A matter of degrees: Unique UDM program the first of its kind in U.S.

By Mike Scott

Legal News

The University of Detroit Mercy School of Law is hoping that the establishment of its Degrees of the Americas program will be an important growth vehicle for the institution.

UDM Law and the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) in Mexico have collaborated to offer a unique joint degree program that allows bilingual students the opportunity to earn an American J.D. and Mexican L.E.D. The Detroit-based law school has had a similar program for approximately the last 15 years with the University of Windsor Law in Canada.

Under that program the two schools have collaborated to create the only comparative program of its kind in the country where students earn an American J.D. and Canadian LL.B. in three years.

UDM School of Law administrators are hoping that the joint program will allow the institution to more effectively recruit students from all across the United States and North America.

The joint program with ITESM would take five years to complete on average, said Cara Cunningham, who coordinates the Degrees of the Americas program at UDM School of Law. Normally getting both degrees would take up to eight years, and earning an L.E.D. alone in Mexico would generally take up to five years.

"This program would allow students to get exposed to not just Mexican law, but Spanish law since Mexico reflects much of the same legal philosophies as other Latin American countries," said Cunningham, assistant professor of Legal Writing and Analysis at UDM School of Law.

The idea for this joint program with ITESM "crystallized" in 2007, Cunningham said. The full Mexican degree program starts this May with 14 different elective classes that students can choose from. This semester students can take Introduction to Mexican Law and Spanish Legal Terminology, the first in a series of courses as part of its Degrees of the Americas program.

Some of the electives include courses as Mexican Legal Theory, Mexican Criminal Law and more. The joint program with ITESM is the only one of its kind in the United States that once completed allows student to be licensed to practice law both in the United States and Mexico, Cunningham said.

The Introduction to Mexican Law and Spanish Legal Terminology is a free seminar that builds Spanish language skills as it prepares students for Mexican Law electives scheduled for the coming summer and fall terms at UDM School of Law. Basic proficiency in Spanish is required for this introductory course.

Gabriela Sakmar, the licensed Mexican attorney teaching the course, describes this seminar as a preview of Mexican law in which students receive a general overview of the Mexican legal system, its institutions and civil law traditions, as well as general information about the country of Mexico.

Throughout the course, students also learn Spanish legal terminology. That is a real key for students who continue on to the Degree of the Americas program, Cunningham said.

"There is a great deal of symmetry with Mexican law and that of Latin American countries but also with many other countries around the world, including Europe," Cunningham said. That is because like Mexico, countries like Spain and France use a civil law system, as opposed to the United States where common law is practiced.

"In reality there are many more similarities with French and Mexican law than with the French and American legal systems," Cunningham added. "It will allow our students to become more conversant with any civilian attorney anywhere in the world."

Such a degree also will help students become more marketable in their present and future legal careers.

Kirsten Jearlds is a student in the Introduction to Mexican Law & Spanish Legal Terminology class and works with Cunningham with administrative work on the class. The first-year student also serves as a program liaison.

She is considering the Degrees of the Americas program because Spanish and the law are two of her greatest passions. This is true even though she wants to remain located in the United States upon receiving her J.D.

"Having these classes on my transcript would definitely give me an edge over other (students), especially to show that I am able to understand the law in a different language while living in a different country," she said.

A number of large law firms around the country have, or are soon planning to open offices in Mexico, which is considered an emerging market along with many other Latin American countries, Cunningham said. One example is Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, LLC, which opened an office in Monterrey, the home of ITESM, in 2009.

Monterrey is a largely industrial city that has seen significant legal growth over the last few years, said Michele Compton, a partner with Miller Canfield who spends her time split between the firm's Detroit and Monterrey offices.

"I think it is particularly useful for lawyers to have background in both common and civil law because the world is continuing to get smaller," Compton said. "This type of program really helps to set (UDM School of Law) apart as a premier law school in this area."

Compton added that any law school student who desires a career in international law should not only have background in civil law but also have a language background. With the number of countries in Latin and South America that use Spanish as their primary language, the Spanish language component of the Degrees of America program is also valuable, she added.

This joint program will also allow UDM School of Law to increase its national and global exposure, which is only a benefit to the school's marketing efforts, Cunningham said. It will be actively promoting this program at college campuses through the southwestern United States, in Mexico and elsewhere, giving the law school a chance to draw in students who otherwise would never consider coming to Detroit.

Its Degrees of the Americas program has also allowed UDM School of Law to build a larger network of undergraduate university and student contacts, Cunningham said. In recent months she and her colleagues have been in touch with members of Spanish student organizations around the country, a number of career services professionals and undergraduate guidance counselors and foreign language chairs.

"It's something very unique that we offer as a law school," she said.

But future lawyers aren't the only students who may consider being a part of the program, Cunningham said. Many of the electives would appeal to students who want to build careers in global affairs, Spanish language proficiency or even humanitarian issues and causes.

"There are a whole range of potential applicants who would be interested," Cunningham said. "Anyone who is interested in bilingual and bicultural legal or community work could see this as a wonderful degree or background to have."

Published: Tue, Feb 23, 2010