First-hand impressions from one of the top 20 Law Schools in the U.S.
Prof. Del Valle is a Colombian (South America) lawyer who had the fortune of studying an LLM program at Washington University St. Louis School of Law, working in the U.S. for a local firm, being head of immigration and senior counsel for one of the biggest audit firms in the world, being the legal head for more than 7 countries for multinational companies, and is now being able to share with students who are entering a complicated world.
Elettra Prati graduated in 2020. The Negotiation and Dispute Resolution LL.M. program at Washington University prepared her for a variety of career paths both in the United States and Europe. Since she finished her LLM, she is far more skilled, conscious and marketable as a result of her added degree.
Ms. Prati, you finished your studies at Washington University School of Law in May 2020. Were you committed to study at this University from the beginning and why did you choose the major Negotiation and Dispute Resolution for your LL.M.?
Elettra Prati: I decided to enroll in Washington University from day one of my undergraduate studies. I have always heard about how great the university was under an academic perspective and, after discussing with a few students who had already finished their Master at WashU, I knew it was the right place for me.
I chose the major in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution because I didn’t know anything about those topics besides being focused on practical skills, and I wanted to challenge myself with a completely new study experience.
Washington University School of Law is one of the top 20 U.S. law schools – how did you experience your first weeks studying at Washington University School of Law and are there any courses that you would highlight as particularly useful and rewarding?
Elettra Prati: To be honest, the first weeks at Washington University have been pretty tough. We immediately dove into the thick of the academic year by participating in courses and weekend classes with both American and international students. I was so excited and fascinated by the teaching method used by American professors, and that enthusiasm allowed me to quickly adapt to the different study method.
All the courses were really rewarding, but I believe that the most useful and insightful ones have been Mediation and Multi-party Negotiation. Those courses were both taught by incredible professors who succeeded not only in making us passionate about the subjects, but also in making us learn in depth techniques that will be extremely useful in our professional but also personal path.
What was the professional and personal mentoring like at Washington University and how were you able to benefit from it, especially regarding your further career path?
Elettra Prati: Being foreign students, the university tried to meet our needs from day one through a careful mentoring and by allowing us to develop important connections. The staff and professors are all extremely helpful and I can assure you that you are carefully looked after throughout the year.
The professors in particular value a direct approach with the students, trying to deepen their knowledge outside the classroom. Not only the professors, but also American students themselves try to assist and help international students. Through the university support and guidance, I managed to make many useful connections that allowed me not only to find a summer internship at a law firm in St. Louis, but also to lay the groundwork for my possible future return to the States.
Prof. Del Valle, you are the director of international programs and lecturer in law. Before your time at Washington University School of Law you worked as a professor of law in Colombia. Why did you choose to teach law at Washington University and what do you value most about working and teaching at this University?
Prof. Del Valle: Back in 2009, being a Colombian lawyer, I had the amazing opportunity of coming to WashULaw to study my LLM degree in U.S. Law. After graduation, I had the opportunity of working for a law firm here in St. Louis and then working for multiple U.S. clients in Latin America and occupying important roles within multinational companies for several countries in the world.
An initiative to teach other individuals in one of those organizations, allowed me to realize I wanted to teach others what I had learned both from my academic experience (which included Harvard University, University of Windsor, and others) and I decided to dedicate myself to that activity.
I finally chose WashULaw as the place I wanted to teach for many, many reasons: The incredible organization it is, being able to share my knowledge and experience with students from around the world, the excellent faculty that makes part of the university and law school, St. Louis magic, and the fact that I could re-live the indescribable emotion of being part of one of the best universities in the world.
Which programs are available at the School of Law, how did they change until now and what are the main points that the education at Washington University focuses on?
Prof. Del Valle: Throughout time, WashULaw has been very open to adapt to the growing needs of global-oriented law practitioners. This is perhaps one of the aspects that I most value from WashU. Law schools tend to be very traditional worldwide and finding one that is open to adaptation to the world’s needs is rather rare.
Currently, the law school offers international students Masters degrees (LLMs) in US Law, Intellectual Property and Technology Law, Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, and a general LLM. Additionally, there’s an option of obtaining, within any of the LLM programs, Certificates in specific areas that include, besides the aforementioned, International Law, Business & Corporate Law, and Tax Law. It is kind of a way to obtain two degrees out of one.
WashULaw also offers the JSD program (Doctoral Degree) for individuals who seek to strengthen their research abilities in law-related areas. Top-tier professors, judges, and others have been part of this program.
