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New dean developed legal systems in post-Communist countries
In the spring of 2005, Laura Fernandez had a big decision to make.
A new graduate from the University of Illinois College of Law, she had a resume and network in Washington, D.C. that easily could have landed her a job with a number of human rights organizations. Or, she could move to Croatia, learn a language she did not know well, and get to work on establishing legal systems in post-Communist countries.
“Having an opportunity to work in the Balkans gave me a whole different perspective on international law. People suddenly were given freedoms that had not been part of life 15 years before, and that created a lot of transitional justice issues,” she said. “I am so glad I made that choice.”
Making tough choices is something Fernandez has in common with the LL.M. students she works with as the new assistant dean for international and graduate affairs at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Like her, they have immersed themselves completely into a foreign culture and the nuances of its legal system. And she hopes that, like her, they discover various approaches and solutions to legal issues when analyzing the differences between various systems.
“Any lawyer today who does not have that kind of global perspective is at a disadvantage,” Fernandez said. “Looking from the outside and seeing how legal issues are interconnected will make any lawyer a better lawyer. I hope to bring this understanding to the LL.M. and J.D. students here.”
Fernandez was born with a global perspective in many ways. Her mother, a Venezuelan, and father, a Spaniard, met in Brazil. When Fernandez was 16, she moved with her family to the United States for her mother to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. Fernandez earned her B.S. in international Studies and J.D. there as well.
“Being exposed to historical injustices really opened my mind to finding a job that could help stop some of the horrible things that happen all over the world,” Fernandez said. “I knew I wanted to go to law school and study human rights.”
As an undergraduate student, she interned with Human Rights Watch in Washington D.C., and she returned to work with the Organization of American States as a law student. With her international background, her legal education, and connections in Washington, D.C., Fernandez always thought she would work there for an organization focused on Latin America.
But while at the University of Illinois, she met a Croatian studying business administration. “As if I didn’t have enough international connections in my background, we got married,” she said with a smile. Fernandez decided working in Croatia would give her an opportunity to learn that language better and exposure to substantive work in international law.
She spent the next eight years working on a variety of issues – from monitoring war crimes cases to addressing issues with refugees to helping elevate Croatia’s legal system to the level of other countries in the European Union.
At the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, Fernandez was teamed up with a lawyer from one of the republics of the ex-Yugoslavia and a British lawyer. They worked on a large case from Kosovo, which led to her making connections with an attorney at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Zagreb, Croatia.
What started as a six-month contract with the OSCE turned into a more permanent position where she eventually oversaw the Rule of Law Unit and oversaw the work of seven attorneys. Her group worked with international tribunal local offices, USAID, embassies, and other United Nations organizations to develop a legal system for Croatia as it sought admittance to the EU.
“We would take ideas that worked in one country with a similar background – post-Communist, post-war – and use it to develop a system in another country. For example, I would develop a system for victims and witnesses and how they should be dealt with in court,” she said, “and the same system would be implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“There were a lot of Rule of Law issues and making sure the country’s legal system was more democratic, more transparent. It was like a toy for a child: You’re a young lawyer, you want to learn, and you have this opportunity to do so many different things in an emerging legal system.”
After Croatia was admitted to the EU in 2012, Fernandez likely could have stayed and worked in a ministry or a local non-governmental organization. She also had the opportunity to stay with the OSCE in another country in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. But the work, vast and emotionally challenging, had been done, and Fernandez felt it was time to move on to new opportunities and challenges.
“I really enjoy working with the LL.M. and J.D. students here, and I’m hoping to get both groups integrated more as time goes on,” she said. “I have a global network, and maybe that can help them. But more important is that I want them to see all of the opportunities they can have with an international law degree.”
Article by Monica DeMeglio