JSW School of Law’s first class

We read with great interest Namgyel Wangchuk’s opinion in Saturday’s edition of Kuensel (“Creating an environment conducive to holistic legal education,” published on January 14, 2017). The author does an excellent job of highlighting many of the important questions facing the legal and justice sector in Bhutan and Bhutan’s first law school, Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law.

We, the leadership and faculty of JSW School of Law, would like to take the opportunity to address one particular aspect of Namgyel’s article: the uncertainties facing the first class of law students, who will begin their studies in Bhutan.

From the outset, it has been His Majesty The King’s noble vision that the law school educate lawyers for Bhutan, rather than simply copying practices from other countries. As we understand it, this means recruiting and educating law students who will be immediately employable upon graduating, and educating and training them in fields of study that are needed in Bhutan.

During four years of preparation for the law school, we have attempted to implement His Majesty The King’s command to the best of our abilities.  Under the wise and energetic leadership of our Honourable President, HRH Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck, we have adopted three primary means: keeping cohort sizes small; creating an innovative curriculum; and creating a unique student admissions standard.

Keeping cohort sizes small

The impetus for a law school arose in part from the opinion – held by leaders in the political and justice sector and supported by international observers – that there are not enough legally trained professionals in Bhutan to meet the needs of a rapidly changing democratic society. At the same time, leaders worried that simply flooding Bhutanese society with ever-larger numbers of foreign-trained lawyers might pose a risk to Bhutan’s unique culture and values. The decision was made to create an avenue to offer a high-quality full course of legal education in Bhutan, grounded in Bhutan’s traditions and national priorities.

But as a result of our planning meetings with lawyers, judges, and leaders across the country, we identified a third risk: the risk of graduating a large number of lawyers for whom no jobs were available. All of our correspondents agree that a well-trained lawyer who is fully engaged, either in public service or the private sector, is a necessity in a democratic society. However, the experience of the West (especially recently, in the United States) demonstrates that a well-trained lawyer who is simply not employable can be a disruptive force, especially during times of great change. While we do not “guarantee” employment for all of our graduates, we wanted to make sure that all of our lawyers were employable. One way to accomplish this was to ensure that we don’t simply throw a limitless number of lawyers into the market.

We made the decision to limit the size of entering cohorts – for the foreseeable future – to about 25 students. This number was based on discussions with the civil service, the justice sector, and the private sector about the number of lawyers who will be employable in 2022, as well as a bit of prognostication about long-term needs. Put simply, if the productive life of a lawyer (from graduation to retirement) is 40 years, then graduating 25 students per year will result in a stable state of around 1,000 lawyers. In a country of Bhutan’s size and level of development, and accounting for a small number of students who might still seek legal education abroad (or, on the other hand, for graduates who might choose not to enter the legal profession), this number is roughly consistent with the foreseeable needs.

As an aside, we should note that this reasoning also led to one of our other decisions: that admission to the law school would be open to high school graduates from all streams. From our discussions across the country, it is clear that Bhutan needs lawyers from all walks of life – commerce graduates to advise the economic and commercial affairs of the country and individual clients; arts graduates who can draw upon lessons of history and literature to craft arguments; Rigzhung students who have focused their studies on Bhutan’s cultural and linguistic heritage; and sciences graduates to guide the government and their clients, not only in matters of intellectual property, but in more far-flung fields that are becoming ever-more touched by technology and science.

Of course, predictions that extend more than a generation into the future are hardly scientific; we therefore have committed from the beginning to adjust our class sizes from year to year, as society’s short- and mid-term needs become more clear.

Creating an innovative and responsive curriculum

From the beginning, foreign experts recommended to us various models for legal education that have worked in other countries. Of course, most of Bhutan’s judges and lawyers were trained in India; therefore, the Indian legal model (undergraduate, memorisation) was quite familiar. Experts from the United States recommended a graduate-level “professional school” course. And our European colleagues called our attention to the diversity of models available across Europe.

While we remained ever mindful of the experiences of other countries, we resolved early on to design a completely new course of study, responsive to Bhutan’s needs. As a consequence, we adopted a five-year course of study which combines legal doctrine courses (for example, courses in Contract Law and Constitutional Law) with practical experience, including a mandatory tenth-semester internship programme and a one-year “live client” clinic, whereby students will work under the supervision of professors to address the needs of real clients. Compared to other law schools around the world, our students will receive a large number of legal skills courses – including courses on drafting, moot court, legal research, and the like. In particular, we would like to note that our five-year curriculum encompasses the courses included in the current Post-Graduate Diploma in National Law (PGDNL), suggesting that our graduates – unlike those trained abroad – should not be required to sit for the PGDNL course upon graduation.

