Northwestern Law & Ethiopia: An Enduring Collaboration

May 31, 2013

While true, the characterization of Ethiopia as a place deeply scarred by generations of war and civil unrest and ravaged by unimaginable poverty does not do the country justice. Ethiopia is also a place where, remarkably, hope thrives; people demonstrate extraordinary resilience and faith and are deeply committed to the betterment of their country. Northwestern Law faculty know this firsthand.

Since the 1960s Northwestern Law has been a trusted partner in improving Ethiopia’s legal education system. Today Bluhm Legal Clinic director Thomas F. Geraghty (JD ’69) and a team of Northwestern Law faculty work to provide legal training to Ethiopian lawyers, with a focus on making it more responsive to the realities of the Ethiopian justice system.

Geraghty first visited the country in 1969, while a student at Northwestern Law. A few years before then Ethiopia had begun implementing new law codes based on French and Swiss models. Geraghty worked as a student assistant to Professor Jack Beckstrom on an assessment of how the lower courts were receiving the codes. Geraghty’s resulting article, “People, Practice, Attitudes and Problems in the Lower Courts of Ethiopia,” was published in the Journal of Ethiopian Law in 1970.

“As a law student, I was intrigued by the operation of the court system—how the customary laws worked together with the newer laws,” recalled Geraghty. “And on a personal level, I formed lasting friendships with my colleagues at the Addis Ababa University School of Law.”

Northwestern Helps Build Legal Education Infrastructure

Political revolution swept Ethiopia in 1973, and for many years the new regime’s brutality and strong ties to communism made it nearly impossible for the United States to work there. When the Derg regime was overthrown in the early 1990s, Geraghty sought a way to return to Ethiopia to continue to work to improve the Addis Ababa University law program and thus legal education for a new wave of Ethiopian lawyers. He became involved with the American Bar Association’s international programs and received funding for development of a clinical law program at the Addis Ababa University School of Law. “I was overjoyed to reconnect with friends from the 1960s and to resume my efforts to support Ethiopia’s legal infrastructure,” he says. “In addition to my work there, this program also enabled us to invite Ethiopian law students, faculty, and lawyers to the United States to conduct research.”

Human rights leaders attest that providing legal education is an effective strategy to promote the rule of law in countries building a system of justice. In 2007 the ABA launched a program to establish sustainable institutions and societies that foster justice, promote economic opportunity, and pursue respect for human dignity. The ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative today works in 40 countries, and volunteers have contributed more than $200 million in pro bono legal assistance.

ABA ROLI recognized that although Ethiopia has many highly qualified judges, lawyers, and professors, many in the legal profession lacked sufficient training. In response, USAID in 2008 provided funding for a three-year ABA ROLI project to train law students, faculty, lawyers, and judges on issues such as the separation of powers and the importance of judicial independence. USAID also funded an assessment of legal education in Ethiopia. The overall goal was to support judicial and legal education reform and potentially provide election training.

Geraghty’s extensive experience navigating Ethiopia’s legal system and his network of established relationships made him the ideal lead consultant to ABA ROLI Ethiopia. “Legal education had dramatically expanded since the 1960s when I first visited,” said Geraghty. “Back then, AAU had the only law school in the country. By 2008 there were 20 schools, with some 2,500 law students! I was asked to conduct an assessment of legal education in Ethiopia for the purpose of identifying strengths and challenges. This assessment was conducted over a two-year period from 2008 to 2010.”

Fikremarkos Merso, former dean of Addis Ababa University School of Law, envisioned that the ABA ROLI program would help in two critical areas, both related to capacity building: to fill the gap in teaching specialized courses and in developing teaching materials. “We were using materials developed in the 1960s,” he explains. “There was an absolute need to update these teaching materials as well as to develop new ones in light of new realities and developments.”

Geraghty visited Ethiopia twice in 2012 to assess its law externship program, which requires law students to spend three months at the end of their five-year programs working with courts, government agencies, and public service organizations. “The externship program here is a progressive and important aspect of legal education, but opportunity exists to provide student supports and coordination that would make externships more effective,” said Geraghty. Students are left on their own to find externship placements, and many go to the capital, Addis Ababa, where there are more employment opportunities. So, courts and government agencies in Addis Ababa are flooded with law students and often are not able to provide relevant experiences for them.

Another challenge is pay. Many students cannot afford to live away from home while they pursue their externships, so they must either travel great distances or try to find work near their hometowns. A key recommendation of the assessment of the externship program is that law schools work more closely with receiving agencies so that the agencies are better informed about the educational objectives of the externship program and can be better prepared to help meet them. Toward this goal, Geraghty met with Ethiopian Supreme Court and federal court judges, law school deans, and others and prepared a handbook for law school externship programs.

Exchange of Professors

In spring 2012, as part of the effort to support legal education in Ethiopia, Northwestern sent Stephen Sawyer, clinical associate professor of law, senior counsel for the Center for International Human Rights, and director of curricular projects, and Joshua Kleinfeld, assistant professor of law, to Addis Ababa to teach intensive two- to three-week courses to human rights lawyers.