Finally, it is important to share that WashULaw understands that individuals who come from a law un-related discipline can and must strengthen their skills and knowledge in law and that is why the law school offers the Masters in Legal Studies programs, where such candidates are able to have access to one of the best legal education programs in the planet. I personally love the MLS program because it brings diverse experiences and interests into our class sessions, enriching every single lecture.
Focus is always on offering the knowledge and experience that each individual is seeking for within the chosen program. This might sound complicated, but when having a wide openness to offer a rich set of courses, practical subprograms, and true interaction between the whole community, the task becomes simple and very beneficial to the students.
„Throughout time, WashULaw has been very open to adapt to the growing needs of global-oriented law practitioners. This is perhaps one of the aspects that I most value from WashU. “
How do professors, especially you, interact and cooperate with students and how can you support them with their studies?
Prof. Del Valle: I have a very close and personal relationship with my students. I am convinced that there is a mutualism in between students and professors. A good class is not about the professor, I think that stage is way past. Are students engaged? Are students finding the information useful? How can I take my course towards what students are looking for? Those are the questions I ask myself every day.
Open communication and willingness to work with each and every concern is the key. General common sense sees 1 professor versus 30 students. That is totally wrong. We are 31 in a course, where success depends on our interaction. There wouldn’t be a professor if it weren’t for the students.
Additionally, specially for our international students who do not have English as their first language (my case when I was a student), we have multiple tools, aids, and collaborators available to help with a paper, with a difficult issue, with proper understanding of lectures, etc.
Ms. Prati, you were the Representative of international students for the Student Bar Association (SBA) at Washington University. How could you help fellow students in this position and what experiences have you gained from this?
Elettra Prati: Through my position as Representative of international students I tried to create a platform for encouragement of open confrontation between international and American students. Being a foreign student myself, I experienced the many difficulties for non-American students in finding summer internships and post-degree occupations.
For this reason, I worked to help the SBA in setting up events for international students that would simplify the search for recruiting US law firms and the networking process. Working closely with other American students already involved in the SBA definitely allowed me to bring this insightful experience and all the take-aways I drew from it back to my Italian university.
Since you study in Italy you have already faced a different law system. In your opinion, what are the most striking legal but also cultural differences?
Elettra Prati: The Italian and American legal system could not be less alike, since the Italian is based on a Civil Law system which refers to written codes, while the American one is based on a Common Law system which focuses on legal precedents. The approach to legal studies also differs in a lot of ways.
American universities aim to get students to approach the practice of law immediately, through substantial research, many written assignments throughout the year, and a Socratic teaching method which requires a lot of student participation during classes.
On the other hand, Italian universities are focused on the in-depth acquisition of the theoretical aspects of law, while postponing practice to a later date, usually the beginning of the working career.
I believe the main difference is the extremely competitive approach I perceived in American universities, a competitiveness that does not emerge in the Italian system. Cultures are inevitably different, but I also believe that these differences tend to thin out once you finish your studies and dive into the world work.
Speaking of cultural differences. How did you experience the student community in St. Louis, especially the contact with other international exchange students and what was student life like for you?
Elettra Prati: St. Louis’s student community is extremely helpful and welcoming to international students. I have been very lucky in finding amazing American and international exchange students who have accompanied me from the first to the last day of this wonderful journey, and who are still part of my life as we have been keeping in touch.
Despite a significant study load, my student life at Washington University has been full of "out of the classroom" experiences. I certainly spent half of the time studying in the amazing school’s library, but the other half was filled with events and recreational activities with other students.
Throughout the year there have been numerous networking events, meetings with the SBA every Thursday night at a different bar in the city, parties including the Halloween one and the Barrister’s Ball at the St. Louis art museum and many other opportunities to meet. I really couldn't have wished for anything better from a social life standpoint at Washington University.
Prof. Del Valle, Washington University is conveniently located in the center of the U.S. in St. Louis, known as the “Gateway to the West”. In your eyes, what defines working or studying and living in St. Louis?
Elettra Prati: I strongly believe that the perfect environment for working, studying, and living is one where you have access to everything you need but without having to deal with impossible traffic, loudness, and other related issues that come with big cities.
I have found in St. Louis precisely the perfect equilibrium for me and my familys, where we can always have fun and enjoy the beautiful settings and activities the city has to offer, and where we can focus in our daily activities without worrying about long or busy commutes.
