, Chinese legal history, civil law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, IP law, and international law. The third category is optional courses depending on students’ interests, it could be law related like employment law or legal clinics, or non-law-related like appreciation of French poems. In contrast, the U.S. law school as a graduate school aiming at train future law professional, only provides law related courses.

It’s also worth mentioning that the legal education in China is much cheaper than that in the U.S., both in the respects of time and tuitions. Undergraduate education is generally cheap in China for the student who has enough scores to be admitted. Also, it’s often the case that the better the university is, the cheaper the tuition and rent are, as the top universities get more funds from the government. For example, my four-year tuition and rent in total is only around $3640, which is almost 1/44 of the tuition and rent of obtaining a J.D. from University of Minnesota (around  $162,000), not even adding the expenses of earning a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. Even with the modest GDP in China ($7,593.9 per capita[1]), almost every family can afford a “law student” without any problem. It’s also very common for parents to pay for the expenses out of pocket, so no student loan is needed and no economic pressure to pay off student loans. Being a law student is more likely to be a personal choice instead of a privilege.

The last difference I would like to mention is that both the legal system and the legal education system in China is very young while the U.S. has a relatively long history in rule of law and developed a mature legal education system. As a result, the Chinese law textbooks always refer to practices and theories of other countries, especially the U.S., Germany, and Japan. The most extreme example may be that during my constitutional law class in Renmin University Law School, the best law school in China, half of the course is spent on discussing the judicial review in the U.S. On the other hand, in the U.S., all most all courses, except comparative law or international law courses, focus on the domestic law in the U.S.

Regardless of all those differences above, there are some similarities between the two systems as well. Both legal education systems are going through some reforms. In the U.S., there are discussions on whether the law school is too expensive for less-privileged students to be involved and whether the J.D. program should be two years instead of three years. The courses in the U.S. are adding more practical flavors such as the development of law clinic, externships, etc. In China, legal education reform is heavily influenced by the U.S. system. On the one hand, courses are designed in a more practical way, and some professors started to try Socratic method or ask more questions to train students’ logical thinking skills. Law schools started to stress the importance of internships and to provide more career supports. On the other hand, for the graduate legal education, the trend is to separate academic masters with professional masters. Academic LL.M.s are provided for those people who studied law in undergraduate and wish to pursue an academic career in law while professional LL.M.s are more for the people who plan to be law professionals but do not have legal background, which is very similar to the J.D. in the U.S. but less standardized yet and still need time to gain its recognition.[2]

The post cannot go through all the difference and similarities between the legal education systems in China and the U.S., both due to the word limitation and my limited experience. However, I do hope this post can shed some light in understanding the legal education in the two countries for people from the other side.



[2] One typical program like this is provided by Peking University and more information of it can be found at the website: