Law students experience history in the making during U.K. visit


When eight Western michigan University Cooley Law School students signed up last winter to enroll in WMU-Cooley's Study Abroad program in Oxford, England this summer, little did they know they would be living through history in the making at ground zero.

The students arrived to a nation roiling with disbelief and uncertainty after the historic "Brexit" vote, a referendum that decided the U.K. will be leaving the European Union.

"Many people told us that the widespread assumption was the referendum to leave the European Union would never pass," said WMU-Cooley Professor Victoria Vuletich, who accompanied the students to Oxford. "The BBC featured stories of numerous young people who did not vote, or voted to exit as a lark, thinking their votes would not count. Several of them were remorseful and expressed a desire to revote. Even the leaders of the pro-Brexit camp seemed a little surprised at the outcome. The students and I learned that though our individual votes may be one in millions, they do matter. Each vote really does count."

While in Oxford, the students studied European Union Law and European Union Business Law. The courses focused on the workings of the European Union at the same time widespread discussion and commentary were occurring about how Brexit will actually play out in the months and years to come.

The students were in for another historic experience with the election of Theresa May as Great Britain's second female prime minister.

"Hearing and observing firsthand the political and constitutional crisis the Brexit vote spawned and how the government handled it was illuminating," said Vuletich. "The parties and government calmly and efficiently handled the transition of authority from David Cameron to Theresa May quickly, calmly and smoothly. The students compared how the crisis was handled in Great Britain with our presidential election cycle, and came away with much respect for parliamentary or a multi-party systems. Many of them expressed that it is time for the United States to move away from a two-party system.

"The one thing everyone we encountered in the U.K. asked us was our opinion on the United States presidential election. Most citizens in the U.K. are much more knowledgeable about the United States than we are about the U.K. and other nations. I was surprised at the degree of detail and familiarity they have with U.S. politics. They were particularly interested in our views of Donald Trump," said Vuletich. "He was the subject of many cross-cultural conversations in the pubs over a round or two of beers."

Another highlight for the students was the tour of the Middle Temple Inn of Court in London. The students dined in the Middle Temple Hall, constructed in 1573, and they learned that Queen Elizabeth liked to visit the hall and socialize with attorneys. The students also learned of the multitude of Middle Temple members who were involved in establishing the United States of America. The Middle Temple suffered heavily from bombing during World War Two and the architectural impact of the bombing was part of the tour.

"It was a powerful, visible reminder that the rule of law can, and probably must, endure many challenges to support freedom and serve the people," Vuletich noted. "One of the highlights for me was the portrait of the barrister who argued the Carbolic Smoke Ball case, which I am sure many attorneys of my generation read in law school. It made that old case from law school leap from the pages of a textbook and come alive. In his portrait I could see the defeats, victories and day-to-day drudgery that mark the life of attorneys everywhere. "

The six weeks was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the students and Vuletich.

"We had such fun learning, exploring and living together. During the last week, we gathered under the famous Bridge of Sighs, at Hertford College, for a group picture. We were all wearing our Oxford shirts and hoodies. Our smiles were tinged with melancholy by the realization that in a few days it would all be a memory and we would scatter to our former lives all over the United States. We made new friends in Oxford that we were sad in leaving behind. But each of us is richer for having borne witness to history in the making and seeing how our legal system and government can endure with the ages if we all do our part to care for it," said Vuletich.

Published: Thu, Sep 22, 2016