Professor Sidney Shapiro teaches American public law course in Italy

Wake Forest University School of Law Professor Sidney Shapiro was a visiting professor at the University of Padova in Padova, Italy, from April 1 – May 31. Shapiro, who is the law school’s Associate Dean for Research and Development as well as the University Distinguished Chair in Law, taught a course on American public law. He also gave a public lecture on “American Political Values and The Financial Crisis.”

Q: Since it was the first time a class was taught in English at the Padua Law School, what was it like to teach a class to students whose first language is not English?

A: The most interesting and difficult task was to teach myself to speak slowly. Also I tried to focus on the best way to explain a foreign legal system to people unfamiliar with it. The Italian legal system is very different from ours. One of the significant differences is that Italy and other countries in Europe don’t have the same separation of powers between the branches of government that we have in the U.S. In addition, Italy has a parliamentarian government, which means the heads of departments and agencies are also legislators which, of course, is not possible here.

Q: How do Italian students differ from American students? How are they similar?

The primary difference is that legal education in Europe is not graduate education. Students there enroll in law school when they matriculate to the university and pursue a legal curriculum that leads them to a five- or six-year degree. If they want to then practice law, they must then undertake a two-year apprenticeship. It’s like having a major here but there’s more of it. I had students in their fourth and fifth year so they were approximately the same age as our students. Another difference is a large number of Italian students live at home and commute to school to make the experience more affordable. The Italian students were amazed at the cost of American legal education. Higher education is essentially free to Italian residents, which made them wonder how the Americans could pay back the cost of their legal education.

Q: What did you learn from your Italian students?

I think what I learned was how relatively unique the American legal system is. The experience reinforced my understanding that law is very much tied to a country’s culture and political tradition.

Q: How does Italian law compare with American law?

A: The Italian students found our system of judicial review to be unusual if not strange. They were amazed at the power of American courts to influence the nature and the scope of the law to a much greater extent than is common in Italy and Europe. Another difference is that Italy, being a civil law country, has most of its law created by statute. By comparison most American statutes are often not nearly as detailed. This means that American regulatory agencies are often the source of the detail in our laws, which again is different in Italy and in Europe.

Q: Padova, located between Verona and Venice, is the home of the second oldest university in Italy, founded in 1212. Formally known as the Universita de Padua, its claims to fame include the fact that Dante and Copernicus studied there and Petrarch and Galileo taught there. What was the university like? How did it feel to walk down the same halls as Copernicus and Galileo?

The university feels different than here. It’s mixed with historical parts scattered throughout the center of the city. Like many Italian buildings, it has a nondescript façade but hidden behind it is an enormous complex. The law school is in the center of the city in building that is thousands of years old. My classroom was right off a Roman looking courtyard. The students also dressed a little nicer than our students. The feeling in class wasn’t as informal as it is here.

Q: What was the best part about living in a foreign country?

Having the opportunity to see another culture more intimately because I got to live there for nine weeks rather than just spending a week or two.

Q: What did you find most difficult about living in Italy?

A: While not knowing the language wasn’t a big impediment, I found my lack of language skills frustrating because it prevented me from getting to know people and the culture better.