University of Pittsburgh

Total Immersion - Law School Semester in Ukraine

by Jenny Hanlin

Even before beginning classes at Pitt Law in 2002, I was excited about the prospect of studying abroad in Donetsk, Ukraine at the Donetsk National University Faculty of Law and Economics. As a history major at Pitt while an undergraduate, my area of specialization was Soviet history. I had studied abroad in St. Petersburg, traveled extensively through Russia and Eastern Europe, and spent a year in the Peace Corps in Northern Kazakhstan. My experiences abroad had taught me that total immersion, and living like the people about whom I wanted to learn were the best ways to understand a different culture. I believed that studying as a regular law student in Ukraine would help me understand how their legal system differs from ours, and how that may impact me as an American practitioner representing clients doing business in Ukraine. What I did not anticipate was how much I would learn through this process.

I was amazed by the services and goods available in Donetsk. My experience in Kazakhstan, when I lived in a village where half of the former population did not have running water and milk was not sold in stores in the winter, was that the former Soviet Union had really poor services in all outlying areas. I had a hot water heater in my bathroom that worked most of the time in Donetsk, my apartment was lovely, and not once did I crave food from home, the quality of the food was so good. I miss the food there more than I enjoy the broader choices here.

Honestly, one reason that I was drawn to Ukraine instead of another Eastern European country was its reputation as being lawless and run by the mafia. What do lawyers study, how do they work if everything is done under the table and according to the law of the street, not the state? I learned that the answer is very simple: it depends. Just as some lawyers practicing in Ukraine represent their clients' interests through bribes, some law students pay for their diplomas. On the other hand, some lawyers work within the law while advocating for their clients, just as most law students study diligently to receive their high grades. Corruption (is it corruption if everyone is doing it?) will continue to be a major hurdle for economic development until it can be rooted out of the judicial system in Ukraine.

At first, I had a difficult time keeping up with my instructors' lectures. Unlike classes at American law schools, where the Socratic method is the tool of choice for most professors, my classes in Donetsk were organized into two parts-lectures and seminars (similar to our recitations). Usually, one of the full professors gave an 80-90 minute lecture, and then later in the week one of the junior instructors conducted a seminar class on the same subject, ideally on the same topic. Similar to the curriculum at American law schools, students were required to prepare before class by reading textbooks and commentaries on the law, in addition to the applicable statutes and codes. In sharp contrast, however, students are not told to read pages x-y in a certain book, but are told to educate themselves on a topic, for example, the rights of family members of a tenant, and are expected to find the materials that they need on the subject independently. The cost of textbooks is relatively high there, so most students I knew shared them and downloaded the laws that they needed off of Liga, their Lexis Nexis equivalent onto computer disks that they read somewhere else.


The most difficult part of adjusting to studying in Donetsk was not the language, but my inability to understand what was going on-what I had to read, when assignments were due, what was required for assignments, etc. At first, I asked the best students in the class a few days early what the homework was if I didn't understand what the teacher had said. Usually, they were also unsure. I ended up going to see the seminar teachers individually to make sure that I was staying on course. I think that I had this problem because there was not one list of assignments. Overall, my biggest frustrations during the first two months were with myself and my inability to figure my way out of the maze that was my class assignments.

As I was figuring out when and where to find my professors in order to know exactly what to prepare for classes and assignments, I also got over the language difficulty hump. For the first three weeks or so, most of my note taking in class was composed of vocabulary questions. Every time I did not understand a word that I read in a law or textbook, or heard in class or conversation, I recorded it, wrote in the definition next to where the Russian word was, and memorized the meaning. At the end of the three weeks, I had a new working vocabulary of several hundred words that helped me understand my reading materials and lectures with little difficulty. After that point, I still prepared for class more than most students, just as our L.L.M. students are more prepared, but I only had to spend 6 hours out of class to prepare for every hour in class after that point.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of studying in Donetsk was my experience working with three different moot court teams as a language assistant. The students who were bright enough and motivated enough to participate in English-language only competitions were highly intelligent and a joy to work with. In particular, the former teacher in me was tickled when students who were not comfortable answering questions in practice in week one improved their skills through hard work to the point where they replied with authority and confidence within several weeks. Additionally, the moot court team members understood my frustrations better than most students in Donetsk. They also found that language was not the most difficult aspect of studying the laws of a different system. Usually, the theoretical basis for why law is the way it is in common law, continental (the Franco-Germanic system), and international law was the most daunting aspect of studying for us all.

My favorite class in Donetsk was taught by a brilliant woman who had earned a L.L.M. degree from the University of Illinois, Zvenyslava Opeyda. Her course, International and European Economic Integration, had our group of 10 students examine WTO-GATT system, the workings of the European Union, and the planned creation of a free trade zone/economic system among Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet countries. Ms. Opeyda then asked us to evaluate whether Ukraine would benefit or suffer from becoming affiliated with each of these entities. By the end of the semester, I found WTO rulings on countervailing duties riveting, a development I credit to Ms. Opeyda's teaching method.

My scariest experience in Donetsk was sitting for my Civil Law examination with Professor Yankova. Final examinations in Donetsk and the rest of Ukraine are quite different than any examination I have ever taken in the United States. Several weeks before the final exam, our class was given a list of ninety-three topics that might be covered. These topics were rather broad; for instance, some I found to be the most difficult were "execution of economic contracts" and "construction contracts." I had to read as many laws, treatises, and codes as I could in order to prepare adequately. On the day of the examination, students began arriving at 7 a.m. to stand in line and get their ticket. Once the doors are open, eight students were admitted at a time into one room, given a ticket with three to four of the ninety-three topics on them, and told that they had 30 minutes to prepare for their oral interview with the professor and junior instructor. Students were not allowed to use any materials from outside while drawing up outlines of their answers. Once the first two students were called up to begin, two more students were admitted and allowed to prepare. This continued until 3 p.m. I was more nervous talking with Professor Yankova than I was for any of second-year exams at Pitt. She asked me questions and probed my knowledge not only of Ukrainian law, but also American law for over forty-five minutes. My scariest experience turned into my proudest when Prof. Yankova told me that she would be a happy woman if all of her students understood Ukrainian civil law as well as I did.


Most of all, I enjoyed meeting intelligent, hard-working, and funny people half a world away. I had heard from Prof. Brand and Prof. Walter that the people in Donetsk were rare treasures, but I still did not anticipate liking them so much. Interested students with a strong command of Russian should definitely take advantage of the connection that has been forged between our two universities and spend a semester in Donestk.

Revised 09/28/2011 | Copyright 2011 | Site by UMC