Journal of Leadership and the Law

Leadership in Action: A Summer at UNIDROIT - 2012

Caroline JohnsonCaroline Johnson '13


In a year when Olympic events showcased leading athletes from countries across the world and a Presidential election will determine the next leader of the United States, there are millions of other people working every day to address the most troubling issues in the world. One organization that works to unite countries across the world is the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT). As a summer intern working at its headquarters in Rome, Italy, the research teams and staff at UNIDROIT opened my eyes to the definition of true leadership on an international scale, to the experiences that make success more likely for those new professionals looking to begin an international legal career, and the opportunities available to those experienced and looking to expand into new horizons. Leadership in international law is evolving due to globalization and exposure to new territories across the world. This expansion is occurring while countries struggle to protect cultures and citizenry from succumbing to the ills plaguing societies in the twenty-first century.

The interns gathered from countries across the world working for UNIDROIT on various projects: cultural artifact protection and reacquisition, netting of financial instruments, matters dealing with space assets, land grabbing, and the largest current project, private law and agricultural development with a focus on contract farming (A full description on works in progress is available here). Although I learned many lessons learned during my summer experience, there are three mains lessons that may be helpful to lawyers interested in pursuing a career in international law. First, many individuals must leave home to be able to learn the skill sets necessary to address the problems in their community from a different perspective.  Second, the minimum qualifications to be competitive in the field of international law require multilingual skills and multiple degrees. Finally, everyone has good and bad experiences which define who we are, our priorities, morals, and decision-making skills, but they also make us a unique package for potential employers; and these experiences may drive an existing lawyer to work for a different cause, view other people differently, or redefine their morals and values. 

Leaving Home   

One of the most inspiring realizations I had this summer is witnessing the number of young individuals willing to leave the comfort of their present surroundings—family, home, friends, and culture—to pursue an education or a career, and return home to share the experiences and knowledge gained during their travels. The interns at UNIDROIT hailed from countries including: Canada, Ethiopia, France, Italy, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Suriname, Romania, the United States, and Zimbabwe. UNIDROIT offers an opportunity to those who wish to come and conduct research on a plethora of international issues, spending anywhere from eight weeks to several months at a time on a variety of projects. Some individuals come at their own prerogative, others for thesis research, and still others on grants from large companies to do satellite research and bring the findings back home. Leaving home demonstrates leadership, for these individuals are not accepting of the status quo within their countries; rather, if these individuals stayed at home, the issues may never be addressed by those in power. True leaders recognize deficiencies in their communities and actively strive to be the catalyst for change. Two students at UNIDROIT this summer shared stories that demonstrated the leadership necessary to accomplish tasks on an international scale.

David, a student from Zimbabwe, wanted to leave his family to study law so that he could have, as he told me, “the capacity to influence policy, challenge legal forms of totalitarianism and represents victims of political persecution and other illegitimate forms of harassment by arms of the State.” However, whereas many in his situation would want to run from such harsh realities, David said he wants to return home to help the region full of ever-increasing populations, vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, gain the voices needed “to influence the creation of administrative, legal and regulatory frameworks that safeguard their interests.” Quite simply, he wants to reduce the misery through the implementation of his own research and leadership not only in his own country, but in those throughout the world.

Another colleague that came to work at UNIDROIT partway through my research tenure was from Kazakhstan, who wished to remain nameless in published documents. Despite the fact that she is limited in what she may discuss in public, she is a proud Kazakh who wants to return to her country to educate the future government officials and intellectuals so that they may earn a good living and avoid the desolation plaguing many. As a lawyer, she does not make enough money to even rent her own apartment, let alone own her own home, as most money is in natural resource development in the former Soviet territory. She is hoping to help her country become a successful, independent country, rich in Kazakh history and culture. The government offers scholarships to attend the top twenty research schools in the world (including Harvard), and thus, to be a top lawyer and professor, she must leave home to achieve a level of success deemed necessary in her country. So often, Americans take for granted things like freedom of speech, free education, a chance to earn a living, and even our democratic process. It is leaders like my peer from Kazakhstan that demonstrate true leadership when facing adversity and still maintaining the belief that she can make a difference even though she could simply leave and start a new life elsewhere. It is in this strength and dedication that leadership is found.

Education and Language Skills

The skill sets necessary for those aspiring to be a leading lawyer are changing with the advent of social networking, the expansion of the internet, and the evolution of technology. One of the most significant traits apparent in the interns and staff at UNIDROIT is the level of education and plethora of languages spoken fluently. Araya, a professor from Kenya conducting research on land grabbing, speaks 4 languages--Tigrigna (his native language), Amharic (the official language in Ethiopia), English, Chinese, and is presently learning Italian. Laura, a doctoral candidate from Lithuania speaks five languages fluently—Lithuanian, Russian, English, French, and Italian. These languages allow individuals the chance to work with people around the globe; the more languages you speak, the more people you can help.

