The “rule of law” is something that most residents of developed countries take for granted, its evolution following a well-trodden path. But in countries where the legal system is developing, at times urgently so, Erik Jensen, SLS professor of the practice of law and director of the Rule of Law Program, and his students are helping by advancing a foundational building block—legal education.

Jensen has been teaching and doing fieldwork in developing countries for more than 35 years, with a focus on bridging theory and practice.  Under his tutelage, Stanford Law students in the Rule of Law Program participate in experiential learning classes directed to one of three countries—Afghanistan, Kurdish Iraq, or Rwanda—where they are paired with institutional partners seeking to improve the country’s legal education through legal curriculum development. Afghan, Iraqi, and Rwandan legal scholars serve as peer reviewers of the SLS students’ work.

“About 35 years ago, as a Fulbright Scholar working in Sri Lanka, I realized how outdated and poor the legal textbooks were across the developing world,” says Jensen. “One of the most worthwhile things our students can do if they want to make a long-term difference is to improve these materials.”

As a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan, Matt Martinez, JD ’20, had a unique motivation for making that difference.

“When I was in Afghanistan as a Marine, my job required a measure of destruction.  The Rule of Law Program allowed me to circle back to build, rather than to destroy.  To not just win the war, but to win the peace.”

Martinez has been working on two chapters for a criminal law textbook for the American University of Afghanistan and is optimistic about the long-term impact of the program:

“No one thinks there is a silver bullet to fix Afghanistan,” he says. “There are thousands of people working on it, and the jury is still out. To me, though, it’s very personal.  I have a vested interest in the outcome.  And from my perspective, the rule of law is the most important thing for building a stable society.”

Students develop a range of skills while in the program, including intense collaboration with an international team. Importantly, this includes regular communication and in-person meetings in country—or in the case of Afghanistan, which has security restrictions, in a regional location—with members of the partner institutions.

“The first-order goal of the program is to improve the critical thinking skills of students in our client universities and the applied comparative law skills of our SLS students,” Jensen says.  “SLS students are given opportunities to situate their comparative law scholarship through firsthand exposure to the social, political, and economic context of each country.”

This aspect of the program was key for Brynne O’Neal, JD ’19, who worked with the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. O’Neal wrote a white paper on Iraqi labor and social security laws to be used in a university law class and had read the relevant Iraqi statutes before traveling to the country over spring break.

“We visited with students and professors and attended classes so that we could really understand the context for the use of the materials we were developing,” says O’Neal. “We also met with judges involved with these issues and laws and got insights into how practitioners interacted with the laws. It was invaluable input for the final paper.”

Another critical piece of the program is avoiding what Jensen calls “development tourism.”  “A lot of people visit the developing world and leave nothing of value behind,” he explains.  “Our goal is the opposite.”

This particularly appealed to Allison Wettstein O’Neill, JD ’20.  O’Neill spent her 1L summer clerking for the chief judge of the East African Court of Justice in Rwanda.  She then spent her 2L year, like Martinez, writing two chapters for Afghanistan’s criminal law textbook.

“As an alumna of AmeriCorps, I knew I wanted to give back and provide actual help where it is needed,” she says. “Textbook writing is a real need and a concrete way of doing good in the world.”