Leading the way in international business law

By Katherine Hedland Hansen

Situated in a commercial hub and surrounded by multinational corporations, the University of Washington School of Law has long been a force for transnational law. This fall, UW Law launched another project, the Global Business Law Institute, aimed at best preparing lawyers for international practice.

Working with an advisory board that includes top executives from local companies with global reach such as Boeing, Starbucks and Costco, the Global Business Law Institute builds upon the law school’s successful LL.M. programs in global business and sustainable international development, and adds a J.D. concentration track, a fellows program and a speaker series. This innovative new institute expands UW Law’s impact and prepares lawyers for an increasingly global marketplace.

Scott Schumacher, associate dean for academic administration, said the input and cooperation from company leaders about the program elements was critical.

“No matter how you look at it, global business law impacts our local Seattle economy, as well as around the state and nation,” he said. “We’re opening up more opportunities for our students to become leaders in this area of the law.”

Among those involved in developing the new initiative are Professor Anita Ramasastry, an expert in responsible business practices, human rights and anti-corruption law, and Professor Jeffrey Wool, the Condon-Falknor Professor of Global Business Law, whose international experience includes appointments at the University of Oxford and the Cape Town Convention Academic Project. Other faculty members who lend their teaching and scholarship to the institute include Professors Melissa (MJ) Durkee and Dongsheng Zang.

Ramasastry served on the Global Business Law Institute faculty steering committee and is in charge of creating the Global Business Law Fellows program for J.D. and LL.M. students committed to working in the field. The fellows will receive mentorship, networking opportunities and other support to lead them into exciting careers.

“These initiatives really recognize the industry leaders we have in Seattle,” Ramasastry said. “They are about connecting our students to the world and getting them connected to this career path. Our school has done amazing things in public interest law, and I think we can do an even better job of counseling our students in what roles there are in transnational law.”

The law school already has deep experience in this area. The Global Business Law LL.M. degree allows international and U.S. students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge on U.S. and international business law, and the Sustainable International Development LL.M. program builds upon the groundbreaking work of founder Roy Prosterman, who pioneered land reform as a means to secure prosperity for the rural poor. UW also offers the Summer Institute in Transnational Law and Practice for international practitioners and scholars.

Durkee, a leading scholar who teaches and writes in the areas of business law and international and transnational law, focuses her research on public/private relationships in global governance, particularly interactions between state and business actors that affect the content and success of international legal rules. She has recently written on treaties, international organizations and industry associations, and her scholarship has been published in top journals including the Stanford Law Review, the Virginia Law Review and the UCLA Law Review. 

Her most recent article, “Astroturf Activism,” explores corporate influence in government as an international phenomenon. Durkee identifies and classifies modes of business access to international officials, analyzes the laws that regulate this access and proposes potential avenues for reform.

“It is important to remember that business input in international law making can be beneficial,” Durkee stresses. “Business actors can offer critical expertise and politically neutral proposals that can help government actors make better laws. At the same time, reforms are needed to better regulate business contributions and to more appropriately suit 21st century relationships between governments, business and civil society.”

Durkee serves as associate managing editor of AJIL Unbound, the online companion to the peer-reviewed American Journal of International Law, and as co-chair of the American Society of International Law’s Sixth Annual Research forum, held at UW Law this fall. One of the best workshopping opportunities for both new and established international law scholars, the forum will include expert-led discussions of more than 70 papers on a variety of international law topics, including trade, international arbitration, energy and cyber law.

Prior to joining UW School of Law, Durkee practiced international litigation and arbitration at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in New York representing multinational business entities and foreign sovereigns in complex cross-border disputes.

Zang joined the UW Law faculty full time in 2006, after serving as a visiting professor in 2005-06. His research focuses on international trade law and the comparative study of Chinese law, with an emphasis on the role of law and state in response to social crises in the social transformation in China.

As the director of the Asian Law Center, his work involves a number of international collaborations. Currently, the center is partnering with Tsinghua University, a major science and engineering university in China, on cyber law and privacy issues. Other collaborations include work with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), as well as partnerships with universities in Japan and Mexico to explore the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As Zang and his work with the Asian Law Center expands internationally, Ramasastry is also advancing UW Law’s global impact as she takes on a major new role. Ramasastry was recently appointed to a prestigious post in the United Nations. She is a new member of the UN’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights and will meet with the other working group members several times a year in Geneva to review human rights complaints.

Ramasastry came to the legal academy with a background in commercial law, including serving as a senior advisor in the International Trade Administration (ITA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. She was a staff attorney at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, an associate attorney at the international law firm of White & Case in Budapest, Hungary, an assistant professor of law at the Central European University in Budapest and a special attorney and advisor to a special claims resolution tribunal in Switzerland.

Her current research focuses on the accountability of economic factors in conflict and weak-governance zones. She studies the risks and harms of doing business around the world, including human rights issues related to supply chains, protection of indigenous communities, the environment and other factors businesses must consider.

“What obligations do companies have when it comes to these issues related to human rights?” asks Ramasastry. “What does it mean for companies to act legally, responsibly and ethically? Whose job is it to decide?”

She is conducting a research project with UC Berkeley School of Business investigating whether there is a tie between corporate performance and social responsibility by studying the impact on share value when companies invest in human rights, and also teaches innovative courses. Students can take her Theories and Tools for Combating Corruption, which is offered by only a handful of law schools, as well as the International Human Rights Clinic taught by Alejandra Gonza, a former senior attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a staff attorney at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“UW is a center for cutting-edge research,” Ramasastry said. “This is a good place to do work focused on responsible business because UW is a leader in these areas.”