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Matthew Erie ’08 on His Unconventional Road to Comparative Law

August 12, 2022

The following post has been adapted from a discussion on May 31, 2022, with Matthew Erie L’08, Associate Professor, Member of the Law Faculty, and Associate Research Fellow of the Socio-Legal Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Matthew Erie L’08 admits that when he began law school, his interests were “idiosyncratic.” But that’s only to be expected from someone trained in anthropology, who learns to view the world unconventionally.

“I approached law school in an unusual way,” Erie said, “in that I was looking particularly at comparative law, interdisciplinary law, and social sciences, but partly through the academic lens.”

“I thought it was wonderful that I was not just able to pursue those interests at Penn, I was really encouraged to do so,” he noted. “I was very fortunate to meet and study under professors like Sarah Barringer Gordon [Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and Professor of History], Bill Burke-White [Professor of Law], Eric Feldman [Heimbold Chair in International Law, Professor of Law and Professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy], Gideon Parchomovsky [Robert G. Fuller, Jr. Professor of Law], and of course, Jacques deLisle [Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law & Professor of Political Science], who was a huge inspiration to me.”

An Unconventional Law School Journey

Not surprisingly, his path through the Law School was as unconventional as his interests.

He was intrigued by Asian law and jumped in to help with a journal that was just getting off the ground: Chinese Law and Policy Review.

“It was the first bilingual academic journal on Chinese law: English and Chinese,” Erie said. “We translated every article. It was a huge amount of work.”

“We quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be sustainable, and that’s why we transitioned to the English-only version, East Asia Law Review, now the Asian Law Review. It taught me a lot about academic journals, which I think is so important in academia.”

He also set up a new organization on campus, the Chinese Legal Studies Association. “One of the goals of that association,” he said, “was to try to create more opportunities for the Chinese students to interact with non-Chinese students.”

“There’s a propensity for foreign students — from China or wherever — to stay together, and that’s probably not what you want to do when you’re studying abroad for the year,” he continued. Instead, “you want to interact as much as you can with people who are from outside your country, not just for language acquisition and networking, but because years after the degree, those relationships and interactions are going to define the experience at Penn.”

“In the shadow of the U.S.–China trade war, cross-cultural understanding is imperative to improve the most important relationship in the world,” he added.

Meanwhile, Erie was hearing about a new study abroad partnership that Penn had just established with Tsinghua Law School. “Jacques deLisle got me interested,” he related.

Erie decided to study for a full year there, which took him off the “normal” educational track and extended his law school experience by a semester — but also allowed him to earn an LLM degree from Tsinghua.

“My sense is that sometimes law students feel that the path of least resistance is the way to go, and that convention is the route to pursue,” Erie observed. “But I thought [a year abroad at Tsinghua] was an amazing opportunity. It was, without question, everything I was looking for and more.”

While at Tsinghua for the year, Erie worked as a law clerk in the Beijing office of Paul Hastings LLP. “I enjoyed my time there tremendously,” Erie said. “Everything felt fresh, it felt nascent, it felt energetic. Fundamental legal developments were happening at that time. For example, the 2008 labor contract law was just coming out, so we were advising clients on the very first contracts that were going to be compliant with that new law.”

Building Post–Law School Experiences

After receiving his JD and LLM, Erie conducted fieldwork in northwestern China for almost two years. He conducted long-term ethnographic research with ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim minorities, and the practice of their law (sharia), as he worked toward his PhD in anthropology from Cornell University.

“I’m interested in people’s experiences, in the meanings that people derive from the law,” Erie Chinese Muslims (Hui) celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Linxia, China, from Matthew Erie's PhD dissertat... Chinese Muslims (Hui) celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Linxia, China, from Matthew Erie's PhD dissertation fieldwork said. “And I think that you can only get at that through engaging directly with people — through interviews, but also through what anthropologists call ‘participant observation’, which means that you spend time in a community interacting on a day-to-day basis. Though labor-intensive, there is, in my mind, no other research methodology that comes close to gleaning the quality of data that participation observation affords, based on those kinds of everyday interaction.”

When his fieldwork was completed, Erie transitioned to working as an associate in the New York office of Paul Hastings LLP, his Beijing employer.

“I was writing my dissertation at the same time,” he said. “I was working in the office until 10 p.m., then I would get home, caffeinate, and work [on the dissertation] for another four or five hours. Those were challenging days, but I really wanted to finish that degree.”

“I’m not sure that I’d recommend that any student follow in my footsteps in doing that,” he said wryly. “But it did allow me to advance the academic side of my training while practicing law.”

It also gave Erie the opportunity to compare experiences with different offices in the same firm.

“In Beijing,” he said, “I was working on a bricolage of topics, mainly corporate and real estate, but also some employment matters. Then, when I was in New York, I was slotted into the real estate practice. It was fascinating to compare the two offices, because even though it was the same law firm, there were very different cultures.”

Working in the New York office allowed Erie to connect with the firm’s office in Washington, D.C., which was involved in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) litigation. “Because I had studied the Chinese language, I was able to do some due diligence for them and work on some FCPA matters, which was a highlight for me,” he recalled.

