Introduction to HKU Law Series (V) Dr Benjamin Chen’s sharing

Benjamin Chen is an interdisciplinary legal researcher interested in administrative and judicial processes and institutions. He studies consequentialist reasoning in law and policy, governance by and through courts, and the impact of artificial intelligence on justice and its administration.

Benjamin graduated with a J.D., Order of the Coif, from the University of California, Berkeley where he also received his Ph.D in Jurisprudence and Social Policy. He is admitted to practice in the State of California. In addition to his legal qualifications, Benjamin holds a M.A. in Philosophy from University College London, a M.S. in Applied Mathematics from the Ecole Polytechnique, and a B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago with a minor in Romance Languages and Literatures.

Benjamin is currently also a research affiliate of the ETH Zürich Center for Law and Economics. Before joining the University of Hong Kong, Benjamin was assistant professor in public policy at the National University of Singapore. He was previously an academic fellow and lecturer-in-law at Columbia University in the City of New York and served as a judicial law clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

This article is based on Benjamin’s interview in March 2023, in which he shared his academic research, life experience and advice for scholars. Please click on the video in the article to watch the full interview.

When we asked Dr Chen about his beginnings at HKU, he explained to us that before coming to HKU, he spent a few years in Europe and the United States. What attracted him about HKU is its strategic location in Asia as a perfect academic base to survey developments in China. He was also drawn by the intellectual diversity of HKU, which hosts people from different jurisdictions with different kinds of legal training and different levels of familiarity with various legal traditions. That for him is very exciting, because as a comparative law scholar, he often likes to study legal developments, legal institutions, and how they evolve across jurisdictions.

Regarding the most significant value of HKU Law and its future development, Dr Chen noted that HKU has always been a very important bridge between the East and the West owing to its intellectual diversity. It offers a space for scholars to freely explore and express innovative ideas. He believes that HKU Law will continue to provide such a critical platform for people around the world to converge and to exchange opinions.

Teaching both LLB and LLM programs, Dr Chen has always found his students to be curious, excited, enthusiastic, and keen to absorb new knowledge. A very satisfying part of his job is to be able to answer their questions and to introduce them to the study of law. He often challenges his students to apply the legal rules to new situations and to develop their own perspectives on the law. A big part of the examination is to test students’ ability to be more critical of the rules and to understand the reasons behind them. Dr Chen cherishes the encounter where one student can explain to another a difficult concept in very simple terms, because it shows not only her true understanding of the concept but, more importantly, her willingness to share that knowledge. He expressed that he does not prohibit students from using the new and popular technology of ChatGPT in his classes, and is actually pleased to see this development emerging in the field of legal education and research.

We asked Dr Chen to share with us what it is that has drawn him to his research interest. He explained that part of the reason is his training outside the law. He has been motivated to approach the law from an interdisciplinary perspective by how relevant topics do affect people’s lives. To illustrate this point, Dr Chen told us an interesting story. He was reminded of his passion for administrative law when he took a cab ride and chatted with the taxi driver about the importance of administrative processes. By explaining how administrative agencies make most of the rules, he emphasized the need for laws to ensure that those in power make informed decisions backed by reason. His commitment to this area of study demonstrates a dedication to promoting transparency, accountability, and fairness in government actions.

Dr Chen aims to use social science methods to create legal implications and change how legal rules and doctrines are understood and interpreted. He highlights the value of economics, philosophy, and strategy papers as well as the significance of their potential impact on legal studies. There are some challenges in his day-to-day research, such as limited data availability and unpredictability, which can lead to ambiguous or inconclusive results. Despite these challenges, Dr Chen is committed to his goal of improving legal doctrine drawing from methods within and outside the law, and has learned to accept when the data cannot provide insights into the question at hand.

As his paper will come out soon in the Harvard International Law Journal, Dr Chen explains to us briefly what it is about. The paper, “Without Separation of Powers,” explores the doctrine of separation of powers in different jurisdictions. One important consideration is how this doctrine shapes the functions of courts. People usually argue that without separation of powers, there will be political interference in the courts. But rarely do people consider what useful non-judicial functions courts could take on without this doctrine. To shed light on this, the papers examines the functions of Chinese courts beyond adjudication, such as their quasi-legislative judicial interpretation and use of judicial suggestions. These functions may exceed the separation of powers doctrine in some common law jurisdictions. While the paper does not provide a conclusive argument, it is the starting point for further investigation on the cost of separation of powers and the alternative functions courts could serve in its absence.

Dr Chen also shares with us his experience of doing research. To start a project, all that is needed is an idea. Along the way, the researcher may find that the idea is not as promising as originally thought, or it may turn out to be even better than expected. The crucial factor in beginning a project is the sense that it may be a new or novel phenomenon, or that it may challenge preconceived notions. Collaborative research can be fruitful when co-authors bring unique insights and challenge each other to do better, but over-reliance on each other’s expertise can be risky. For junior scholars, demonstrating the ability to produce independent work is also important. Dr Chen notes that luck plays an important role in getting published, despite the common belief that publication is a sign of merit. The publication process can be influenced by many contingent factors. As for junior scholars, it is essential to focus on finding an interesting topic, making a novel contribution, and executing it as well as possible. A good piece of work will eventually find a home in one of the many reputable journals available.

Dr Chen initiated a conference earlier this year on empirical studies of the Chinese legal system. His interest began during his PhD studies in jurisprudence and social policy at Berkeley, where he made friends interested in Chinese law and institutions. Dr Chen, who was trained in philosophy and mathematics, conducted several experimental studies on the persuasiveness of Chinese courts and received a grant for computational studies on the Chinese legal system. The conference was timely as more researchers were using quantitative methods, regardless of their statistical or econometrics training. Dr Chen invited people critical of quantitative methods to discuss whether they had added anything new to our understanding of the Chinese legal system. The conference succeeded in producing many interesting contributions, and a special issue will be published in the Hong Kong Law Journal to discuss what has been gained and lost through quantitative studies in the Chinese legal field.

We asked Dr Chen to share with us some of his hobbies and what he likes to get up to outside of work. In his off time, Dr Chen would play chess and read books that are not related to his research. In nonfiction, he admires legal philosopher Frederick Schauer from the University of Virginia for his insightful work. Dr Chen also loves football and would play with the university faculty team when he has time.

At the end of our interview, Dr Chen shared with us some advice for young scholars. In academia, rejection is a common experience that may bring one down, and luck plays a significant role in success and is often overlooked. Therefore, if one’s work isn’t recognized, it’s vital not to get too discouraged as it is part of the learning process. It’s crucial to remember the initial reasons for embarking on this path and not lose sight of them amid various career incentives.

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