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Innovation in Teaching Law to Engineers, Scientists, and Business Managers in Asia

Innovation in Teaching Law to Engineers, Scientists, and Business Managers in Asia

A unique Challenge of Teaching Law to Engineers, Scientists and Business Managers in Asia

The main purpose of this article is to share insights from more than fifteen (15) years of experience as law lecturer, legal consultant and comparative law expert in Asia.

My mission started in June 2002, as Regional Expert for the Legal Cooperation in the Asean, under the French government’s Regional Cooperation Program. I was, among other things, a Seconded Faculty, with teaching assignments for the School of Management - SOM (future managers) and for the School of Engineering and Technology -SET (future engineers) at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand.

The first and foremost challenge was to explain or to teach fundamental legal concepts of law to future graduates in engineering, science and business, who had no, or very little education in law.

Cultural and Social Aspects

Based on informal investigation with questioning to peers and other lecturers as well as surveys of students and business executives, the reasons of the lack of interest for legal studies and law in Asia, appeared to include, but are not limited to:

  • Culture (Asians do not like arguments and confrontation. The indirect way is always preferred to the direct way).

  • Buddhism teaches harmony, forgiveness and peace instead of confrontation, revenge and winning over others.

  • Power distance (defined as the strength of societal social hierarchy—the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Prof Geert Hofstede's has well defined Power distance with an  Index that measures the extent to which the less powerful members of groups, organizations and institutions accept the dominance of the most powerful.

  • Distrust in justice (disbelief in fairness of access to justice and to the ability of justice to deliver fairness).

  • Education system (legal studies almost only available at Law faculties. Business schools and engineering schools rarely offer legal subjects in their curricula).

  • Mindset (preference for pragmatism and action rather than for, theory and abstraction).

  • Social value of “saving face”.

At the highest level of the administration of Higher education organizations, it was also a big surprise to notice some confusion, or very little interest for Law and the ability to differentiate between fundamental concepts such as “Responsibility”, “Liability” and “accountability”, that have obvious management implications.

Incidently, on many occasions, I have also been “warned” by important and respected members of the Thai society I came across (leaders of organizations and communities, academics, business persons, diplomats) to avoid “thinking or acting too much like a lawyer in Thailand” (sic).

It would have been a mistake to take these social “red flags” lightly. As an African educated in the French legal tradition, the importance of these local issues could not be underestimated for my teaching mission and my work in Asia.

At the same time, the abundant and complex laws in the book, must be put to action in the context of the ASEAN regional integration.

It is a fact that management and decision-making are carried out within regulations and legal frameworks of compliance that might incur directors’ responsibility, accountability and liability, especially in a country like Thailand where directors can bear strict criminal liability for negligence or wrong doing that may only have civil liability consequences under other jurisdictions with the same Civil law background.

Difference in Cognitive Process Between Lawyers and Engineers

Another reason for the lack of interest for legal studies may be the cognitive process which appears to be different, especially for engineers , whose reasoning is totally different from the legal thinking.

For instance, the reasoning process of engineers (especially construction and computer engineers) is done through the concept of “Input” and “Output.”

Why? Engineering is about getting things done. It is generally about building structures and systems for some preconceived purpose, based on the construction and exploitation of designs, abstract or mathematical models.

Engineering is also about solving problems in a practical way. For engineers, the logic that makes sense is the simplification of complexity, thus “Input” and “output”.

Here are two very simple examples of mathematics and science:

  • 2 + 2 = 4.

  • Red color is red.

The video below, published by Abraham Moss Community School (2017), presents a good explanation about “Thinking like an engineer”.

For lawyers on the other hand, the mathematical result of 2+2 = 4 can be challenged. The perception of “Red” can also be given another qualification and purpose than chromatography (the science of colors) refers it to (example, “Red Book” as a standard form of contract).

That is why “thinking like lawyers” is much more complex and sophisticated. Lawyers do no use “input” and “output” to guide their thinking. They use syllogism, induction, deductions and analogy.

This process appears to create complications out of situations that may appear simple to most ordinary people.

Does Asian preference for “Thinking like engineers” give a hint about why Asia has achieved development success, compared to sub Saharan Africa, where education in social science (law, philosophy, literature and administration) is pursued?

The correlation between engineering / science education and successful development is a very important topic that will be discussed in another article.

Lawyers thinking can be summarized in three main elements:

  • Ability to challenge facts or what appears as evidence

  • To be able to dispute anything

  • Capability to challenge the meanings, interpretations and definitions

Here is an interesting video about how lawyers think by Andrew Seagal (2018).

To be able to pass the legal message to non-lawyers for my teaching mission in Asia, I had no other choice than to adjust my own cognitive approach and to adapt the traditional law teaching methodology

Simplification and pragmatism became necessary. To our knowledge, this approach of dealing with legal concepts by using the “input” and “output” method, is quite innovative.

In order to effectively bridge the gap between legal teaching and engineering, science and management it was also important to better understand the dynamics of law, fairness and justice.

The Dynamics of Law, Fairness and Justice

There is widespread misconception in the public about law, fairness and justice.

Indeed, most people believe that when they are in their own right - and probably they are- It means that  they will win their case in the Court, which is not always true and can be very disappointing.

The output of a trial may not be compatible with the input in the judicial process. Moreover, depending on the applicable law, the same case may have a totally different result from one jurisdiction (say Thailand) to another (say Singapore).

