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June 01, 2017

Q&A: Professor of Law Steve Kessell Discusses Pro Bono Work in Central Asia

Steve Kessell received a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College in Maryland in 1983 and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1986. After passing the Maryland State Bar Exam in July 1986, he worked as an associate attorney with Hearne & Bailey, P.A. from 1986-88, Snyder & Poole, P.A. from 1988-92 and Gregory Bannon from 1993-94. Kessell then opened his own law practice and worked as a sole practitioner until June 2000, when he went to work as an assistant state’s attorney for Washington County, Maryland. He served as deputy state’s attorney from October 2004-September 2015. Since August 2015, he has worked as an associate professor of law at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. 

Steve Kessell, Associate Professor of Law at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) recently spoke with Kessell regarding how he started working with ABA ROLI, the importance of his pro bono work in Central Asia and his advice for other lawyers who are interested in volunteering.

ABA ROLI: How did you hear about ABA ROLI? What made you interested in volunteering with us?

Kessell: I had always had an interest in doing volunteer work outside of the U.S. I would spend several weeks each year doing volunteer work in places like Costa Rica, Honduras and Haiti — mostly humanitarian work, such as building construction and the like. Unfortunately, there weren’t many opportunities to put my training as lawyer to use, or so I thought. During the summer months of 2014, I began to realize I needed a break from prosecution and decided to take a leave of absence. By this time I had heard about ABA ROLI. I did a little research, checked out the legal specialist postings and applied for a short-term position helping with the establishment of the newly-created Advocatura in Kyrgyzstan. To my surprise, I was offered the position and in a very short time I found myself on a plane to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. What was supposed to be a 60-day placement turned into four and 1/2 months. The placement allowed me to combine my desire for volunteer service with my skills as a lawyer. And the rest, as they would say, is history.

ABA ROLI: Please describe your work with ABA ROLI. Which program are you currently working on? What are some interesting aspects you would like to highlight?

Kessell: My very first project was providing technical support to the newly-created Advocatura in Kyrgyzstan. A lot of final, detailed organizational work — institutional documents, organizational structuring, etc. — had to be completed in a very short time. Since I seem to have found a new home in Central Asia, I have continued to be actively involved in several projects in Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asia region. Programs I have worked on have included court monitoring of drug-trafficking cases, prosecution of drug-trafficking cases and, of course, continuing work with the Kyrgyz Advocatura. In all, I think I have been involved in approximately five or six separate projects since November 2014.

ABA ROLI: Why is the work that you are doing with ABA ROLI important?

Kessell: Nearly all of my work with ABA ROLI has taken place in Central Asia, where the Soviet legacy remains heavily entrenched in legal thinking and approaches to the law and legal institutions. While the American system and legal school of thought doesn’t always provide the best solution to a problem, the perspective I do bring to any situation usually introduces an entirely new and different way of looking at it. Out of that can come some very creative solutions to very real problems. Helping developing legal systems find solutions to these problems is very important. And not only that, the interaction I have had has worked to reshape my perspective on things and has certainly caused me to look at our legal issues in a new light.

ABA ROLI: What has been your most memorable moment working with ABA ROLI?       

Kessell: I would have to say that my first project, working with the Kyrgyz Advocatura, remains very special to me. It has been tremendously gratifying to see the Advocatura taking root and developing and the changes in the quality of the advocate profession and professional services and public attitudes toward the legal profession that have occurred in the last two-plus years. I think the single biggest moment relates to the development and implementation of the code of ethics for advocates that was created. One of the final things I did for the Advocatura before finishing my first stay was to draft a comprehensive attorney discipline procedural mechanism. It was not adopted in whole, but many of the ideas I pitched have been incorporated into the current disciplinary framework and more are being considered.  It is humbling to think that I had a hand in helping create something of this magnitude and significance.

ABA ROLI: What advice would you give to lawyers interested in volunteering with ABA ROLI?

Kessell: Go for it. Get out of your comfort zone and just do something. As lawyers we do have much to offer in many different ways, whether it’s short term or long term, at home or in the field. I have been fortunate in that I seemed to have found a niche — a new home — here in Central Asia, and it’s all because of my work with ABA ROLI.

To learn more about our work in Kyrgyzstan, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected]