Non-lawyer with global expertise prepares Penn law students for the world

Amy Gadsden is at the University Pennsylvania law school, where she is helping to organize international programs for students who plan to practice law outside the U.S. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Amy Gadsden is at the University Pennsylvania law school, where she is helping to organize international programs for students who plan to practice law outside the U.S. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 07, 2012

When images of Chinese students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the ensuing government crackdown began flashing across television screens in 1989, Amy Gadsden was simply a curious teenager who wanted to know more.

The following year, she went with her father on a business trip to China. He was there to complete the sale of a Pennsylvania steel mill to a factory an hour and a half outside Beijing.

She soon was captivated by the Chinese.

The energy and dynamism of Chinese society and the sense that the country was on the cusp of historic change eventually helped launch a career that has taken Gadsden from academia to the State Department to a prominent non-governmental organization seeking to promote democracy in China.

Since 2009, Gadsden has been serving as associate dean for international programs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She got her doctorate in history at Penn and wrote her dissertation on early attempts to build a Chinese legal system.

Along with Penn law's deputy dean for international affairs, Eric Feldman, Gadsden has been tasked with broadening the school's offerings in the international space.

But she is not a lawyer.

That a non-lawyer now holds a key administrative position, one with some impact on the curriculum, may say as much about Penn as it does about the evolving nature of the once-staid legal profession. Lawyers and law firms in recent years have been breaking down traditional barriers. They have huge marketing staffs, and some have subsidiaries, such as investment-advisory and insurance firms, that have little to do with the law. At Pepper Hamilton, a non-lawyer was named CEO in February, an appointment that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Law schools are evolving as well.

"The law is not only a noble profession, it is a global profession," Gadsden said. "The firms are global, the work is global. Thirty years ago, you might have gone to Washington, or New York, or San Francisco. Some of our students go [overseas] after graduation. Some of our students go into international practice work in the U.S. after graduation."

Even in the midst of a faltering world economy, firms in Philadelphia and nationally are rapidly expanding abroad because that's where their clients want them to be. Incoming law students know far more about the world than previous generations, and many plan careers abroad from the start.

Law schools like Penn are responding in kind, expanding international programs and reaching out to place students with firms and development agencies overseas, or with federal agencies such as the State Department or Treasury that help manage the nation's international interests.

There are classes on international law and comparative law, and seminars such as the one held in the last year on Islamic finance — a booming practice in which deals are structured to comply with the Koran. That is a must for any transaction in the energy-rich Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the world where Islamic legal principles hold sway.

Faculty regularly travel abroad to give lectures, do research, or meet with peers. In March, students in the law school's seminar on global finance traveled to Malaysia, where the principles of Islamic finance are among the most fully developed. There, they met with government and private-sector officials to learn how deals are done on the ground.

Shortly, Penn law dean Michael Fitts, Gadsden, and others from Penn will travel to India for conferences on patent and copyright law. Such international travel and outreach is to be expected, said Fitts, since so much of the practice of law crosses national boundaries. Business schools such as Wharton at Penn for years have focused on training their students to function abroad, and so it followed that law schools would as well.

"If you look at Wharton, half their students come from abroad," Fitts said.

Gadsden arrived at Penn through a circuitous route.

After graduating from Yale in 1994, she went to work for the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan, U.S.-funded organization that seeks to promote democratic movements abroad. While there, Gadsden focused on village elections in China, judicial and legislative reform, and the emergence of a legal-aid system in China.

She began work on her doctorate, and in 2001 was named a special adviser on China at the State Department. Then she worked for a time as a consultant to the United Nations in Geneva and Beijing in 2004, finishing her doctorate in 2005.

China has long been accused of human-rights abuses, rampant corruption, and no accountability for its leaders. Estimates of the dead in Tiananmen Square after Chinese soldiers and tanks fired on the demonstrators have ranged into the thousands.

Yet Gadsden, 39, said vast improvements have been made.

"We were there initially to provide assistance on commercial matters and family law, but there is a spillover effect in talking about these issues," Gadsden, a nationally ranked squash player while at Yale, said of her work at the International Republican Institute. "People in China started to say, 'If it is OK for me to have legal representation on commercial matters, don't I also deserve representation on these other matters?' "

At Penn, Gadsden, who lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and three young girls, sees herself as part of a team leveraging the university's international contacts and expertise on behalf of students.

"The faculty is on the front lines, but the students, too, bring a lot of ideas that help galvanize what we do," she said. "When I hear of something that I think might be very interesting for our students, I seek everyone out and get everyone to the table."

Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215 854 5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com

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