Ask an Alum: Mary Noel Pepys

Mary Noel Pepys

April 2012

How did you get involved?

I was moved to join ABA CEELI (an ABA ROLI predecessor organization) in 1993, after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism—something I never thought I would witness in my lifetime. I was fascinated by the events taking place and wanted to be where the political action was. Massive legal reform was essential, as laws had to be sacked and new laws drafted that incorporated previously loathsome concepts, such as private commerce and market-based economy. Winding down my practice in San Francisco for pro bono work in a former Communist country seemed ludicrous to my colleagues, but I deeply believed that it would be an opportunity of a lifetime.

In what countries did you serve, and what was the focus of your work there?

I initially made a six-month commitment to work in Bulgaria, but stayed one year. Thereafter, I worked in Latvia and Slovakia, each for one year, followed by another two years in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Croatia. During my five years as a pro bono ABA CEELI liaison, I worked on wide-ranging issues: judges wanted assistance developing a legal training center; the president of a bar association wanted help in writing a national newsletter for all 4,500 bar members; a law school dean wanted guidance in sponsoring the first American-style law review; members of Parliament sought substantive reviews of draft laws; and Ministry of Justice officials needed information on U.S. laws concerning myriad issues such as civil rights, property management and state regulation of education. Each day during my five years was unique, filled with different requests, varied activities and many challenges.

What was your most memorable moment from that time?

In 1994, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist visited Bulgaria and during that stay attended the opening of the legal training center that we helped Bulgarian judges create. With encouragement from the U.S. Embassy, Chief Justice Rehnquist and I flew on a small plane from the capital, Sofia, to Varna, where he dedicated the legal training center. A few months later, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor came to Bulgaria to attend the annual ABA CEELI Board meeting, and we worked together to support the efforts of four Bulgarian women judges who, because of our collaboration, had the privilege of meeting with Justice O’Connor in her chambers later that year. The most rewarding moments are often now when I hear of local ABA CEELI staff members or young judges and attorneys with whom I worked who are now leaders in their countries as ministers of justice, members of the European Parliament, or presidents of judges associations or bar associations.

Did your career change as a result of your service?

As a result of my work with ABA CEELI, my life changed dramatically. And for this I am eternally grateful to the two visionaries of ABA CEELI, Sandy D’Alemberte and Homer Moyer. I never returned to my private law practice. Instead, I focused on rule of law work, and have now served in over 40 countries during the past 19 years.

Are there ways in which your experiences benefit your current work?

These experiences gave me the tools to handle rule of law challenges in vastly different countries. Although geographic boundaries distinguish societal characteristics, the international principles of judicial independence transcend such boundaries. Whether I worked in Africa, the Middle East or Asia, and whether I could comprehend the culture or language, I was able to implement judicial reform projects. Regardless of the legal system, common, civil or shari’a, and regardless of the region, judges must be well-educated, have access to current laws, be free from improper internal and external influence, and receive adequate benefits and state protection. The judges and attorneys with whom I worked throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union provided excellent advice and guidance in designing judicial reform projects that are relevant to legal professionals and justice systems around the world.

What is the best thing you have learned during your time?

I learned that American attorneys can indeed make a difference in countries and cultures far removed from their own.

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

I hope to be exactly where I am now, developing the rule of law internationally.

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