Pulling Their Weight

Thanks to the International Senior Lawyers Project, Law School graduates with considerable professional experience are able to make an impact in developing nations around the globe

By Ken Stier

Winter 2010

The seeds for the legal adventure Richard Spencer ’69 recently experienced in Mongolia were planted in 2001 during a torrential rainstorm in Darhad Valley near the Russian border, where he was befriended by a group of nomadic herders—but he would not know this until some five years later. That is when Spencer contacted the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), a global pro bono organization founded by a group of public service–minded lawyers aiming to marry two trends: the vast need throughout the developing world for highly skilled legal assistance, and the swelling ranks of experienced attorneys, near or at retirement, who want to stay professionally active.

Initially, ISLP staff offered Spencer an assignment in India. “I thought about it,” he says, “but concluded that, as a country lawyer from Maine, I would not have the slightest idea how to have any impact on a country with a billion people.”

Undeterred, ISLP Executive Director Jean Berman called back a year later with an offer to work on environmental issues in Mongolia, where rivers were being polluted by unregulated mining triggered by the collapse of the economy after the Soviet Union’s downfall. Contamination of rivers and aquifers was making herding increasingly difficult and had driven thousands of traditional herders to the already overcrowded capital city of Ulan Bator.

This offer was more appealing to Spencer, who, as an attorney with Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon, cut his professional teeth during the 1970s-era environmental movement. Plus, Spencer fondly recalled his 2001 holiday to Mongolia, and the warm hospitality of the herders who sheltered him in their yurt. Through a skilled translator, he had traded stories with his hosts while waiting out the storm. After learning Spencer was a lawyer representing Maine dairy farmers, the herders asked him to return and help them with an array of challenges—legal and otherwise—that they faced on a daily basis. “[At the time], I couldn’t quite imagine how that would happen,” Spencer says.

The second phone call from ISLP provided his answer and set the stage for Spencer to spend four months working in Ulan Bator with the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), a small public interest organization that would become a leading player in Mongolia’s nascent environmental movement.

Spencer arrived as an ISLP volunteer just as mining damage to the environment was rising to the top of the national agenda. (Yurts would soon sprout on the national parliament grounds, housing herdsmen on a hunger strike.) Soon he was helping lead strategic litigation workshops for advocates hoping to protect the rivers.

Then, on a six-day tour into the Gobi Desert, Spencer witnessed the environmental devastation for himself. In what could have doubled for a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, hundreds of unregulated “ninja miners,” carrying green wash tubs and children on their backs, stood in freezing cold water and used highly toxic mercury to separate out gold from gravel. He also visited an area where the Ongi River had dried up as a result of climate change, deforestation, and mining near the headwaters.

Back in the capital, Spencer used a moot court exercise to teach his CHRD colleagues potential strategies for contesting a request by the country’s largest mining company for a license to excavate a river bed for gold. Passions on the issue were already high; a few months earlier, local herders had formed a human chain to block company dredgers before police intervened.

One of Spencer’s proudest career moments, he says, was when a Mongolian judge agreed to invalidate that mining license. It was a victory celebrated with vodka and fermented horse milk.

Soon after, Spencer helped CHRD renegotiate two additional mining licenses to protect “special-needs areas” containing dinosaur bones, rare plants, and the remains of a Mongolian royal compound. Before heading home to Maine, he gathered an array of best mining practices from around the world, helping to inspire a new environmental coalition that successfully lobbied for mining law amendments.

Richard Spencer’s work in Mongolia provides just one example of the mission undertaken by ISLP, which last year deployed 57 volunteers to work on 76 projects in 22 countries from Afghanistan to Zambia. That level of activity marked a 50 percent increase from the previous year and reflects a growing interest in global pro bono work among baby boomer–generation lawyers reaching retirement age. In monetary terms, ISLP volunteers and their law firms donated 30,800 hours of legal assistance last year worth more than $12.5 million.

In several African nations, ISLP volunteers have trained government officials to craft intellectual property laws and negotiate better trade deals with international partners. In Bulgaria, ISLP sent a veteran public defender to launch the country’s first public defense training project, and in China, the organization has focused on the juvenile justice system. Elsewhere, ISLP has set up websites and funded lawyer-bloggers to cover important international court cases, such as the trial of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

Volunteers work on discrete legal issues, but also strive to develop the capacity of locals, lawyers, and nonprofit organizations to meet specific community needs—which can run the gamut from human rights litigation to developing advanced dispute-resolution procedures. Participating lawyers are carefully chosen for relevant skills and often make an incalculable difference in their host countries, even when challenged with significant language and cultural barriers.

The genesis of ISLP can be traced to a 1999 lunch between Anthony Essaye and Robert Kapp, two wizened Washington, D.C.–based international lawyers with activist track records. Approaching retirement age, the two yearned to stay active and make a global impact. They recruited cofounder Richard Winfield, a media law specialist and a lecturer-in-law at Columbia whose firm, Clifford Chance, has hosted ISLP, rent-free, in its New York City offices since the organization opened its doors in 2001.

