SLU LAW Professors Build Relationships in Lithuania

April 17, 2015


A pair of SLU LAW professors traveled to Lithuania recently to teach at a university there and build relationships for future collaborations between the two institutions.

Vice Dean Elizabeth Pendo and Professor Bill Johnson, director of SLU LAW’s Center for International and Comparative Law, spent spring break and part of the following week teaching law courses at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

The trip came out of a relationship Johnson has been working to foster with VMU since 2012 when he was still a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law. Through his involvement in the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law, Johnson was introduced to VMU’s faculty leadership.

“I learned they were interested in developing relationships with American law professors who would be willing to teach courses there from time to time or explore other ways to collaborate,” Johnson said. “They had an opening for someone to teach an international business law course in the spring of 2012 and asked if I’d be interested in filling that opening. I did and have since returned there a couple of times.”

On this trip, Johnson taught a class called Business Law and Emerging Markets. VMU also had interest in offering a class on global health and human rights, so Johnson reached out to Pendo who has expertise in the area.

Established in the 1920s, VMU went dormant during the Soviet occupation in the 1940s. Once Lithuania reestablished its independence in 1990, however, several academics who had fled during the occupation returned to reestablish the university.

“They have a particular focus on engaging with the world outside of Lithuania,” Johnson said. "They offer their students opportunities to take courses in English and encourage them to study systems other than the Lithuanian legal system to be better prepared for a more complex practice in a more global environment.”

Pendo said she was impressed by VMU's commitment to preparing its graduates for practice by offering courses in English.

"It’s really an impressive program. For many students, English is a third language,” Pendo said. “They are really well-prepared to practice in the European Union and worldwide.”

While VMU stresses the importance of English, Johnson was mindful that the students had varying levels of ability and comfort in speaking the language.

“Unlike other parts of Europe where students have been studying English for many years, this is still a relatively new thing in Lithuania,” he said. “That can create some challenges in terms of the sorts of words you use when you teach – being conscious of colloquial expressions and slang – and making sure to speak slowly and clearly.”

Like many European institutions, VMU offers law as a concentration equivalent to a major at a university in the United States. Pendo said her class of 102 students was a mix of both undergraduate and graduate students in law. Both SLU LAW professors said they also had a mix of international students in their classes, including some Americans.

Johnson, who previously taught courses abroad in Germany and served as a guest lecturer in Hungary, said the traditional European style of teaching is very different than that of the U.S. In Europe, the professor typically gives a prepared lecture and students are discouraged from interrupting with questions. Johnson said VMU focuses on an interactive style that tends more towards the American model.

“One of the purposes of the program at VMU is to introduce the students to the U.S. Legal education system. The university and the law faculty prefer instructors to try to use an American style as much as that is reasonably possible,” Johnson said. “It can be more difficult to convince students to speak in class the way we do in a typical U.S. class. That is partly because they are not used to it. It’s partly because students might be unsure of their English language skills, even if they are very strong.”

Another cultural difference Pendo noticed in her class was the way students viewed health care. She devoted a class to comparing health care systems in the U.S. and Lithuania through a human rights lens.

“It was really shocking to them that health care is not seen in a rights framework in the United States, and that prior to the Affordable Care Act, 47 million people in the United States did not have insurance,” Pendo said. “American student are less aware that the U.S. is an outlier in its approach to health care policy. It is important to realize that there is an entire other way to look at health law and policy beyond the way the U.S. looks at it. It is a great lens for evaluating our progress and our challenges in health equity.”

Pendo said the differing points of view between her SLU LAW students and the students she taught at VMU were precisely why she thinks it’s important for the two universities to continue building a relationship. Johnson said he is actively investigating ways SLU LAW and VMU can continue to collaborate on multiple fronts.

“I am always trying to imagine ways that these relationships can be beneficial for our students, our faculty and our alumni,” Johnson said. “One thing we always consider is whether it makes sense to pursue opportunities for our students to study abroad. There are also opportunities to connect experts with each other. As we explore and develop relationships in places like the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Germany, I’m also looking for ways to connect and reconnect with alumni.”

Johnson hopes he has planted seeds in the minds of some of the VMU students to consider someday possibly checking into SLU LAW’s LLM program.

“I talk about the LL.M. program we offer and talk about the benefits of getting experience outside the home jurisdiction,” Johnson said. “The hope over the long run is that we see growth in our student body here.”

Both Pendo and Johnson described Lithuania as a friendly and fascinating place to visit. Their trip happened to coincide with the March 11 celebration of the restoration of Lithuanian independence and the festival of St. Caimir, Lithuania’s patron saint. Pendo described an exciting celebration in Kaunas’s Old Town neighborhood that lasted nearly two days.

“Thousands of people joined in the celebrations. I felt incredibly lucky to be there during that time,” Pendo said. “It was fascinating to be in a country with their incredible history and recognizing what it means to live in a democracy that fought for its freedoms.”

Johnson said he is constantly struck by Lithuania’s ability to preserve a strong sense of identity despite its multiple occupations.

“I find Lithuania to be a really moving and powerful experience,” Johnson said. “The people are warm and generous and it’s a country that has a lot of historic charm.”