Supreme Experience: Studying abroad with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as the cover of the Spring 2009 Jurist. In light of the fact Justice Ginsburg will be guest lecturing again this summer as part of the law school’s Venice and Vienna study abroad programs, we wanted to once again feature this piece.

Taking inventory of her surroundings one morning last summer, Erin Hartnett (’10) was overwhelmed.

There she sat, in a café along the Grand Canal in Venice, sipping incredible Italian cappuccino, in the company of trailblazing Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What else could a law student want?

“I just remember thinking, ‘If you could have coffee with anyone, at any time, anywhere, (this) would be at the top of my list,’” said Hartnett, now in her second year of law school.

 The summer was filled with such moments for Hartnett and her classmates, as Ginsburg and her husband, Georgetown law professor Marty Ginsburg, served as guest teachers as part of the law school’s study abroad program in Venice.

 The way some students and faculty described their relationship with Ginsburg, they left Venice with a lifelong friend. And they seemed to make an impression on her, too.

She ate with students, had coffee with them, and went on weekend trips with Wake Forest professors Suzanne Reynolds and Joel Newman.

“All in all, the Wake Forest program was one of the best teaching experiences we have had,” Ginsburg said in a statement. “The combination of U.S. and Italian students enriched discussions, and Joel and Suzanne were such good company, both in class and during excursions that we will revisit in our dreams.”

Wake Forest’s law school study abroad has been creating that type of personal atmosphere, even without the celebrity guest teacher, for 30 years. Regardless of the location – London, Venice or Vienna – the program annually provides law students with a unique foreign environment that fosters intimate learning and forges timeless relationships.

 Take, for example, Josh Aguilar. The second-year law student was in the Venice trip. When he first met Ginsburg, she shied away from a conversation. But by the end of her two-week stay, she knew him well. Some days, Aguilar would walk Ginsburg back to her hotel room from class.

Aguilar still receives regular correspondence from Ginsburg, including a letter last fall in which Ginsburg told him to never lose the “joie devivre,” or joy of everything, in French.

“Venice does have a certain magic to it, where your qualities shine through more,” Aguilar said. “It just happens over there. And when it does, it’s beautiful.”

From a practical standpoint, students return from study abroad trips with a broader knowledge of international law.

In Venice and Vienna, the local governments abide by civil law. In London, the government follows common law, same as the United States. All have their own quirks that make them unique – quirks that, most often, you can’t understand unless you’re there.     

Professor Richard Schneider, the director of the Vienna program and one of two Wake Forest law professors who have taught in all three locations, said first-hand experience of foreign governments would benefit any aspiring lawyer.

“They just come back with an incredibly vivid impression of the practice of law outside the United States,” Schneider said. “In this global environment, given the fact that all lawyers are going to be dealing with issues that go beyond the borders of the United States, that’s just invaluable. Employers look at that. They like to see law students have the ambition and the confidence to stretch themselves.

“I think the days are gone when lawyers can just set up shop in a small town and say they’re never going to be exposed to foreign laws or foreign ways of doing things.”

Wake Forest law has been offering summer study abroad since 1980, when it opened the London program. In the early-1990s, it expanded to include Venice. And in 2003, Vienna was added.

Though two courses are offered in each location each year, students choose just one. They earn three credit hours over a four-week span. Classes meet Monday through Thursday.

In Vienna and Venice, the program is opened to law students from the host countries. For instance, in Vienna, Wake’s law students sit in classes with University of Vienna law students.

The interaction spawns interesting debates and revelations. Whereas Italian students might be floored when they learn U.S. churches receive tax breaks, American students might struggle to understand how an able-bodied 30-year-old man can still claim dependency to his parents.

Or, in Vienna, the mere mention of capital punishment could stir an hour-long debate between American students who might support it, and Austrian students who are adamantly opposed.

“It gives them a completely different perspective and look at their own system,” Schneider said.

The London program remains open to just Wake Forest students.

But program director Wilson Parker, who has been going to London off and on since 1993, says Wake Forest has built such strong relationships there, students can hear a variety of different local perspectives. In fact, members of the British Parliament have begun to anticipate an annual visit from their friends from Winston-Salem.