Winfield’s contributions have been mostly in the realm of media law reform, first in East and Central European countries as they emerged from Soviet domination, and more recently in the Middle East. “[These countries] are not likely to become Jeffersonian democracies any time soon,” says Winfield, who spent more than three decades as general counsel for The Associated Press. But he is confident that even limited media reforms are having some positive impact. “We wouldn’t be doing this stuff if we didn’t believe there was improvement, that there was progress, and that this is a valuable service that we offer,” he adds. “And you can’t beat our rates, either.”

In recent years, Africa has emerged as a sort of pro bono ground zero for ISLP, especially places like Malawi and Zambia, where people need help negotiating better trade deals and devising more favorable natural resources contracts. In Liberia, the organization has spearheaded nearly a dozen development projects. There, ISLP lawyers renegotiated a rubber agreement with Firestone and an iron ore mining agreement with steel behemoth ArcelorMittal that together will yield the nation a net gain of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few decades.

ISLP’s achievements have triggered a flood of requests to work similar wonders for countries such as Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Brian Fix ’68, a partner at Salans and an ISLP volunteer who had done legal work in West Africa since the 1960s, is now helping Sierra Leone improve its standing in contracts involving diamond mines (once the source of the infamous “blood diamonds” that fueled that country’s civil war). While it is early in that process, Fix notes that these contract revisions are raising the bar throughout the region. “There is now more of an effort to compare government policies and analogous contract terms within the African continent,” he says.

The World Bank has also taken notice of ISLP’s work and asked the organization to review foreign contracts exploiting methane gas at the bottom of Lake Kivu, which is shared by the Congo and Rwanda. The gas could be used to power turbines to make electricity, a vital goal in Rwanda, where only 6 percent of people have access to electric power.

“[The agreements] were terrible, very unfair to the Rwandans,” says ISLP attorney Stephen W. Stein ’62, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren. Stein and his fellow ISLP volunteers drew up a legal memo explaining the contract deficiencies and how they could be addressed. As a result, the Rwanda Ministry of Infrastructure asked the ISLP team to work with them on drafting new contracts—recently signed—for the construction of a power-generating plant that will more than double the number of citizens in Rwanda with access to electricity.

Improvements along those lines are no accident, either. Columbia Law School Professor Peter Rosenblum ’92 LL.M., who has been active in an array of human rights issues in Africa for 20 years, says he gets more traction when he teams up with ISLP lawyers. “People like me are used to being the kind of goody-goody at the table, and when the real people who make the economic decisions come in, you [often] got pushed aside,” he says. “But the ISLP lawyers, people who are deeply knowledgeable commercial lawyers with a sense of commitment to development issues, bring a whole new level of legitimacy, and it really changes the quality of what you can do in a room.”

For ISLP lawyers like Brian Fix and Stephen Stein, drawing up more equitable contacts is only the first step in bringing about positive change.

“More favorable contract terms are only as valuable as the capacity and determination of the government to implement them,” explains Fix. “It is fine to say that the
ministry shall have the power to issue regulations re: (a), (b), or (c), but unless the ministry takes that power seriously, and acts upon it, you do not have the compliance
you asked for.”

Richard Winfield echoes the importance of follow up. “A model or form will take you just so far,” he says. “You have to recognize political, cultural, historical, not to mention religious realities. The best we can do is describe what we understand to be the international norms, the best practices, and then encourage the men and women we work with to see if they can convince the policymakers to adopt as close to the international norms as possible.”

Of course, no one said making change on an international level would be a breeze. And, ultimately, the challenge is part of the appeal for those working with ISLP. For participants, the program provides a level of satisfaction and accomplishment that is meaningful on a host of levels.

“It’s gratifying work,” says Stein, “and a bit of an ego trip, because you are doing good things. But mostly it is very interesting work, and there is a feeling that you are helping people who might otherwise not get the help they need.”

The organization’s executive director, Jean Berman, hears similar comments often. “Volunteers have told us over and over that their appreciation of the importance of law has been renewed,” she says. “They are blown away by the courageous and hard-working people they meet and are thrilled to be able to help out where they can.”

And, she says, participants tend to request repeat assignments.

Richard Spencer may end up being one of those repeat volunteers, thanks to how much he enjoyed his ISLP experience in Mongolia. Spencer and his wife, an artist who taught a course in printmaking at the university in Ulan Bator, arrived in Mongolia in time for festivities centered on the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan’s unification of the Mongol tribes. They enjoyed a spring filled with plays, concerts, and art exhibits celebrating Mongolia’s history and the achievements of its 13th century empire. When he returned home, Spencer learned that, in a way, he had been following a path set by Mongolia’s most accomplished—and, to be sure, most controversial—nation builder. Genghis Khan was, after all, Mongolia’s first noted environmentalist, Spencer explains. The ancient ruler promulgated a safe drinking water law (by making it an offense to use one’s bare hands to fetch it) and prohibited the hunting of animals and birds during the breeding season.

Ken Stier is a New York–based freelance writer who has contributed to Time and Miller-McCune, among other magazines.