Every intern I met was learning another language, whether it was a result of living in a foreign country with no prior language exposure or taking language intensive classes at night. Francesca Pelosi, a lawyer in Italy working as an intern on the contract farming project, started German classes at night to have greater appeal at International European firms with a third language. Despite the fact she is a licensed attorney in Italy, she has her sights set on practicing at an international firm which requires extensive language expertise. Law is special in that it governs relationships between people in all countries; education and linguistic expertise allow individuals to help others on a local, national, or global scale. Higher education and multiple languages allow a current lawyer or law student the chance to offer their employers the ability to reach out to entire nations of individuals that few within the office may be able to work with. In an age where international law transcends boundaries and coagulates citizens from countries worldwide, a diverse cultural and linguistic background will only be advantageous in advancing in the top international firms.

Leadership does not depend on one’s ability to possess multilingual skills, as many great leaders speak only their native tongue. However, continuing education and learning more languages opens an individual up to new experiences and cultures that may require leadership skills. It is important that many foreign countries facilitate children learning three or four languages throughout school, thus placing them at a strong advantage to work international over American programs that encourage at most one language to be learned at an elementary level. As globalization continues and international law continues to commingle through conventions and unifying principles, language and advanced degrees may give lawyers an advantage over competition in the job marketplace.


Every person goes through experiences that shape the way he perceives the world and what needs change. For my colleagues from Zimbabwe and Kenya, David and Araya respectively, seeing hunger plague those in the community is enough to leave their homes to study what can be done to enact change back at home. My Kazakh peer confided that her ultimate wish is to increase civil rights protections and ensure that those unable to protect themselves from oppression have a voice in their favor. All of this comes with the fear that should the government not agree with such career aspirations, her family could be out of work.....for good. For others, the desire to practice law simply arose from a lawyer’s trip to their primary school or their exposure to their parents’ careers as lawyers. These students may have a set idea of what they want to do and may have numerous networking opportunities already available to them.

For me, law school was not a childhood dream, nor a family tradition; I am the first in my family to go to law school. Several of my colleagues discussed political or economic issues within their own countries that have led them to want change, seeing people struggle to make a better life for themselves but be plagued by bureaucratic obstacles, political corruption, or lack of resources.  My experiences that led me to come to law school are very different than those shared with me by my fellow interns.

On March 5, 2008, a classmate and friend, Eve Carson, was murdered on the streets of Chapel Hill. Still, over four years later, I find it difficult to come to terms with her premature death. Although the deep sadness, frustration, and anger were overwhelming, it was Eve’s dedication to identifying problems and their solutions that inspired me to ensure that I did whatever I could to help make others’ lives better. It was only after I read the remarks her father gave at her memorial service that I realized what I want to do:

“The irony of Eve’s murder is that she, along with these blessed friends and fellow students, are the ones who can solve the most pressing problems of this time. Please don’t attribute this to a hyperbole or relate it to a father’s sadness. I see a stunningly beautiful convergence of talent and caring in this, our children’s generation. It is the most fantastic realization. 

I believe that these kids, along with their peers around the globe, can reach reasoned solutions for mitigating violence and tackling many of the inequities of poverty, prejudice, inadequate health care and under-education.”*

* The full text of Mr. Carson's words from Eve's memorial service is available here.

It’s a strange realization now to reconsider these words after meeting such inspirational colleagues at UNIDROIT. Though they were just a small number, they symbolize the increasing interest in tackling such issues on a global scale. Life changes instantly; were it not Eve’s abhorrent death, I would likely not be in law school, let alone spending a summer in Rome working for such a prestigious organization. UNIDROIT’s mission in researching a plethora of topics that affect various countries demonstrates the many ways people may implement change to impact even one life. I am one of the thousands of people who knew Eve. My hope is that I can touch someone else’s life in the way she has forever changed mine. 

Regardless of what circumstances we have each individually faced in life, everyone possesses some experience that lends them to be the advocate, the compassionate listener, the teacher, or the fighter that is necessary to preserve legal systems throughout the world. True leadership is not defined by loudest speaker or grandiose acts. It is found in moments that your attitude, behavior, and kind words influence another to want something better for themselves and those around them. The researchers and interns at UNIDROIT are dedicated to addressing the problems that have been plaguing society for decades, as evidenced by leaving the comfort of home to travel to Rome and working for a cause greater than themselves.

Although my paper largely focuses on those skills that ought to be developed for greater success in international law, this is not to say that those coming from the American culture without a myriad of language or advanced degrees have nothing to offer the global framework. Conversely, American lawyers attend some of the best programs in the world, as well as have the access to literature and internship opportunities those in foreign countries struggle to earn. Job prosperity, median income, and health care are all more advanced than in many international counterparts. Although an American law student may not speak five languages fluently, he may have a unique internship offered through a professor or a cultural heritage or experience that has given him far more education than a degree may have. Ultimately, leadership is not only found in those areas discussed above. Leadership may be found in everyday decisions or life experiences that make each individual see the world through a different lens. However, what may not be contested is that it takes leaders to overcome challenging situations and solve the most pressing problems.

All it takes is for one person to start the cataclysmic reaction to show others that mediocrity simply is not enough; to be a leader, one must first set an example for others to follow.