Students in London tour Oxford and Cambridge, sitting through lectures in both places. They visit Old Bailey, famous courthouse in downtown London built more than 300 years ago. And they visit the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s famous theatre.

Moreover, Parker said, the students can learn the foundations of U.S. law.

“The fact that we have had a presence in London for almost 30 years, over those years, we’ve been able to meet an awful lot of people and network to the extent that we now have access to virtually any English institution that we feel would be beneficial to the students,” Parker said. “America adopted English law as its model. Students are able to go and gain appreciations of American law.”

Because of the surroundings, because the change in scenery should inspire creativity, because of the uniqueness of the experience, Parker gives his students very direct orders when they take his summer course in London.

“I tell my students, if they write the same paper they would have written at Wake Forest, I will give them an F,” Parker said. “It’s incumbent upon them to take advantage of the fact that they’re in London.”

That directive has moved students to seek and acquire library privileges in the reading room where Karl Marx did his research. There, Parker said, they have access to the original manuscripts and documents. Other students have gone and interviewed British officials for their papers.

“We’re able to see things that other people can’t see,” Parker said.

Of course, in Venice last summer, students and professors had a living history lesson at their disposal.

Ginsburg was a rare treat, one that was years in the making. In 2005, Ginsburg visited Wake Forest as part of the law school’s “A Conversation With …” series, which brings speakers to campus to tell their stories. There, Reynolds interviewed Ginsburg about her life and career.

It was an appropriate pairing. Reynolds became an admirer of Ginsburg in the 1970s, while she was in law school and Ginsburg was arguing gender rights cases for the American Civil Liberties Union in the Supreme Court.

During the conversation, Reynolds said Ginsburg made her “feel like the two of us were alone in Wait Chapel.”

Reynolds had no idea how close the two would become.

Overseas, in such a close setting, Reynolds saw Ginsburg as few people have. During lunch, Reynolds would admire how Marty Ginsburg lovingly teased his wife. Some nights, they all went to the opera. Others, they simply went sight-seeing. One weekend, they stayed awake until 2 a.m., sipping wine and talking.

“She’s just so interested in people, she doesn’t want to go to bed until everybody else has gone to bed,” Reynolds said.

It’s a setting that would have been hard to imitate in the U.S.

“It still would’ve been a life-changing experience if we had spent two weeks with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Winston-Salem,” Reynolds said. “But it made us appreciate the impact of the law on people’s lives more because we were in another country. She was such a student, too.

“To see her so passionately curious, and trying to learn something from the Italian students about life and their law, it just underscored the significance of legal work.”

Ginsburg said in an e-mail that she would “definitely” consider teaching abroad for Wake Forest again. She’s participated in about a dozen law school programs overseas in her career.

Wake Forest had unique qualities she’ll remember.

“Two features, in particular, made the Wake Forest program special. First, it is housed in a grand villa, Casa Artom. The house accommodated the law students as well as Wake Forest members,” Ginsburg said in an e-mail. “Second, the students from the University if Padua were part of the class. This gave the United States students a grand opportunity for comparative learning.”

During class, and during the coffee breaks, students were struck by how Ginsburg looked through the legality of her cases to see the people being affected.

“It gave the law so much more humanity,” Hartnett said.

Aguilar, a conservative, said he developed such a close relationship with Ginsburg, known more for more liberal beliefs, that they could jokingly argue politics.

“She’s now someone I know as a friend,” Aguilar said.

For Aguilar, it was his fourth trip to Venice. Suffice it to say, this trip stood out.

The first-timers found it even more life-changing.

Hartnett waffled in deciding whether she’d go last year. But, after one sip of cappuccino, in that café along the canal with the Supreme Court Associate Justice, she knew she’d made the right decision.

When she returned, Hartnett joined other summer abroad veterans in speaking at a study abroad informational session for first-year law students. Their goal was to sell the experience.

“I think they counted 17 ‘awesomes’ and 25 ‘amazings,’” Hartnett said. “We were out of adjectives. It definitely affected me. I would recommend it, whole-heartedly, to anyone.”