Over the past six months, as Chair of the American Bar Association, Section of International Law, I’ve traveled to destinations from Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and Ottawa to Istanbul, Rome, Tokyo, London, Budapest, Bogota, and Munich. My experience has been a constant and vibrant engagement with the international legal community on a wide variety of matters. I have had a front row seat to history being made at the conclusion of Colombian peace talks, listened to the personal account of a North Korean dissident, learned about the differences between other legal systems and our own, discussed the changes and challenges occurring in the practice of law, and grappled with impediments to fair and accessible legal systems for all. The Section has proved to be an amazing platform – both from which to support those seeking justice and to work toward a healthy and fair legal system for future generations.
I have had the chance to witness history firsthand. I met with the High Commissioner of Peace and a former constitutional court chief justice of Colombia, just a day after the signing of Colombia’s current peace treaty with guerillas (FARC), which brought an end to 52 years of conflict. I will never forget hearing the powerful testimonials of the challenges of achieving and implementing that peace treaty. What personal courage it took to be directly involved with such a process, knowing that it could mean death to oneself or one’s loved ones – from those wishing to prevent peace, as well as from those on the other side wishing to achieve a different peace! But with more than 220,000 lives lost and approximately 7 million people displaced by the conflict, there was a strong and unanimous conviction to see the conflict end. The Section of International Law expects to provide consultative support in the implementation phase. It was truly my honor to offer that support.
I have had a chance to learn what lives are really like in distant places under different legal systems – to learn how those systems can positively and negatively affect individual’s lives. I met with a North Korean dissident who told her story of fleeing through China, relying on the kindness of strangers and eventually ending up in South Korea. Her unfiltered account gave me a sense of what life would be like in that kind of isolated dictatorship. Her account also helped me understand how difficult life can be to transition into the outside world, after such a brave journey.
I have had a chance to learn about other legal systems. At the Section’s first ever seasonal meeting in Asia – in Tokyo, October 18-21, I learned about other legal systems. One of Japan’s former supreme court justices kindly shared an account of both his time as justice and his take on what makes that court unique. It was my honor to be selected to interview him.
I learned new facts. I had the opportunity to participate as a distinguished guest in the Opening of the Legal Year ceremonies at Westminster Abbey–a wonderful annual ceremony that started in the Middle Ages emphasizing the solemnity of the legal profession and its obligation to seek justice. There I not only met many “bigwigs”, but also learned the actual origin of the word. In case you were wondering, the term “bigwigs” comes from the large wigs worn by Queen’s Counsel and higher court judges in England.
It has also been amazing to have a chance to speak with so many people around the world about the challenges and changes within the practice of law, including examining the way legal services are changing through use of technology and artificial intelligence, and through allowing investment by non-lawyers in legal practice. Although it may seem relevant only to lawyers, it is clear that changes in the delivery of legal services will affect both the legal practice and our clients. For example, if a lawyer and an accountant can practice together, will that help clients because it will be more efficient or will it diminish the perspectives that lawyers and accountants offer by being independent now? Or, perhaps, both? The insights that I have gained from learning how lawyers and bar associations around the world are dealing with such matters are invaluable. By harnessing some of these insights, tools, and best practices, I hope to help my ABA Section colleagues, and Garvey Schubert Barer, consider how we can anticipate–in fact embrace–these changes to bring greater value to our clients in a more efficient way, while continuing to deliver high quality services.
I have also had the opportunity to offer support to attorneys and judges around the world in trying to ensure everyone, everywhere has access to justice and enjoys the rule of law. As you can imagine, that likely will be a never-ending endeavor. Still, it is an endeavor we tackle with ferocity, knowing what an everlasting impact it can have on so many lives. Granted, we have a lot of work to do here in the U.S. to make legal services accessible and to ensure that the law is applied fairly. I am nevertheless increasingly aware of how fortunate we are to be as far along as we are in the process of achieving those objectives. That may be surprising, but when I witness the challenges that lawyers and judges face in so many countries today – including incarceration for offering legal services to the “wrong” people and dealing with corruption at every level of the legal process – I cannot help but be thankful. At the same time, I realize how easily we can let those goals slip away. It takes vigilance, resources and commitment to achieve and maintain a fair and accessible legal system. It is in our interest to work hard to preserve and pursue these longstanding goals at home, and to support those trying to achieve the same thing abroad.
I am really grateful for this opportunity to serve as the Section’s Chair and only hope that I can pass on some of the benefits to my colleagues, clients and friends. Next stop, Miami and then Croatia and Serbia….
The International Practice Group of Garvey Schubert Barer is a cross-disciplinary group of attorneys practicing in areas ranging from business transactions, immigration, maritime, government regulatory work, transportation and logistics, and estate planning. The group members include bilingual and multicultural attorneys who are well-versed in handling these subject matters in a cross-border context. The firm’s attorneys have been actively practicing in the international arena since the early 1970s.