August 01, 2012

Global Litigator: The Challenges of Working Overseas as a Lawyer for Uncle Sam

Training Pakistani lawyers to strengthen the country's justice system.

Monika Bickert

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At 8:00 p.m. on a warm Saturday night in Islamabad, Pakistan, a dump truck filled with 600 kilograms of high-quality explosives pulled up to a security gate at the Marriott Hotel. Minutes later, the explosives were detonated, creating a crater 20 feet deep and a fire that engulfed most of the 219-room hotel for hours. More than 60 people died in the blast. Hundreds were injured.

Nine days later, in the midst of the multilateral government response to the terrorist attack, U.S. federal prosecutor Christopher Lehmann arrived in Islamabad to begin his one-year assignment as the Department of Justice’s resident legal advisor at the U.S. embassy.

A federal prosecutor with significant international development experience, Lehmann went to Pakistan in September 2008 to help the Pakistanis build the capacity of their justice sector and to generally strengthen the rule of law in the country. The Justice Department had ample experience placing resident legal advisors in foreign countries to aid justice-sector development, but it had never done so in Pakistan. Lehmann would be the first.

Having worked previously in Ukraine and Russia for nearly six years, Lehmann understood well the challenges of working in politically volatile countries. He also understood that with the Marriott bombing, his task had just gotten harder:

Landing nine days after the Marriott bombings wasn’t what I had signed up for. It was a complete game-changer for the embassy and the way people had to think about security. I came into a mission [the U.S. embassy] that was dealing with a horrific act of terrorism against Pakistanis and Americans.

As the Pakistani government and the diplomatic community responded to the bombing, Lehmann found it predictably difficult to build the relationships necessary for his work. Pakistani officials who might have previously been open to meeting Lehmann were now busy responding to the fallout from the bombing. Potentially helpful members of the international community working in Pakistan were preoccupied with enhancements to their own personal security or their potential role in the Pakistani response.

To further complicate matters, the U.S. embassy tightened restrictions on U.S. personnel in the wake of the bombing. High-level travel authorizations and armored cars became essential currency for Lehmann’s initial task of assessing the justice system.

After gaining information about the current system through all available means and learning how to maneuver in his restrictive new environment, Lehmann began traveling around the country to assess the justice system. He resolved to be bold in his approach, reaching out to a number of Pakistani officials who hadn’t previously worked with Americans. “I had to start from scratch. I had to go out and make connections, especially at the provincial level. There were components of the justice sector that no one at the embassy had ever talked to.”

Lehmann’s efforts paid off during a visit to Lahore, the capital city of the Punjab region of northern Pakistan. Officials there were attempting to establish the first-ever provincial prosecution service in Lahore, and they needed help.

There was no time to lose. According to the best information Lehmann could find, the government’s criminal conviction rate, both nationally and in the Punjab, was hovering between 10 and 30 percent. High-profile cases, including terrorism prosecutions, were failing, and failing very publicly. Because there was no career prosecution service, the government relied on police prosecutors and a handful of politically appointed officials to pursue convictions.

In 2007, just prior to Lehmann’s arrival, the government had authorized the creation of a prosecution service in Lahore to be staffed with career prosecutors who could raise the level of professionalism within the criminal-justice system. “It was a lucky break as far as the timing. They were trying to set up an institution, and there I was, so they looked to me as a partner.”

From the outset, Lehmann found the Pakistanis to be friendly and receptive to his assistance. “It was amazing. Obviously, if you look at polls of Pakistanis there is a lot of animosity against the U.S., but when you actually engage with Pakistanis that becomes irrelevant. They were outgoing, intellectual, curious, and very interested in engaging me.”

Training Program

That dynamic paved the way for Lehmann to establish a training program for the new provincial prosecution service, with a substantive focus on advocacy skills. In constructing the course, Lehmann followed the model used by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and the Department of Justice’s National Advocacy Center.

To facilitate interactive learning, he organized the 34 students into four teams and recruited instructors with substantial experience in both advocacy and training. The instruction team included American federal judges and prosecutors, a British crown prosecutor, and Punjab’s prosecutor general.

The training program centered on a hypothetical case that Lehmann constructed with a Pakistani lawyer. Lehmann began to write the hypothetical after reading through similar hypotheticals used for advocacy training in the United States. “Most of the [American] hypothetical crimes I found revolved around sex, drugs, and liquor. All of those issues would have been a distraction to our program.” Instead, Lehmann constructed a case involving the robbery of a bank in Islamabad.

