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Road to Russia — Part I

Editor’s Note: During the next few weeks, attorney Diane Slomowitz will share a series of columns about her experience teaching law in Russia. As her introductory column runs today, she actually begins her two-week teaching assignment in St. Petersburg.

Practitioners today are deluged with e-mail pitches for CLE conferences, expert witnesses, appraisal companies, and other law-related businesses. Not to mention “unbeatable” stocks, Canadian medicines and Viagra. Most of these automatically go to the recycle bin.

So it might have been with the Center for International Legal Studies’ e-mail. It sought “senior lawyers” to teach U.S. law to law students, undergraduates and young faculty, for two weeks or more, in an Eastern European or former Soviet country to be identified only upon acceptance.

With billables and receivables ever present, the program did not seem like a realistic option. After all, participants pay their own expenses to travel, teach and attend the mandatory preparatory conference in Salzburg. Aside from the host university’s lodging, this would be pro bono in the truest sense.

Still, the idea of teaching foreign students in their (not my) country and comfort zone was intriguing. So I linked to the Center’s Web site, www.cils.net. I was impressed with what I learned. CILS is an international non-profit research, training, and publishing institute headquartered in Salzburg, whose purpose is to promote the dissemination of information among the international legal community. More than 130 lawyers have taught in its senior lawyers program since the first assignments occurred in 2005.

A senior lawyer must have 25 years experience. At 51, I did not consider myself a senior anything. Still, I had enough experience to sneak to senior status under the program. No guts, no glory. I downloaded the application.

The application did not ask where applicants wanted to teach. Instead, the applicant had to choose three countries, from an established list, where she would not want to go. With “choices” like Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Albania, the latter well outnumbered the former. After arbitrarily checking three “no” boxes, I focused on the most interesting prospects which, to me, were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Russia.

Then, I typed up my first resume in 25 years, PDF’d a brief and several articles I had written, and e-mailed my application packet to CILS.

About a month later, I was interviewed at Chicago’s Loyola Law School with three other lawyers: a retired Florida trial attorney, who heads the state’s get-out-the-vote/voter fraud prevention program; a Kansas City securities attorney, who wanted to enhance her family’s extensive international travel experience; and a New Orleans trial attorney, who needed a change after surviving cancer and Hurricane Katrina.

CILS’ president Dennis Campbell conducted the interview, whose purpose was not for CILS to determine whether we were acceptable candidates, but for us to decide whether the program was for us. Classes, he began, would be taught in English, with the students’ English proficiency varying among countries and schools. Lodging would also vary, from comfortable to less comfortable. However, as the university’s lodging would be its best available, we were cautioned against comments which might unintentionally offend our hosts.

As to the teaching, Campbell told us outright that the students would not read any assigned materials. The Eastern European educational model is one of lecture, with students studying and being tested on class notes. In one sense, our role was to gently expand the students’ learning experiences. Group projects and moot courts, for example, have been effective and well received.

Whatever our named subjects, we would end up teaching U.S. civics. Even more important than the substantive legal subjects would be our social contacts. We would be U.S. ambassadors to those with little practical understanding of our laws or legal culture.

Almost four weeks later, I learned that this appellate lawyer and brief writer was going to teach business law somewhere in Russia. I scouted the Internet for information on the participating Russian universities — I could be assigned anywhere from Moscow State University to Yakutsk State University in Siberia. Two weeks later I received my assignment — the Herzen State Pedogogical University in St. Petersburg! Two blocks from Nevsky Prospect!

When I e-mailed my university contact to begin the consultation process, my lesson in patience continued. Given the difficulties with the Russian e-mail servers, it would be three weeks before I received a response. No matter. I would teach for two weeks in spring 2008 after attending the Salzburg conference in late January.

What an opportunity. What an experience.

What did I get myself into?

Diane Slomowitz is a partner at Fox, O’Neill & Shannon S.C. in Milwaukee.

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