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Vol. 30, No. 5

It’s a small world: International partnerships forge new bonds

by Robert J. Derocher

After two decades as a prosecutor for the New York State Attorney General and the Erie County District Attorney in Buffalo, Diane LaVallee was looking for change, a place to recharge before heading off in a new career direction.

Thanks to an international “sister bar” relationship at the Bar Association of Erie County, she found that place nearly 4,000 miles away in northern France.

“It was a very interesting and wonderful experience,” LaVallee says of the five months she spent in Lille, France, in 2004. “An attorney is truly a sacred position there. I came back with a renewed feeling of the importance of our jobs.”

LaVallee’s sojourn was made possible by the Erie County bar’s sister bar, or “twinning,” agreement with a bar association in Lille. Since 2001, the bars have formally agreed to encourage international relationships and cultural exchanges between the organizations and their members.

While sister bar agreements are not new, they are taking on greater significance for bars interested in giving members something more than an overseas vacation. Those who participate say they are making real connections with legal communities in other countries and perhaps also making their local communities more attractive in today’s global economy.

And as legal communities and associations begin to flourish in places such as the former Soviet Union, China, and other locales in Eastern Europe and Asia, building strong relationships among bars will become only more important, some leaders say.

Learning joie de vivre

“I wish there could be more global awareness, particularly on the part of lawyers,” says Giles Manias, who chairs the Erie County bar’s liaison efforts with Lille. “I think bar associations have an obligation to educate their members and to broaden their opportunities with programs like this.”

The bar’s relationship with L’Ordre des Avocats au Barreau de Lille (the Lille bar) began in the mid-1990s, shortly after the city governments of Buffalo and Lille established a sister city agreement. It began with periodic visits from law school students in the Lille area who were placed with law firms, prosecutors, and judges in Erie County to fulfill French requirements for an internship before being admitted to the bar.

The 2001 agreement between the Erie County and Lille bars “establishes a relationship and a rapport so there can be exchanges of all sorts,” says Manias, who obtained a degree in international law from the University of Brussels in Belgium. “It can open opportunities for study exchanges and travel, and provide a welcoming place to go” for Erie County bar members abroad.

That was the case for LaVallee, one of the few Erie County bar members to stay with a host family in Lille. During her stay, she spent time with French prosecutors and observing courts, while learning more about the county’s justice system.

While LaVallee was impressed with the reverence for the law among French lawyers and judges, she was equally impressed by their ability to not be rushed and overburdened by their jobs.

“I wanted to take back some of that joie de vivre and impart that on people,” says LaVallee, who returned to Buffalo to join a private law firm. “I think it has affected me forever.”

Manias says the success of the Lille arrangement has led to development of a similar twinning arrangement with a bar association in Kent, England (the Lille bar already has such an arrangement with Kent). A formal event to solidify the bond between the three bars is being planned for Erie County this fall, Manias notes.

Another bar planning a similar event at around the same time is the Nashville Bar Association, which will mark 10 years it has partnered with the Caen Bar Association in Normandy, France. The associations have had an informal agreement that goes back more than 20 years, says Gail Vaughn Ashworth, a co-chair of the bar’s exchange committee.

The bars usually take turns sending delegations to each other each year, she says. This year, Caen bar members will come to Nashville and participate in several events. The bars also stay active with each other during the year, often with an exchange of law school students and events such as a writing competition. The Nashville bar is currently working on an exhibit at a Caen museum that will detail Nashville’s role in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is more to the trips and to the committee than just socializing, Ashworth says. When Nashville bar members go to Caen, they often earn CLE credit. They also develop business contacts that can not only be helpful for themselves, but for their city, as well.

“I’ve been asked to assist lawyers from Caen looking for help [in the U.S.],” she says.“From a professional development standpoint, it’s helped me.”

A small world

Improving trade and business opportunities while building a good name for her association internationally is also on the mind of Joan Haratani, president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. The first Asian American woman elected president of the bar has made establishment of sister bar relationships in China, Korea, and Japan a top priority this year. Discussions with bars in those three countries could lead to one or more formalized arrangements in the coming months, she says.

“Many of my partners travel to Tokyo, South Korea, and Beijing on a regular basis. From my point of view, the world is very small,” Haratani says. “Networking and expanding your list of contacts is always a benefit.”

It’s not just large firms that can benefit from sister bar arrangements, she adds. A small firm or solo practitioner could easily find itself needing help overseas, and what better place to get it than from someone right there, familiar with social and professional customs?

And if Asian lawyers and companies come to San Francisco, she says, “They’ll find that we have a rich Asian community, and we have great ambassadors who can take somebody under their wing.”

The blossoming Asian economy, combined with the lack of sister bar agreements between Asian and American associations, make this a good time to establish such relationships, Haratani adds. “It just makes sense to me,” she says.

The advent of globalization and the growing possibility that more Philadelphia lawyers could find themselves involved in cases abroad is one of the main reasons that Andrew Chirls made international trade and education exchanges a priority last year as chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

The bar’s eight-year association with the bar in Lyon, France, has been a boon to the city and its economy, according to Chirls, whose term expired in December. “We’ve helped facilitate trade relations. We’ve met with trade officials to help them connect with Pennsylvania and Philadelphia,” he says. “It raises international awareness of Philadelphia as an internationally hospitable and friendly place.”

And that could mean more business for bar members assisting the local companies benefiting from such activity. As an example, he says local attorneys were invited to attend meetings in April in Philadelphia that would involve French biotech companies. “It helps that our lawyers will be in the room,” he says.

In addition to its agreement with Lyon, the bar is exploring sister bar relationships in China and Italy, Chirls says.

Helping establish rule of law

The Philadelphia bar is also continuing to work with the International Visitors Council, which arranged for the bar to assist in helping the city of Mosul, Iraq, in establishing the rule of law there.

Another evolving area of the world that is seeing change in its legal system is the former Soviet Union. In Connecticut, the New Haven County Bar Association is working with the Connecticut Bar Association in the Russian American Rule of Law Consortium to help establish the rule of law in the Russian city of Pskov, near St. Petersburg, says Connecticut Superior Court Judge Jonathan Silbert.

While not a sister bar relationship in the strict sense of the phrase, there has been plenty of back-and-forth travel and discussion between the bars and Pskov’s lawyers, who are eager to bolster their legal system.

“They’ve been impressed with the professionalism of the organized bar. The notion of collegiality [among judges and lawyers] is different,” Silbert says. “They liked what they saw here and said, ‘Why not us?’ ”

And with more U.S. law firms establishing offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow, it could mean more opportunities in places like Pskov, Silbert says.

It’s a budding relationship, he says, that can be beneficial to both areas—again, like a strong sister bar agreement.

“I’m just happy to make incremental progress,” he says. BL

ABA resources

If your bar is looking to reach out to legal communities in other countries, the ABA’s International Liaison Office is a great place to start. Goal VIII of the ABA’s Mission and Association Goals is to advance the rule of law in the world, and the ILO is a clearinghouse for such efforts within the ABA and other law-related organizations. Visit for more information.

The ABA has such projects all over the world, but perhaps the best known—and one that involves many of the regions mentioned in this article—is the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI). More information about CEELI can be found via the ILO’s site or at