January 2012
5th Annual Cambodian Law School Competition Signals Growing, Sustainable Program

When the East-West Management Institute’s USAID-Funded Program on Rights and Justice (PRAJ) began its legal education programs in Cambodia six years ago, no law schools had any form of moot court or practical lawyering exercises. This year, when PRAJ 2 launched its fifth annual Client Counseling Competition, the number of law schools participating in these new legal skills programs had risen from zero to nine. Over the course of the six years, thousands of law students have participated in the PRAJ Mock Trial and Client Counseling Competitions.

The greatest testament to the program’s success is the level of programming that partner institutions have initiated, using their own resources, around these competitions. While the PRAJ-organized Client Counseling Competition this year consisted of sixteen preliminary and final rounds, the number of lead-up sessions wholly organized by the law schools themselves dwarfed that number. Steve Austermiller, who directs the PRAJ Legal Education division, recalled: “there were over a hundred qualifying rounds and practice sessions at the law schools this year before the actual competition even started.” Austermiller, whose programs have trained more than three thousand Cambodian law students and magistrates since 2007, pointed out other signs of sustainability: the rise in participating schools, the hosting of the competitions at the law schools, funding coming from the Cambodian government, and the active involvement of local Khmer lawyers as coaches.

One driver of the schools’ preparation for the competitions is the success the Cambodian teams have had in the international rounds. Three years in a row the Cambodian national team has made it to the semifinals at the English-language world championships, at times advancing further than the United States and the U.K. Back home, the impact of the first semifinal appearance reached all the way to center of government. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen “was invited to the opening of our school's new building,” remembered 2009 National Champion Kanika Tan, “and in his speech he said that we were the pride of the country.”

Competition graduates carry their new skills back into the Cambodian legal profession, and to other public and private sector positions, to reshape the way law is practiced and understood in the country. Last year’s National Champion Vo Vannarith, for example, now works at the Ministry of Environment, while his partner that year, Saing Darareaksmey, has entered the business community working at a Cambodian investment firm.

PRAJ’s other annual law student competition, a Mock Trial tournament, has also generated substantial initiatives – and investment – by Cambodian law schools. Seeking to enhance their students’ relevant skill sets several law schools have established not only internal mock trial competitions, but have added trial advocacy courses to their official curriculum. Because one of the schools modernizing its program in this manner is the Royal University of Law and Economics, which offers the benchmark law program in Cambodia, the gradual adoption of these initiatives by other faculties is inevitable.

Developed with the support of the East-West Management Institute, as well as the American Bar Association, these competition-based legal education programs are part of an array of trainings aimed at introducing the next generation of lawyers to key principles of justice: analytical thinking, legal research, procedural fairness, free legal aid for the poor, and bench and bar ethics. In addition to the successful competitions, these programs have included magistrate training at the Royal Academy of Judicial Professions, several courses taught at the law schools, law student clinics which offer hands-on skills to aspiring lawyers, and the introduction of Cambodia’s first academic law journal.