Virginia Teaching Goes to South Africa
Law School Alums Share American Legal Expertise
Margaret B. Edwards
After practicing law for 41 years, Jim St. Clair ’60 was not yet ready to ride into the sunset. Instead of retiring to a quiet life with family and hobbies, St. Clair has stayed active in business as president of Huntington Realty Corporation, and continued to serve on numerous boards. But somehow he still has had time to embark on an extraordinary period of international public service. “At 65, 67, you’re not yet old, and you have a lot of energy,” St. Clair says. “If you have any spirit of adventure and a desire to help others, [volunteering] gives you a chance to go outside of your normal area of concern and share the concerns of the world.”
It started in 2002 when St. Clair happened on an announcement in the newsletter of the American Bar Association soliciting applications for senior attorneys interested in volunteering for the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP). The ISLP provides volunteer legal services “in order to advance democracy and the rule of law, protect human rights and promote equitable economic development worldwide.” St. Clair immediately was interested. For the last three years, he has volunteered with the ISLP in places as diverse as Brazil, the Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. In the summer of 2005, he went to South Africa, teaching part of an eight-week course on commercial law. He returned to do another session with the project in 2006.
As it turned out, the South Africa project began as the brainchild of Leigh Middleditch, ’57, working first with classmate Frank Stewart ’57 and then Paul Coetser (LL.M. ’87). Coetser, now a partner at the Johannesburg firm of Brink, Cohen Le Roux, had worked with Middleditch at McGuireWoods just after completing his LL.M. The project, called the South Africa Black Lawyers Association Commercial Law Project, came into being for a simple reason: years after apartheid ended in 1994, the South African economic system was still not a level playing field.
“There were relatively few black attorneys until the late 1980’s,” says Coetser. “Commercial and business law was the preserve of white lawyers, mainly because the commercial law instructions came from white people who owned and controlled the big commercial enterprises. As a result, it was (and it still is) difficult for black lawyers to gain experience and training in that sort of work.” To address this problem, South Africa’s Black Empowerment Act now requires the participation of black attorneys in many business deals.
Still, says Coetser, that left a Catch-22: lack of training made it difficult for black attorneys to take advantage of the law. “After all, an onerous contract or transaction that is based on wrong or inadequate advice may lead to the collapse of a company and disrespect for the rule of law.” This, he says, has implications for the long-term political and economic health of South Africa. So, working with South Africa’s Black Lawyers Association and the ISLP, Middleditch, Stewart, and Coetser developed a proposal that successfully pursued grants from the Ford Foundation and other sponsors to pay the travel costs of volunteer instructors. First offered in Johannesburg in 2004, the Commercial Law Project expanded to include a course in Durban in 2005. Now in its third year, it has expanded to two 13-week courses offered in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Student Trudy Moshodi credits the Project with giving her the basic tools for drafting commercial agreements and efficient case management. “I realized that this particular area of the law is not as difficult as it is made out to be by those who have already acquired the expertise. The lectures were interactive and interesting, and they have added value to my development as a black commercial attorney.” She adds, “I am a recipient of the Vance Centre Scholarship, which grants opportunities to previously disadvantaged attorneys in South Africa to come to the United States to get practical exposure to commercial practice. The course felt strangely enough like a crash course in the U.S. legal system both in terms of drafting and general commercial practice. It helped me identify some similarities and differences in our respective systems.” Moshodi’s scholarship and subsequent travel to the U.S. interrupted her participation, but she hopes to complete the course next year after she returns to Johannesburg. Applicants to the program normally must commit to attending classes four nights a week for the entire course.
For St. Clair, South Africa was an opportunity to teach while also expanding the network of people willing to help. In the summer of 2006, he taught the basics of commercial law skills, business development, and case management at night. During the day he met with attorneys in larger area firms to introduce them to the Project and to solicit commitments of support. He also traveled to Gaborone, Botswana to see if there was interest and need for a similar program there. “We’re trying to get people involved, because there is so much need. Everywhere I went I was greeted with open arms.” St. Clair plans to return to South Africa one more time, unless another project with the ISLP takes him elsewhere. “It’s a wonderful way to retire,” he says, eyes twinkling. “People ask what you accomplish, and I tell them: Sow seeds and come back in five or ten years and see. It was my job to throw out the seeds.”
For more information about how to support projects like the Commercial Law Project, contact Leigh Middleditch at email@example.com or call him at (434) 977-2543. Information about ISLP projects is available at http://www.islp.org/.