“This innovative program offered me an opportunity to guide young people—aspiring lawyers and lawyers alike—with training so they may become well versed on the rule of law,” said Sawyer. “I was struck by the incredible dedication of the students. Despite sparse facilities, equipment, and technology, they are steadfast in their commitment to learning. I feel so proud to know this program was of value to them.”

Kleinfeld, who earned his PhD in Germany and has worked abroad extensively, was “fascinated by an opportunity to provide meaningful and impactful public service and drawn in by Tom Geraghty’s enthusiasm.” He described students as “astonished by examples of how the rule of law works in other countries and by discovering the fundamentals of self-determination and self-governance.”

Both Sawyer and Kleinfeld agree that Ethiopia is poised for this kind of legal instruction; the surge in law students and law schools, combined with a yearning for new ideas, makes it an ideal place and time for faculty to become involved. “I doubt there is another place in the world where being an emissary of the rule of law and democracy could be more significant,” said Kleinfeld.

In addition to sending Northwestern Law experts to Ethiopia, the Bluhm Legal Clinic hosted three Ethiopian law professors in Chicago last fall: Tshai Wada from Addis Ababa University; Professor Fikremarkos; and Tiglu Melese Olongo, a young clinician from Haramaya University (near the Ethiopia-Somalia border). These visits were intended to provide Ethiopian colleagues with opportunities to conduct research and strengthen the relationship between Northwestern and law faculty and schools in Ethiopia.

“Clinical legal education is necessary to bridge the gap between theory and practice,” said Professor Tiglu.* “Most Ethiopian lawyers, even senior lawyers, have little understanding of this. My visit—observing clinical classes, learning about juvenile court, and more—helped me to know that clinical education is a multidisciplinary and multipurpose education that can develop the human resources and idealism needed to strengthen the legal system… to contribute to national development and social change in a constructive manner.”

What most impressed Professor Tiglu during his visit were “student advocacy and the service the clinic is providing to the needy. I also appreciated the work of the judges and public defenders who are working toward justice and not only to win.”

Professor Tiglu looks forward to more training that will enable him to teach his students and to train staff members. Visits by three more Ethiopians this spring—funded in part by a gift from Northwestern alumni Russ (JD ’61) and Peg (SESP ’61) Matthias—will help in planning future training sessions for Ethiopian clinical teachers. In May, Tom Geraghty, Lynn Cohn (JD ’87), and Diane Geraghty (JD ’72) traveled to Ethiopia to train clinical teachers in Addis Ababa, accompanied by two teaching assistants—Northwestern students who have helped to develop teaching materials.

Successes and Plans for the Future

Northwestern Law Dean Daniel Rodriguez continues to be supportive of faculty and student work in Ethiopia.

“Over the course of decades,” said Rodriguez, “Northwestern Law faculty and students have, through programs like the Center for International Human Rights and projects such as the ABA ROLI program in Ethiopia, quietly made a tremendous difference in countries where the rule of law is still emerging.”

Professor Fikremarkos believes his university has significantly benefited from “Northwestern’s solid experience, especially in clinical legal education.”

Mandefrot Belay, the former director of ABA ROLI in Ethiopia, noted the program’s accomplishments: “We have conducted a comprehensive assessment of the state of legal education in Ethiopia, which has shown critical gaps. We’ve prepared and published six new textbooks in core areas of the national legal curriculum that were distributed and now are in use by universities across the country. We organized and sponsored the first-ever national arbitration moot competition between all law schools in the country, and, with visiting Northwestern Law professors, delivered advanced-level training courses.”

Still, the important legal reform happening in Ethiopia is far from finished, and the USAID grant that supported the ABA ROLI program ended in 2012. Implementation of the ABA ROLI plan, according to Mandefrot, “calls for working with universities and law schools to help them revise and develop core course curricula, textbooks, and associated teaching materials for Ethiopian law schools.”

“Many law schools still do not have sufficient and experienced faculty, and they lack good library resources, including access to online resources,” said Mandefrot. “More than 85 percent of faculty members are young and lack experience and advanced training. Clinical legal education is still new, and well-trained clinical staff to teach courses and prepare and supervise students are needed.”

Fiona McKinnon (LLM IHR ’13), a law student working with Geraghty on clinical legal education in Ethiopia, echoed Mandefrot: “I’ve been visiting Ethiopia since 2005, and it’s amazing to see the changes. But when we look at clinical legal education, the oldest law clinic is just six years old. There aren’t professors with clinical training, and there is a lot of opportunity. With more training, more lawyers would be able to competently provide services to more and more people who need them.”

Geraghty receives countless requests for information and training from law schools around Ethiopia and is working diligently to meaningfully respond. Perhaps better than any law professional outside Ethiopia, Geraghty understands that poverty and years of political strife have created obstacles to legal training and higher education. His team is dedicated to providing support and serving as a resource, with Ethiopians driving the process.

“Because legal education has expanded so rapidly in Ethiopia, there is a tremendous need for first-rate instruction. Establishing a new national law curriculum requires more practical legal education through clinical courses,” he explained. “Of course, there are logistical, financial, time, and comfort constraints to this type of work, but I dearly hope others on our faculty will become interested in serving Ethiopian citizens and promoting the rule of law in this way.”

*Note on names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name alone or their honorific title and first name.

This article was written by Tracy Marks and first published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Northwestern Law Reporter.