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September 30, 2013

Ask an Alum: Daniel H. FitzGibbon

The ABA Rule of Law Initiative community is saddened to announce the passing of one of its own, Daniel H. FitzGibbon, on September 19, 2013. Several days before his passing, Dan responded to our request for alumni stories and provided the responses below, which are a testament to his passion for the rule of law. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Lawrence Township School Foundation, the Indiana University Foundation-Krannert Institute of Cardiology, the West Point Fund or the donor’s favorite charity.

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

After 25 years of practice as a business lawyer with a large firm, I decided I wanted to try something different that would allow me to draw on my legal expertise, constitute a public service and indulge my taste for living abroad. (Prior to law school, I had served overseas with the army for five years.) I checked various options, and the one that fit best was ABA CEELI. What made it perfect was the position Michael Maya, then Russia country director, offered me as a commercial law liaison, based in Moscow. I had studied Russian language and history in college and had a long-standing interest in that country. I served there for a year starting in 1998.

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

After working in Russia and Ukraine, I worked on a variety of ABA ROLI projects on commercial law reform, legal profession development, judicial reform, legislative drafting, Legal Profession Reform Index and Judicial Reform Index assessments, trainings for lawyers and judges, and general rule-of-law implementation. These overseas projects varied in length from one to six weeks, not counting preparation time and post-trip report writing. I was privileged to work in Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Kosovo, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Qatar. By my count, that’s 21 countries, and I was sent to some of these countries more than once (six trips to Bulgaria).

What was your most memorable moment?

All of the countries and projects were fascinating and memorable in different ways. I could mention standing in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in March 1999 while it was being attacked by protesters opposed to the NATO bombings in Serbia, or perhaps another set of destructive demonstrations against the government in Moldova on the day I arrived in April 2009, and certainly some great experiences in North Africa and the Middle East. But I think the moment that tops my list is the night my wife and I joined thousands of fireworks-exploding Muscovites in Red Square on a magical, snowy New Year’s Eve in 1998.

How did this work change your career?

I represented a number of large and small companies, advising on compliance with the laws, conducting mergers and acquisitions, providing corporate tax opinions and recommendations, and drafting major documents such as long-term supply contracts and joint ventures. I also served on the firm’s management committee for 13 years. When I went to Russia in 1998 on a leave of absence from my firm, I necessarily transferred responsibility for my clients to several of my partners. When I returned, I saw that these new client relationships were working well, so after a few months of resuming practice I decided to take early retirement from the firm. This step allowed me to do many different things, including all of the other projects and trips I have undertaken for ABA ROLI.

What was the most important lesson you learned through this work?

That’s another difficult question since I learned so much: the workings and benefits/disadvantages of the civil law system; the legacy of corruption and economic decay left from communist governments and other despotic regimes; the comparative virtues of the legal system in the U.S., etc. I was also reminded repeatedly of the ways all of us around the world have so many interests, needs and goals in common, and that one can enjoy the company of almost anyone if he or she takes the time to get to know the person well. I think the best thing I learned was the need for patience in this area. Many of these countries have very little experience with democracy and the rule of law, and there are often cultural and other endemic problems that need to be overcome. The U.S. has had 237 years to progress to this point, and we aren’t perfect, while these other countries have had only a generation or two to get to where they are now.

Tell us about your career today.

I’m retired from practicing law for clients, but remain Of Counsel to my law firm. I also try to counsel younger lawyers in their practices and career development, and occasionally teach classes or write articles about my observations from my ABA ROLI work. These experiences have given me an invaluable perspective on global legal issues and events and provide an interesting framework against which to evaluate our own legal system’s strengths and weaknesses. I believe I am much better equipped and well-rounded to offer meaningful opinions and suggestions on these matters. I also give talks about my Vietnam War experiences and my book (To Bear any Burden: A Hoosier Green Beret's Letters from Vietnam) on that subject, and do some things for not-for-profit organizations. 

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

A lot of it depends on the region and country, but all are affected by poor legal education and public corruption, so ABA ROLI’s programs in these areas are especially important. Again, these are long-term issues affected by cultural and economic conditions, so diligence and patience are both necessary. Gender equity and domestic violence prevention are also important all over, but especially in certain parts of the Middle East; aside from fundamental fairness, a society cannot afford to stymie or mistreat half of its human resources. I’m also a big fan of the different reform index assessments, which inform domestic leaders and international donors how a country stacks up in relation to world-wide standards and where needs exist. If I had to pick a single program, I would select the anti-corruption and public integrity initiative.

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

At its most basic, the rule of law is a condition in which one’s legal rights and responsibilities are clearly established by written laws that are enforced fairly, impartially, objectively and predictably. Corruption steals fairness, impartiality, objectivity and predictability from this equation, and thus destroys the rule of law. Actual corruption is hard to measure, but even the perception of corruption can taint the entire process. People lose faith in the basic notion of a justice system, feel they have to pay bribes to get a fair hearing (and may actually pay them, increasing corruption) and may even believe they have to resort to violence or other extralegal recourse to obtain justice. Also, multinational companies are reluctant to invest capital in a country where they risk improper deprivation of their property interests and other rights. Once corruption is no longer tolerated in some countries, lagging countries in the region will feel a greater urgency to get onboard for their own economic good.