ABA International Section Spring Meeting Attractive to Corporate Counsel: Women's rights and rule of law top bar group's agenda

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 09:52

Marcelo Bombau, chair of the 22,000-member ABA Section of International Law, leads the Merger and Acquisitions and Media and Entertainment departments of Argentina’s M. & M. Bomchil, one of the country’s most prominent law firms. As the group’s Spring Meeting approaches (April 28 – May 2, Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.), we spoke with Mr. Bombau about the International Section and the opportunities it presents for corporate counsel. 

MCC: Tell us about the ABA Section of International Law and the activities and initiatives on which the group focuses.

Bombau: The Section, one of the five or six biggest in the ABA, is also one of the most diverse groups in the organization – and certainly the most geographically diverse. Our members come from more than 90 countries. We are also highly diverse in other important ways, including the substantial participation of women in our group. To give just one example, my predecessors as chair were both women, and my successors as chair also are women. One of our key areas of focus is women’s rights, and one of our major initiatives is our International Models Project on Women’s Rights, a collaborative online database of original research and other documents and links on laws and law reform concerning women’s rights around the world (www.impowr.org).

MCC: As the international standard bearer for the ABA, what else does the group focus on?

Bombau: We are the only ABA entity that focuses on the full range of international legal issues. One of our most important missions is to lead the way in implementing Goal IV of the Association, “to advance the rule of law in the world,” which was adopted in 1983. The Section has implemented many legal capacity-building projects around the world. Our Rule of Law officer, Isabella Bunn, oversees our activities in coordination with our staff. We also take the lead in organizing the annual ABA Day at the United Nations.

MCC: What about the in-house bar? To what extent do they participate in the Section, and what are the benefits for them?

Bombau: Fully 12 percent of our 22,000 members are corporate counsel – so thousands of in-house lawyers get involved, many of them through our International Corporate Counsel Committee, which develops its own programming. We work very hard to assure that our programs meet the needs of this key group. It’s important to note that our annual spring and fall meetings are only part of what we do. We steadily run programs year-round, and when someone requests that we do a particular program, we do everything we can to accommodate them.

MCC: Let’s talk about the Spring Meeting. Is there anything special in store for corporate counsel?

Bombau: Absolutely. We have dozens of programs along with many other educational, recreational and cultural activities, many of which will appeal to in-house counsel of various organizations. To give two examples, we have a session called “Holding an Umbrella in a Hurricane: Hot Topics for General Counsel to U.S. Government Agencies, International Organizations, and International NGOs,” which will appeal not only to the GCs of these organizations but to a broad cross-section of in-house counsel from private and public companies interested in data security, crisis management and other hot topics. We also have planned a session that promises to be both fun and informative – Legal Compliance Jeopardy: Navigating Global Regulatory Compliance to Avoid Unintended Consequences,” which uses a game show format featuring an internationally diverse panel of “contestants” posing potential resolutions to hypotheticals involving conflicting regulatory/political environments. Global compliance is one of the things that keeps general counsel up at night, so we expect this to be a very popular program.

MCC: What else is happening at the Spring Meeting that you’d like to highlight?

Bombau: I’m looking forward to the three luncheons we have scheduled, each of which features a fascinating individual. First up, and in keeping with our Section’s focus on the rule of law, is William Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005, when he was shut out of the country because of his battle against corporate corruption. Many of us know the story of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison after uncovering a $230 million fraud committed by Russian government officials. Bill Browder has made it his mission to expose corruption and human rights abuses in Russia, which helped pave the way for the United States’ adoption in 2012 of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which imposes asset freezes and visa bans on certain officials involved in Magnitsky’s death. Bill is now working to have similar legislation passed in the European Union. Our second luncheon features U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who, when she was in private practice in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt, litigated international commercial matters. Our third luncheon welcomes Judge Jean Donoghue, who has served on the International Court of Justice since 2010, which she joined after spending four years as principal deputy legal adviser, the senior career attorney of the U.S. Department of State. She serves as a member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law and is counselor for the American Law Institute’s Fourth Restatement of the Foreign Relations Law of the United Sates. It’s an incredibly interesting and diverse lineup. We’re lucky to have them joining us.

MCC: One issue corporate counsel are very focused on is the opening of legal markets. I know it’s something the Section is involved in. Tell us about it.

Bombau: In various countries, India being one noteworthy case, there are barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for clients to retain their preferred counsel. For example, why does corporate counsel at a U.S. company have to turn to an attorney in India rather than the attorney with whom he or she is accustomed to working? We have been working with delegations from the India Bar and the Society of Indian Law Firms on loosening such restrictions. The good news is that the recent change in government in India has produced an official softening of the attitudes towards foreign lawyers establishing in India. Still, the nature and extent of any forthcoming changes are uncertain, which is a topic of one of the sessions at the Spring Meeting. Lalit Bhasin, of Bhasin & Co. in New Delhi, who is president of the Society of Indian Law Firms, is participating on the panel.

MCC: Given the size of the Section and the scope of its activities, it must be more than a full-time job. How does a practicing lawyer lead an organization this big and this geographically diverse?

Bombau: Well, as my partners will tell you, my billable hours are way down. Seriously, it’s a major commitment, but this is a voluntary organization. You join and you can be as active as you choose to be.

MCC: This issue of MCC includes a special report on Latin America, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you about your own experience practicing in the region. You’ve been outspoken about the challenges lawyers face in Argentina, where political agendas have sometimes encroached on the rule of law. Tell us what it’s been like to practice in Argentina the last few years.

Bombau: Argentina has been quite nasty over the last three years. Just last week the president mentioned that we have the “Judicial Party,” and there has been troubling interference with the media. Doing business in Argentina has become more difficult. But we have a democratically elected government, and every indication is that our next presidential election will bring positive change and business will loosen up.