One special feature about the St. Louis community is its welcoming and warmth with international students. Boosted by the huge number of foreign students that Washington University as a whole receives every year, all the surrounding community has well adapted to different cultures, allowing individuals that come from abroad, like me, to feel home from day 1 in this area. That is why I am still here.
There are over 150 international students from around the world. What are your main obligations as the director of international programs and what are after your opinion the main benefits of studying abroad at Washington University?
Prof. Del Valle: I would say that my main duty as the Director of International Programs is helping individuals like me, who had a dream, to make it come true. I remember that I was choosing in between several law schools 12 years ago and I have to say that my everyday goal is to allow amazing students from around the world make the correct decision when deciding on a law degree in the U.S., where investment, academic quality, networking opportunities, fun, and of course future, are all variables:
Those are questions that I want applicants to think of. The answer for all these questions is yes at WashULaw.
What is expected of applicants who want to study at Washington University School of Law and what is the biggest challenge for foreign students according to you?
Prof. Del Valle: We consider every single applicant, regarding of objective criteria that may be the only one taken into account on other application processes. We care about a student’s history, ability, and willingness.
In the application process we always strive to learn about our applicants, not to discard them but rather to know them and determine whether our programs are fit to fulfill their goals.
Our application, which by the way is free, allows us to advise applicants on ways to strengthen their skills before starting their program. Such personal contact and interest is aimed at guiding our international applicants in the difficult decision of defining the next step in their lives.
Challenges for every single applicant to a program in the United States start with language, following a different legal system, different teaching method, culture, feeling welcomed, and of course, investment. Enrolling a program that cares about your English skills level, not to reject you but to help you increase it, trains you in the expectancies of the educational system, is highly diverse, and considers each applicant’s financial situation, is what will make the difference and what makes me proud of expressing that WashULaw will provide with solutions for all of those issues.
International students take 90% of their classes with American peers from the J.D. programs. How does this influence the intellectual and cultural atmosphere and are there other programs for international students outside of the class?
Prof. Del Valle: This is one of the reasons why I chose WashULaw as a student. If you think of an independent program for international students, that is, no contact with JD students, then you will end up with a narrower offer in courses, different professors, an academic content created just for international students, and in the end, lower academic quality that will be unfair not only with your efforts and investment, but also known by potential employers.
At WashULaw, the possibility of truly being a part of what the law school has to offer, allows you to plan your path according to your interests, choose from multiple courses, learning from top-U.S. faculty, and building networking and relationship with U.S. students. This is not a feature to fear of but is rather an amazing benefit that will shape a student’s future.
Ms. Prati, you were also a Member of the Representation in Mediation (RIM) Team and the Finalist of the Client Counseling Competition. Could you please describe these activities closer and how were these able to help you in your further career?
Elettra Prati: The Client Counseling Competition is an internal university competition among law students that is designed to evaluate the team's ability to secure effective counseling for a client in a needy situation. The Representation in Mediation Competition in a national competition among law schools which assesses the team's ability to conduct an effective, useful, and collaborative mediation with counterparts (the other team).
I was able to join the team and make it to the finals of both the competitions and these experiences have been a huge takeaway for me and my future career development. Through the intensive training for the RIM competition I have acquired a number of practical skills and mediation techniques that will surely be useful to me in the long term, but which already this year have proven to be fundamental in enabling me to be selected in the mediation team of the University of Trento and participate in the 16th ICC Mediation Competition in Paris.
„More importantly, studying at Washington University made me realize which kind of professional career I want to pursue and gave me the chance to make real and long-lasting connections.“
What made studying at Washington University particularly memorable for you?
Elettra Prati: I started this experience with real high expectations, and I couldn’t be prouder of my choice. This year in St. Louis has been an incredible opportunity for my personal and professional growth.
More importantly, studying at Washington University made me realize which kind of professional career I want to pursue and gave me the chance to make real and long-lasting connections. I am confident that I will carry with me the students, professors and people I met for the rest of my life.
Prof. Del Valle: We all do not have our professional live figured out. And we get nervous. But my view is that we need to be open and taking steps into programs that will open our eyes and allow us to freely study what we’re interested in, while feeling supported and having role examples that may show us the way. I found all that at WashU and that is perhaps why I’m back here now, helping others accomplish even more than I have.
Elettra Prati: This LL.M. at Washington University allowed me not only to discover an academic and cultural reality that I did not know and appreciate it thoroughly, but also to bring back home these new discoveries and apply them to my personal and professional career development.
Thank you, Prof. Del Valle and Elettra Prati!
Any questions? Here you can find the contact person of WashU