Reconstructing higher legal education in Georgia
Workmen are reconstructing a ferris wheel overlooking the Black Sea beach in the resort town of Batumi, Georgia. Standing next to the ferris wheel is the Shota Rustaveli State University, which is going through a similar reconstruction process, intent on reaching higher levels. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who nearly everyone in Georgia calls by the diminutive Misha, has promised that Batumi will be the Nice of Georgia. It’s certainly got the rocky beaches, though it’s a very long way from Provence.
Misha, who received an LLM degree from Columbia Law School, knows what good legal education looks like. As opposition politicians and street demonstrators will attest, he has a mixed record on human rights. But if the long run prospects for delivering justice and protecting rights depends on the intellectual capacity and values of the legal profession, as it arguably does, there are some extremely promising developments taking place under his watch.
Higher legal education stagnated for many years in Georgia, with a law degree from Tbilisi State University being the one and only credential for any lawyer with serious career aspirations. That monopoly position did nothing to help the university keep pace with the dramatic changes of the 1990s.
TSU, as it is widely known, used to have a reputation as an institution so backward-looking and corrupt that bright and highly qualified lawyers in post-Soviet Georgia seemed to thrive despite their formal legal education rather than because of it. The Georgian Young Lawyers Association, one of the strongest NGOs to emerge in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, almost single-handedly created an alternative system of legal education during that period, far from the hallways of the university.
But as Georgia tries to pulls itself out of a difficult period that started with a short war with Russia in 2008, followed hard on the heels by the world financial crisis, prospects for improving legal education are looking rosy.
There are now about a half dozen law schools -- some public, some private -- that are relatively strong and vying for students. A new Law on Higher Education includes a number of provisions designed to strengthen legal education -- including a requirement that law school Masters programs provide practical training opportunities to their students. (PILnet played a role in this through a regional project on reforming higher legal education, from 2005 to 2008, supported by the Open Society Foundations. The project supported Georgia’s engagement with the Bologna Process on higher education in Europe and generated some new thinking about legal education.)
Two state law schools and the most successful private law school have established “live client” legal clinics that provide students with intensive exposure to legal practice, including providing advice and legal assistance to real clients, under the supervision of their professors and practicing attorneys hired as adjuncts. Although extremely nascent, the clinics have the strong support of their respective universities, and clinical legal education -- which was slow to take hold in Georgia after more than a decade of exploratory efforts -- now appears positioned to develop strongly, potentially spreading to other law schools in the country.
PILnet is working with the East-West Management Institute, under a USAID-funded Judicial Independence and Legal Empowerment Project (JILEP), set to run through 2014, to help make that happen. There is a new generation of law students in Georgia, full of energy and exposed to a formal legal education system that is starting to provide stronger support for critical thinking, reflection on ethical values and exposure to opportunities for engaging in social issues. With some concentrated outside support, those students will both benefit from improvements in legal education and, one hopes, contribute to furthering a reform process whose success is critical for the development of Georgia’s legal system, and ultimately, the further development of the country.