One might be a victim of a breach of contract or suffer abuse of dominant position and still not have the well-deserved justice served in court.

The Relativity of Justice : A Case-study: Copyright vs Trademark (Singapore - Thailand)

The example presented below illustrates how a case can have different outcomes in different countries for different reasons.

A trademark registered in good faith as a collaborative creation within a disputed Consulting Agreement, was invalidated in Singapore, by the other Party, based on a simple claim of copyright (the claimant of the invalidation paid for the logo based on inputs provided by the Defendant).

The same trademark which was also registered in Thailand by the Defendant in the case before the Singapore Court, is still valid and gives absolute rights protected by Intellectual Property law (Criminal and civil law protection).

In other words, in Thailand, trademark rights prevail over copyright. Therefore the outcome in Singapore (same case, same parties involved) would be unthinkable in Thailand.

  • See Hight Court of the Republic of Singapore Case No. HC/OS 584/2018

    Lange Communicatios Pte Vs. Roland Amoussou-Guenou

The lesson learned from this case is that seeking justice must be done very carefully, bearing in mind the particulars of the legal tradition and specific rules of procedures applicable to the subject matter, within the said jurisdiction, as explained by the article below.

Should I Copyright or Trademark My Logo?

The output of a trial may not be compatible with the input to the judicial process and aspects of procedure, including but not limited to rules of evidence. Being right is a subjective perception, Having justice is an objective outcome. These are two different things.

The Legal Battle and “War” Analogy (Legal Risk Management)
A legal battle can be compared to a non-lethal war.

To win, one must know the dynamics of the battle, have effective weapons, be skilled in using the weapons, have a good strategy and know how to apply and change tactics in action according to circumstances. 

Unfortunately, access to justice to the wronged person or victim, can be denied by various obstacles such as the cost (money).

Engaging in costly litigation by the party who can afford it can easily weaken or cripple the party who does not have the resources for a battle where one of the parties must be declared the “winner”.

In the Asian context, losing in court means much more than not winning. It is “losing face” as already mentioned above.

Justice may be denied for many reasons not under the control of the person seeking justice. That is why seeking justice, especially in business, must be done from the view point of careful legal risk management.

There are many Asian proverbs, discouraging reference to court to resolve disputes.

It is better to enter a Tiger’s mouth than to enter a court of justice (Chinese proverb)
When starting a legal dispute in court, prepare two graves (Chinese proverb)

New Approach to teaching law

In the end, in trying to answer the question about how to teach law to engineers and how to factor “Input” and “output” in the thinking process, it appeared clearly that lawyers and engineers have different cognitive systems due to the way they process information and data to resolve problems. 

For ordinary people, lawyers tend to make simple  things look “complicated” and “costly” to non-lawyers, while engineers tend to make complicated things appear “simple” and “cost-effective” to everyone.

From this conclusion, we were able to successfully adapt the traditional way of teaching law and to communicate legal concepts and legal principles by using the engineering methodology, especially in the subjects of responsibility, liability and contract law. 

Practical Application

Based on our approach, for practical application, “Input” in the legal perspective would be defined as a combination of “facts” and law, while “Output” would be understood as the legal consequences of actions or wrong doing in terms of "responsibility” and “liability”. 

From that perspective, “Input” may vary and carry different significance depending of their qualification, under criminal law, tort law or civil or commercial law. 

Based on criminal law and tort law, “input” may lead to criminal liability (criminal punishment) or civil liability (obligation to compensate a damage caused to a third party). 

Under the law of obligations (Civil and Commercial law), a simple “Agreement” would involve an offer and an acceptance with consideration or “cause” depending on the legal system (Common Law of Civil law).

Complex agreements involving government agencies would require an invitation to submit an offer (public procurement or bidding). 

On the other hand, a contract will be understood as the process that goes from negotiation to a written agreement that can be legally enforced. 

It is interesting to note that some professional organizations, such as the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) have adopted the simplified approach by creating contract obligations in construction with various colors depending on the allocation of responsibility or liability among the parties involved:

  • Red Book (Design by the Employer work by contractor)

  • Yellow Book (Mechanical and engineering works)

  • Orange Book (Design and Build)

  • Silver Book (Engineering Procurement and Construction)

For those interested by the “engineering appproach” of FIDIC to law and contract in construction work, the resource below is very informative.

Which FIDIC Contract Should I Use?


Our new approach can appear as a “game” of playing around with acronyms. It can be summarized as below:

  • INPUT = Fact + Law (FL)

  • OUTPUT = Responsibility + Liability (RL)

  • RESPONSIBILITY can be summarized by WDWWH (“Who” does “What”, “When” and “How”?)

  • LIABILITY can be summarized by: WPWWHMW (“Who” pays “What”, “Why”, “How Much” and “When”?)

  • COMPLIANCE can be summarized by: WRRCA (“What” rules and regulations are compulsory for accountability?) 

  • AGREEMENT = Offer + Acceptance (OA)

  • NEGOTIATION OF AGREEMENT can be summarized by: WIMI (“What” is my “Interest”?) or WITC (“What” is the “Consideration”?)

  • CONTRACT= written agreement (WA) 

We would like to conclude this article with a short video on a key concept of law which is also discussed in accounting and finance, ie., the concept of legal liability. 

  • In future articles, we will cover other legal topics based on our experience about teaching law and practicing law in Asia

    Please do not hesitate to send us comments, questions or just share your views about this article.

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