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Road to Russia — Part II

ImageEditor’s Note: Milwaukee attorney Diane Slomowitz is beginning her second week of teaching law to Russian students. Slomowitz has been writing about how she got involved with the international program that took her from Milwaukee to St. Petersburg. This week she shares her training earlier this year in Salzburg, Austria.

When my cab turned up Salzburg’s Schloss Leopoldskron’s private drive, it evoked images of “The Sound of Music” which was filmed there more than 40 years ago.

While the Von Trapp family did not greet me, approximately 40 American lawyers, six Eastern European university visiting scholars, and an international faculty did. We gathered with the same goal — to spend six days learning and discussing how best to teach law at more than 30 Eastern European universities.

Some teachers would travel to Russia, Latvia or Lithuania immediately after the conference. Others would return to the United States for weeks or months before again leaving, this time to teach.

I was to teach business law in March 2008 at Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Lucky for me, one of the visiting scholars was Daria Kolesnikova, a woman who would be attending my class. She made me relatively comfortable with my class’ intended subjects — restrictive covenant and trade secret law. Presented, of course, after a description of the U.S. constitutional/legal system.

The days were filled with practical and theoretical presentations, designed to prepare us to (1) teach in countries whose legal systems are, in many ways, the opposite of the United States; and (2) respond to the inevitable culture shock.

One program leader emphasized the differences in the legal professions in Eastern Europe and the United States. In these countries, for example, a law degree is the beginning, not the goal or end, of a student’s studies, and many graduates do not become practicing attorneys.

Students choose a specific career path at the beginning of their education — private practice, prosecutor, judge. Someone on a judicial career path will be so trained at school, and then apprentice with other judges before being given cases to decide.

Other presenters spoke on the history of the Eastern European legal system and the specific judicial trial and appellate systems of specific countries. Justice Arpeid Erdei, retired justice of Hungary’s constitutional court, tellingly described Hungary’s appellate court system, including the higher courts’ ability to retry cases.

A Florida criminal defense lawyer, returning for a Russian assignment after polar-opposite Lithuania and Ukraine teaching experiences, advised us from a participant’s unique perspective. He made three major and essential points.

Expect the unexpected — “flex your knees” became our watchword. Be substantively prepared but also be prepared to change on a dime. And engage the students.

If we do our best at these, he concluded, our experiences will likely be challenging, perhaps even frustrating, but certainly enriching.

The visiting scholars, who appeared to be in their early 20s, patiently answered our questions about their particular schools in Russia, Belarus, Slovenia, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Poland. Questions ranged from the substantive “What is the students’ legal background?” to the mundane “Where do I do my laundry?”

We soon-to-be-teachers absorbed this like sponges and we learned as much from each other as we did from the presenters. It is difficult to generalize about the attendees, except that many are litigators, because we all are so different.

From the New York City insurance counsel to the Philadelphia financing lawyer and from the former Mississippi legislator to the Madison lawyer with the great idea of including American movies (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “My Cousin Vinny”) and TV shows (“Boston Legal”) to highlight the misconceptions and truths of the United States and its legal system.

Our many differences dissolved in our one commonality. We all signed up, basically on faith alone, to use our years of legal experience to act as U.S. ambassadors, many in the countries of our ancestors. That leap of faith created an automatic kinship, which deepened during our days together.

Over class breaks, in whispers during sessions, while we dined and after hours, we learned about each others’ practices, firms and families. We traded teaching techniques, concerns and fears. We assured each other that we would both connect with our students and find our way around our assigned towns.

I don’t know whether being in the beautiful setting of the Schloss prepared us for our adventures. I do know, however, that it helped create a bond between us that will last well beyond our classes.

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