Finally, our pedagogy will focus not on teaching students what the law is, but rather on how to find and use the law. In a rapidly-changing democratic legal order, teaching “what the law is” becomes a fruitless endeavour: between a first year of studies and his or her graduation, the law will, in all likelihood change. Furthermore, our graduates will be expected not just to implement the law, but to improve it. As a consequence, they will need to know not just what the law is, but how and why it functions in society, and how it might be better (or worse).

As a practical matter, this means that our faculty will not simply recite statutes to the students, expecting them to memorise. Our faculty will engage the students in an ongoing discussion of the purposes and implementation of the law, drawing examples from across Bhutanese history and around the world. Visitors to our classrooms should expect to see active participation by the students, innovative use of simulations, group study and other pedagogical techniques, and regular use of examples from real life.

In this respect, the answer to one of Namgyel’s questions becomes apparent. JSW Law is autonomous because its curriculum and pedagogy must remain flexible and responsive to the needs of Bhutan and to our students. Academic matters will be handled in the first instance by our Academic Council and our Governing Council (which will contain, by Royal Charter, representatives from the legal profession, the judiciary, and other relevant sectors in Bhutan), regulated ultimately by the Bhutan Accreditation Council (BAC). The decision not to affiliate with the Royal University of Bhutan was not a mere temporary expedient: we in fact considered and discussed the idea with RUB, but the leaders of both institutions regarded establishing JSW Law as an autonomous institution with a high degree of autonomy as the appropriate means to our particular mission.

Creating a unique student admissions standard

The final element was creating a student recruiting and admissions process that is most likely to identify those students who will be able to succeed in law school and in the practice of law. Like the previous decisions, our solution followed years of study and discussion with experts and leaders across Bhutan and around the world.

While most colleges in Bhutan (and, indeed, across the region) rely heavily or exclusively upon Class XII results for admissions, we felt that this was not appropriate for a law school. The BHSEC-XII test is well-tailored to test a student’s mastery of subject matter in his or her stream. This may well be a good predictor of success in a traditional Bachelor’s course of study.

However, subject-matter mastery is only one of the skills required of a lawyer or of a law student. We also need students with a capacity for critical thinking, for reading and understanding large quantities of written material, and for logical and analytical reasoning. In short, if Bhutan needs lawyers who are capable of representing and advocating on behalf of the government, of society, and of individual clients, we need to admit students who show early promise in the skill sets upon which such lawyers are built.

As a consequence, we will only count BHSEC-XII results towards 30 percent of a student’s overall admissions score. And, in fact, we weight a student’s performance on the Dzongkha and English subjects much higher than their performance in other, stream-specific, areas of study. (Lawyers are, after all, “creatures of the word.” If a lawyer cannot understand others and express him or herself, he or she is not much of a lawyer.) The other 70 percent will be derived from the student’s performance on a first-of-its-kind Law School Admissions Test (LSAT-Bhutan) and upon personal interviews of short-listed candidates with our faculty.

Our Law School Admissions Test is being designed by the Law School Admissions Council, the US-based organisation that runs the American LSAT. The Council has also designed law school admissions tests in Japan, Korea, India, and Romania, and has custom-created a test that is designed to meet our requirements. In the first week of February, qualifying students will sit for a half-day multiple-choice examination that will test them on reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. Because this is the first time such a test is being administered in Bhutan, we have made resources (including sample tests) available on our website, to help students prepare.

Based upon the BHSEC-XII marks and the LSAT score, we will then short-list the top 50 applicants and invite them to our office in Thimphu to sit for a 40-minute interview with our faculty. During that interview, which will be conducted in English and in Dzongkha, we will evaluate each applicant’s fluency, seriousness of purpose, and readiness to begin legal studies.

We plan to make our admissions decisions before the RUB colleges, to allow successful candidates to choose among their options. We expect that this will also allow unsuccessful applicants plenty of time to accept offers from RUB and other colleges.

The application period for our first cohort of students closed on Sunday, January 15. We are pleased to report that 499 students applied to join the law school in July. We now begin the critical next phase – evaluating these students according to the criteria set out above and selecting the best 25 for our first class. We know that our success (or failure) will be determined in greatest part by the fates of our first class of graduates, and we take this responsibility with the highest level of seriousness.

Addressing the remaining questions

As you can see, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Some of them will be addressed by the Jabmi Tshogday or by the political and legal leadership in the country. Others will await an answer in the fullness of time. We intend, as advocates for our students and our graduates, to continue to play an active role in finding appropriate answers and, just as importantly, to evaluating the answers and changing them, if necessary.

In closing, we thank Namgyel Wangchuk – and our colleagues across the country – for the care and attention they are giving to the opening of Bhutan’s first law school. We shall continue to endeavour to live up to your high expectations and to His Majesty The King’s noble vision.

Contributed by

Sangay Dorjee, Dean, Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law

Michael Peil, 

Vice Dean, 

Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law

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