Ask an Alum: Gina Schaar

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Gina Schaar

Gina Schaar

How did you get involved with ABA ROLI (formerly ABA CEELI)?

I had been a commercial lawyer handling both transactions and litigation and got burned out. When I decided to leave private practice, I looked at ABA CEELI as an option, but didn’t pursue it because I got a job at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). While I found government service more rewarding, more principled and less stressful, I still had the urge to try a more radical change and extend the spirit of service even further—ultimately, personal circumstances pushed me in that direction after my  divorce. My sister was living in Slovenia, so I took a one-year leave of absence from the FTC to become country liaison in Albania. My career certainly changed as a result! After that year, I quit my job to stay another year with ABA CEELI. After marrying a Danish man and moving to Denmark and then to Croatia with my husband, I took a job as ABA ROLI country director in Kosovo, commuting on weekends to see my husband. Today, I work for a Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk, as in-house counsel. Before joining the ABA family in 2000, my career was a traditional, fairly predictable one in private and then government practice; since then, it has had many twists and turns, ups and downs, periods of study and unemployment and freelancing, but I have never had more fun and been more satisfied with the work I do, whatever it has been!

What was your most memorable moment while at ABA ROLI?

There are a lot to choose among!A professional highlight was touring the Independence Museum in Pristina (I think it was in 2010) after a ceremony recognizing women’s “firsts” in the law with the first woman Kosovar minister of Justice Nekibe Kelmendi and Lirie Kusmani, Kosovo’s first woman Supreme Court judge, who were both signatories of the declaration of independence exhibited there.

One of the best things about my service with ABA CEELI and ABA ROLI was the people I met and worked with, both Americans and internationals, inside and outside ABA ROLI. I was privileged to receive a visit from former ABA President Martha Barnett in Pristina, to meet Justice O’Connor in Moscow and Sarajevo, and to host Judge Abner Mikva and his wife as well as several visits by Judge Robert Utter in Tirana. The many wonderful, dedicated, energetic ABA ROLI volunteers and staff I have had the pleasure of working with have inspired me through their examples—as have the lawyers, judges, professors and others in Albania and Kosovo whose struggles I shared for a short while, who were toiling under difficult circumstances before I arrived and continue to do so today.

What is the best thing you have learned from your ABA ROLI time? 

Living abroad and contributing to legal system development really opened my eyes for how much of myself I could put into my work. That attitude has stayed with me through the years. On a more concrete level, I learned project management, staff management and budgeting skills, and the Albanian language!

Tell us about your career today. What do you find most challenging about your work?

In my current work, I have returned to a more traditional legal practice as in-house counsel, but with a truly global company, Novo Nordisk. I feel very lucky to have found work with a company where I feel that I am contributing to a very important effort with values and integrity behind it, as I did when doing rule-of-law work. I do have some nostalgia for the zaniness and unpredictability of international development work, and I find myself drawn to learn about the company’s activities in developing markets and its access-to-health projects.

Are there ways in which your ABA ROLI experiences benefit your current position?

Not so much directly on a professional level; but I do see some benefit in terms of cultural understanding when working for a global company, and in terms of appreciating the ease of working in a highly developed economy and society.

Among ABA ROLI’s current work, is there a particular program or initiative that you think is particularly important?

I think it’s extremely important for ABA ROLI to maintain the element of volunteerism as much as possible. It’s what sets us apart from all the many consulting firms now crowding the rule-of-law sector, which was in its infancy when ABA ROLI was established. It’s why we are met with open arms by the host countries where we work.

Share why you think this type of work is critical for improving the rule of law globally?

Many people asked me why I would want to work for ABA ROLI projects when there seemed to be so little progress, when the countries we were trying to help seemed to be so far from their goals. I told them that while we might face many obstacles and progress might be slow, doing nothing would most certainly assure failure. Sheer persistent presence counts for a lot when pursuing lofty societal goals like rule of law. A book I read recently brought home to me the reason why it’s important to persist in those goals—Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. It dramatically describes how in medieval England, might meant right, hopelessness springs from injustice and human suffering ensues. The rule of law is what changed that—and I’m happy to see that the ABA is celebrating the Magna Carta’s anniversary for exactly that reason.

Where do you want to be in 10 years from now? 

One of the most important changes in my life that began when I stepped off the predictable path and went to work for ABA CEELI is that I don’t want to know where I’ll be 10 years from now—I hope that it will be something so different from today that I couldn’t possibly plan or aim for it. By just doing the next right thing, the last 10+ years have turned out like that and I trust the next 10 will as well!

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