Lehmann’s goals for the training went beyond improving advocacy:

A lot of what we tried to do beyond the skills transfer was to instill in these prosecutors the idea that what they are doing is very important, and that if the system is going to work, they will have to play an important role in that. No one had ever told them that.

Lehmann watched the first days of the training with anxiety. “I did not know if this would work. I was terrified and thought that the whole thing could fall flat on its face.”

Once the students settled into the course, however, their enthusiasm allayed Lehmann’s fears. Even the older prosecutors who might not have felt an incentive to do well in the course participated actively.

On the final day of the course, the participants acted as lawyers and witnesses in a mock trial of the hypothetical bank robbery case. The night before the trial, Lehmann was delighted to see that the participants wanted to stay late to prepare their prosecutions.

They didn’t want to go home at 5 p.m. They wanted to stay and prepare. I knew at that point that this program would work. That they cared about it, that it had resonated with them. That was why I uprooted my life to go to Pakistan. That’s when I knew that this wasn’t a waste of time.

The success of the training course proved to be a stepping stone to a long-term capacity-building program with the Pakistani prosecutors. “The most telling thing about the first training was that [the Pakistanis] wanted to keep repeating it.”

Lehmann was only too happy to oblige, and the training program has since become a regular part of the relationship between the U.S. embassy and the Pakistanis. The Justice Department’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT), which administered Lehmann’s program, continues to post resident legal advisors in the country and fund training for Pakistani prosecutors.

As of March 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice had sponsored 15 trial-advocacy training programs following the model Lehmann first used in Lahore. OPDAT’s resident legal advisor program has also sponsored two workshops in which prosecutors and police focused on working more cooperatively and two seminars on how to investigate and prosecute counterterrorism. Almost 600 prosecutors—approximately 10 to 20 percent of all Pakistani prosecutors—have attended one of the training programs.

Lehmann and his successors were also able to expand the geographic scope of the program. By January 2012, the course had been offered in most of the country’s provinces, and two Pakistanis even traveled to South Carolina, where they completed the National Advocacy Center’s trial-advocacy seminar with American federal prosecutors.

Improved Legal Education

Lehmann also worked to address Pakistani justice-sector development on a broader level. After seeing how enthusiastically the Lahore prosecutors responded to interactive learning and after talking to them about deficiencies in their previous legal training, Lehmann began looking at ways to improve the nation’s legal education. He encouraged Pakistani law professors to explore interactive teaching methods within their schools, and he worked with colleagues at the U.S. embassy to design an international visitors program through which young professors from Pakistan’s law schools could witness clinical education in American law schools.

Visitor programs and prosecutorial training programs have continued to thrive since Lehmann’s departure from Pakistan in 2010. As ties have become stronger between the U.S. Justice Department and Pakistani officials, OPDAT’s resident legal advisors have been able to expand their influence. Recently, resident legal advisors in Pakistan have supported efforts to implement money-laundering, asset-forfeiture, and terrorist-financing legislation that is consistent with international standards and to promote law-enforcement capacity to pursue such cases. The program has also expanded to include training for judges and forensic experts.

Nineteen months after arriving in Pakistan (he extended his tour by seven months), Lehman returned to the United States and assumed supervisory responsibilities at OPDAT, including oversight of capacity-building programs in Pakistan and other countries.

Watching from afar the continuing improvement of the Pakistani justice system, Lehmann says he misses the friends he made there and their admirable willingness to embrace new ideas.

Lehmann also feels nostalgic for the country itself—the beautiful scenery of the region and the vibrant daily life in Islamabad. “I miss the food, the culture, the music, the hikes, the kites flying overhead, and the everyday sights and smells.”

He recalls the serenity of looking from the lofty heights of the Salt Mountains out onto a view that stretched for 40 miles. He also remembers the thrill of cheating death when he was traveling on a mountain road in northern Pakistan and the car he was in began to slide backward toward a sharp drop-off before the driver managed to catch the car in gear.

Lehmann’s advice to lawyers interested in international development work is simple: Be practical and be realistic.

A lot of people have misplaced idealism. I think what is important is that what we provide is of concrete use. We have to show models and ideas. We can’t go in and replace someone’s legal system, nor should we. Listen to your partners, and change your work plan to meet their needs.

Monika Bickert

The author, a former resident legal advisor to Thailand, is an in-house attorney for Facebook.