Based on his experiences, Erie advises today’s students to “get exposure to multiple offices, because I think that can create a robust professional profile that can be advantageous whether you’re on the transactional side or the dispute resolution side. Having that cross-jurisdictional experience is very much an asset.”

The Transition to Academia

In 2013, with his PhD complete, Erie moved fully into academia. He taught at New York University School of Law in both New York and Shanghai, and he is now a tenured Associate Professor, Member of the Law Faculty, and Associate Research Fellow of the Socio-Legal Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Erie continues to examine Chinese law in the context of its social and cultural structures. Matthew Erie (bottom row, 3rd from left) with his students in the Chinese Business Law class at t... Matthew Erie (bottom row, 3rd from left) with his students in the Chinese Business Law class at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, Lahore University of Management Sciences (Pakistan)

In his current research, he is “exploring how China is shaping international law and potentially affecting the internal domestic orders of states that receive Chinese capital, mainly through investment, but also to some extent through aid, particularly in the Global South.”

The multi-year cross-disciplinary project, funded by the European Research Council, is trying to shift the conversation away from the traditional Euro-American perspective.

“Much that we know about Chinese law and Chinese governance comes out of the Global North — the UK, Europe, and the U.S. in particular,” Erie said. “I think there’s so much that we can do to expand that knowledge, to destabilize it, maybe to challenge it, by learning about China from the perspective of those in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.”

The project is entering its final year, and with the challenges of the pandemic and political upheaval, Erie and his research team have had to adapt by building out a transnational network of nearly 50 researchers based in host states throughout the world, establishing virtual data-collection techniques, and making the most of any opportunities to travel.

For the academic year 2022–2023, Erie will be visiting at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law and continuing to conduct fieldwork in Asia.

“This research is something that we hope will carry forward beyond the five years of the project to carve out a new area in the study of Chinese law,” he said.

The project has implications for U.S. programs in legal development, rule of law, and democracy assistance overseas.

“One thing that we’ve learned,” Erie noted, “is that China is committed to many of these countries in the Global South. They’re in it for the long duration. This is in contrast to the U.S., where often you have projects in very short cycles.”

The United States could improve its outcomes, he continued, by observing China’s “close appreciation for local needs and oftentimes for local politics [in the Global South]. That’s not to say that the Chinese approach is particularly successful at the end of the day, or that it doesn’t have its own problems. It does. But nonetheless, there’s an opportunity to learn there.”

Erie was recently named a Wilson Center China Fellow, which he hopes will give him the opportunity to share some of his research project’s findings with policy makers in Washington, D.C.

A Mission for U.S. Law Schools and International Organizations

Erie also sees a space for U.S. law schools in the conversation.

“There’s a lot of value to add in terms of helping other countries develop their own legal education programs,” he said. “U.S. law schools have been involved in rule-of-law programs, legal-aid clinics — and that approach should continue, but it should be fine-tuned to the reality on the ground.”

This, he feels, is part of a wider mission for law schools in the United States.

Matthew Erie (right) at a roundtable discussion at the Center for Transnational Legal Studies, Lo... Matthew Erie (right) at a roundtable discussion at the Center for Transnational Legal Studies, London“Comparative law is fantastically important because even if there are dimensions of deglobalization, it’s nonetheless a globalized world. Our students today need to get exposure to multiple legal systems and have that comparative background. Otherwise, we are stuck in a kind of navel-gazing, and that perspective only exacerbates nationalism and protectionism.”

“International trade and investment, transnational litigation and dispute resolution, and multi-jurisdictional compliance are all vibrant areas that students can focus on,” Erie continued. “Currently, there is a ‘domestic law turn’ in many U.S. law schools, and that’s for understandable reasons, but we neglect international and comparative law to our own detriment.”

He feels that the study of China, and Asia more generally, is vital. “In my ideal curriculum,” he said, “it would be almost mandatory for a student to have some exposure at some level to what’s happening in Asia. It’s so fundamental …  [and] in the long term, it not only benefits the United States writ large, but also U.S. law students.”

Erie’s work with the American Society of International Law (ASIL) as co-chair of the Asia-Pacific Interest Group is one way in which he tries to create pathways for dialogue.

“We have something like 200 members globally — academics, practitioners, people in the think-tank world and government service.”

Among the Asia-Pacific Interest Group’s recent initiatives are a wide-ranging webinar series, a newsletter updating international law developments in the region, and an interview series with experts discussing a specific topic. These projects aim to build a community that can add value to important conversations that are happening in the field.

Erie encourages students to become involved with organizations like ASIL.

“Whether it’s with an academic organization or a professional organization,” he said, “these are important opportunities to learn from experts and to expand your network.”

He also counsels them to build experiences and strengthen language learning by working in other countries — or, if that isn’t possible, by working with U.S. firms that have an international practice.

It’s an approach that can open up new — and unconventional — ways of thinking.

Learn more about opportunities to engage internationally at Penn Carey Law.