MU law school class focuses on cultural consciousness

Friday, March 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 29, 2014
Ilhyung Lee teaches an alternative dispute resolution class designed to develop a cultural fluency in its students. Lee said it is one of five such classes taught in the country.

COLUMBIA — Ilhyung Lee sips water from a plastic Shakespeare's cup, combing through papers as his students file in. "Shall We Dance" from "The King and I" plays over their conversations.

Lee is wearing a dark-gray suit complemented with a bow tie, his hair neatly combed and parted to the left. He is crisp in the way someone practicing law often is, but has an especially acute awareness of the nuances and implications of appearance and habit.

In a way, this is what he will be teaching today.

Lee is a professor at the MU School of Law, specializing in international dispute resolution, law and society in East Asia, intellectual property dispute resolution and international and comparative law.

On Wednesdays, he teaches cross-cultural dispute resolution, a class he said only four other universities in the country offer regularly in their law schools: Northwestern University, University of Oregon, Pepperdine University and Willamette University.

"This is not your typical law school class," Lee said.

The class is an alternative dispute resolution course, a field that explores ways to resolve a dispute between two parties other than going to court, including negotiation, mediation and arbitration. The field didn't take form until the 1970s, Lee said.

The point of the course is to get future dispute resolution professionals to see how culture might affect what they do. Lee said most law schools don't have enough time or resources to give much attention to this subject. They might devote one hour of a three-credit course on dispute resolution to cultural issues.

"The joke was, you would bring in a guest speaker to talk about his or her experiences having gone to an exotic country and having negotiated with exotic people, and that was it," Lee said. "I really thought ... that there should be more time devoted to culture."

Rewriting the joke

In 1999, Lee found out about a class on cross-cultural dispute resolution that was taught at Pepperdine University School of Law.

"I was delighted that there was a course offered, period," Lee said.

He thought that given his personal experiences and professional background in international law, he could teach a similar class effectively and passionately. Lee then sat in on Grant Ackerman's class at Pepperdine for two weeks in the summer session and worked closely with him to help mold Lee's own style of teaching. He now calls his class the Missouri version of the Ackerman model.

Since then, the course has been offered usually once a year at MU as a writing-intensive upper-class elective. Writing serves the important role of analysis and reflection in the class, Lee said. It's a skill he's stressed throughout his career for law students, as he did in a 1999 article for the Santa Clara Law Review called "The Rookie Season."

What he stresses more, however, is acknowledging and understanding the role culture can play in legal interactions.

"My thinking has always been, if you're not aware of culture, it could lead to more problems," Lee said. "You could miss settlement opportunities, or it could make the dispute worse. So, we look squarely at the question of culture and see how it affects dispute and dispute settlement."

The first part of addressing culture is to find out what the word means, a question he proposed to his students. They offered their own opinions, and Lee presented alternative approaches to the issue of culture, specifically those of authors and lawyers who don't think culture is relevant.

Lee said he does this as a matter of balance, and to get students to realize there are some people who are skeptical about the importance of culture.

"We kind of come to a compromise," Lee said. "Isn't it possible that culture could be present in virtually every setting? So the question is, how much?"

The culture of his class

A range of culture certainly provides an interesting setting for Lee's own classroom. There are 11 students, from China, Korea, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.. One is a Catholic priest.

About half are Juris doctorate students, studying in the conventional three-year law degree program. The other half are LL.M students, working on a one-year Master of Laws in Dispute Resolution degree.

Lee said the diversity of the class makes it a better experience, as students come in with a wider breadth of experience that helps fuel discussion.

"I like to think we have a little fun in class, that students learn about themselves," Lee said.

Ignacio Lleo, an LL.M student from Valencia, Spain, said he can relate to the cultural dimensions Lee talks about.

"I can feel the differences between my culture and here," Lleo said. "I feel this every day in America. Every foreign student feels that, so it's amazing."

Jafon Fearson, a second-year J.D. student, said what sticks out about the class is that it provokes thought. Fearson is from Hatchechubbee, Ala., a small town he described as about half African-American and half white American.

Lee said the most memorable comment he's received was a similar praise from a former state trooper.

"I think his exact words were, 'the course made me think about things that I never thought about before,'" Lee said. "You always want students to think about the subject ... but here's someone who's involved in law enforcement, and for him to realize the impact of culture in his work ... Maybe as a result of that, more people might have confidence in the legal system. I was very, very touched by that."

Lee's model in practice

Lee said he has also received criticism, specifically regarding the tangible legal component of the class. He's worked to address that, including discussions of how culture is seen in specific court cases and how it shapes specific laws. Lee also incorporates two to three mock simulations for the students to practice in dispute resolution situations where culture may be present.

In the past, visiting scholars from China, Korea and Japan have acted as executives of a company from their country, while students play the role of American executives in a mock patent infringement negotiation.

This semester, students participated in a simulation via video with students from Cornell University and a professional mediator from Washington, D.C. The simulation was an employment discrimination dispute where an elderly lifeguard alleged he was fired because of his age. Lee said he also hopes to have at least one simulation this semester via video with students in Tokyo or Seoul.

Along with a more conventional textbook, Lee teaches Anne Fadiman's "The Spirit Catches You When You Fall Down," which he described as the account of a clash between a non-Western, agrarian culture and Western medicine. He said its themes reflect and highlight the other course material.

Lee frequently calls on students in class, either to contribute to discussion in class or read an excerpt in their "best judicial voice." He even takes into account the cultural differences in his own classroom. He often writes down phrases he uses that he thinks might be too nuanced for his international students to understand, such as "tip my hat to you" and "from the gut."

Lucy Chen, an LL.M student from southern China, said she can feel the cultural differences in the way the class is taught.

"In my country ... we do not speak at all," Chen said. "Most of the time we just keep silence, waiting for the teacher to call on us or for he or she to speak themselves. But here, we're participating."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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