PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Legal Philadelphia (1)
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Lithuanian Law

The Right Angle Club was recently entertained by its rugby-playing, Kilimajaro-climbing member, John Wetzel, about his two-week stint teaching law students at the University of Vilnius. This ancient Lithuanian institution was founded in the 15th Century by Jesuits, and after a bumpy history of invasions and occupations has now re-established itself. It participates in Erasmus mobility, meaning it is one of 47 European universities which exchange credentials and permit students from any one of them to take courses in any other member of the association; evidently, a similar mobility of faculty is also part of the concept. It sounds like a great idea, which American universities might well consider.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, 75% of the law students at Vilnius are female, and the whole local legal profession is similarly woman-dominated. John made several allusions to the general pulchritude of his students, which a class picture with him confirms. One striking feature of such a picture is how slim the ladies are; this is another European feature our own representatives might consider imitating. Since there are 2500 law students in a country of 3 million inhabitants, whose main industries are agricultural, balance is restored by only admitting 15% of the graduates to a passing grade on the bar examinations. It seems remarkable that studying law remains so popular under the circumstances, but it was explained that most of the graduates end up working for banks or government.

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University of Vilnius

If you think about it, a country which is attempting to convert from a Soviet colony to a member state of the European Community has a lot of loose ends to tie up. The title to property is clouded by the experience of confiscation by the government and then return to a free economy; if banks are accepting such collateral, there may well be a lot of legal work to be done to assure its security. Since the thirty-odd members of the European Community all have different legal systems in different languages, all banks and businesses which attempt to operate across borders require partners or consultants in law firms in many countries. While there is a continuous effort being made to establish some uniformity of laws in the various nations of the Community, it takes a fair amount of study just to know what the laws are and how they differ. Therefore, while a handful of lawyers are sufficient to appear in court in disputes and litigation, a great deal more legal background is required, just for businesses to know how they are expected to behave.

Since, as Justice Holmes remarked, the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience, it emerges that a great deal of effort must be expended to create the logic when there has been no preceding useful experience. The example is offered of American bankruptcy law, which did not exist until Robert Morris forced its creation. Morris had become an enormously wealthy man, and thus created an enormous tower of debts when his speculations failed, amounting to the then-staggering sum of $12 million of debt. They put him in debtors prison on Walnut Street, but that scarcely addressed the real problems of all those creditors tangled up in the mess. Lithuania is in a similar position, and although it has created a bankruptcy law for corporations, there is as yet no bankruptcy law covering individuals, and hence credit cards, etc. are difficult to establish.

There is a notable difference in attitudes between the eastern nations which were former members of the Soviet Union, and are intensely eager to learn more about the evolution of American law, and the more western parts of Europe, where disdain and hostility for American exceptionalism is presently dominant. A moment of reflection about this difference in situation should make Americans more tolerant of western European problems. If the logic of law evolves out of contemplation of experience, it may well be easier to begin without any usable experience, than to begin with centuries of experience which has to be re-examined. It must in fact be a wrenching experience, but one which has the potential to teach Americans a great many things we never had to cope with. The eventual outcome should be a healthy one, providing of course that we can keep our tempers, and acquire a little humility along the path.

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