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Thirty Years at the French Bar

Ronald P. Sokol ’62, LL.M. ’63

O n a gray November day last year I ascended the interminable steps of the Palais de Justice. Ignoring most of the fifteen miles of corridors, I passed through one of the building’s 7000 doors, donned my black silk robe, and walked into the gilded First Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals. Massive tapestries by Gobelins decorated the walls; high above me a ceiling fresco by Bonnat bore the hopeful title, “Justice enlightened by Truth pursuing Crime and protecting Innocence.”

What had happened in the 42 years since that day in June, 1962 when I stood on the platform of the Charlottesville railroad station with my Law School roommate? As we said goodbye, he to return to Alabama and I to Milwaukee, we looked at each other and said in amazement, “We’re lawyers now.” Today he is the founding partner of a firm of 70 lawyers in Atlanta (1), and I am a member, not just of the Wisconsin bar but of the bar in France, where I have been practicing since 1973. Who could have predicted such an outcome? Euripides ended his plays with the lines, “And the end men looked for cometh not/And the path is there where no man thought/ So hath it fallen here.”

In 1962 I wanted to do appellate litigation, a specialty that did not then exist. Uncertain of my destiny, I returned to the Law School to pursue an LL.M. under the guidance of Dan Meador whose seminars on constitutional litigation and arguments before the Supreme Court inspired me. Under Meador’s guidance I began to argue habeas corpus cases as assigned counsel before the Fourth Circuit. When I finished my LL.M., I was invited to stay on as Director of a newly created appellate legal aid program. For three years I periodically drove from Charlottesville to Richmond to argue cases. I was followed by a covey of third year students, for I used the cases as the basis for a seminar. During those years I argued some 30 cases before the federal court.

At the end of six years I gave Dean Dillard my resignation and left Charlottesville for Paris to follow a lesser-traveled, more Quixotic path. Partly I sought a deeper understanding of what we mean when we talk of justice; partly I sought the joie de vivre of Paris. When I eventually sorted out my thoughts, they were published as Justice After Darwin (2). In my spare time I pursued the pleasures of Parisian life and studied French, completing the curriculum at the Alliance Française. In 1970 I moved to Aix-en-Provence, a university town in the south of France with a legal tradition stretching back 500 years. (I knew none of its history, only that it was covered by a dome of deep blue sky.) In 1973 I met the requirements to be a French Legal Counselor. In 1990, the French government, in an attempt to slow the invasion of English and American law firms, merged the profession of Legal Counselors (conseil juridique) with that of Court Advocates (avocat) (2), and I became a full-fl edged member of the French bar. I purchased the requisite black robe and began to argue cases throughout the country.

Thus it was on that gray November day, sitting opposite three judges at the end of a thirty foot table, that I began my argument. I hoped to convince them that a judgment obtained in a religious tribunal in a Middle Eastern country by a Middle Eastern husband against my client, his American wife, was lacerated with fraud and should not be recognized in France. I had first to surmount a major obstacle.

My client’s husband held multiple nationalities and was an ambassador to UNESCO. He had invoked his diplomatic immunity as a shield against the divorce suit brought in France by his wife. I argued that this was an abuse of diplomatic immunity. He was attempting to use his diplomatic privileges for personal advantage. Although three different treaties specifically prohibit this (4), the Paris Court of Appeals did not.

Such unusual cases enliven my practice. Still, although I enjoy traveling to medieval towns, entering picturesque courthouses, and the civilized ritual of shaking hands with the chief judge in chambers prior to the hearing, I am often disheartened after the oral argument. French judges seldom ask questions. I thus engage in a monologue. Does the judge agree or disagree with my arguments? I rarely have a window into what the judge may be thinking. To an American-trained litigator this is a frustrating experience. Not only does it devalue the oral argument, but it can lead to an inferior judicial product.

The French talk now of adopting an “interactive oral argument” (“plaidoirie interactive”). To an American lawyer the fear expressed by members of the French bar of an “interactive argument” seems ludicrous; yet it mirrors the fear that recently enveloped a radical innovation in French criminal procedure. Until 2004 it was impossible for an accused in a French criminal court to plead guilty. The concept of pleading guilty (“plaider coupable”) was as foreign to the French bar as the French practice of joining a civil action for damages to an indictment would be to an American lawyer. Against the overwhelming wishes of the bar, the French government forced through legislation permitting an accused to plead guilty.

FRENCH JUDGES seldom ask questions. I thus engage in a monologue. Does the judge agree or disagree with my arguments?

Early in 1996 a series of events occurred which I felt provided a rare insight into certain features of French law and life. They began with the death of President Mitterrand. His fourteen year tenure was the longest rule of any French leader since Napoleon III (5). Almost immediately after his death his personal physician published a book recounting how the President had ordered him to conceal his fatal cancer from the French public. Mitterrand’s surviving family successfully brought suit to stop publication. Although I was in no way involved in the litigation, I decided to use it to bring together some of my thoughts about the French legal system.

As I wrote in the article that emerged, “A court ordered ban of a book about the deceased President of a democratic country, published by a respected publisher and involving neither national security nor obscene material, must be a unique event.” (6) For more than a decade Dr. Gubler in his semi-annual public reports on the President’s health concealed the cancer which he had first diagnosed in 1981. When, after Mitterrand’s death, he eventually told his story, he was demonized and punished, not for lying to the public for eleven years but for finally telling the truth. While the decision in 2004 of the European Court of Human Rights against France and in favor of the publisher (7) confirmed the prediction in my article, it did not diminish the Gallic irony of the earlier judicial decisions which rewarded the doctor’s deception and punished his truth-telling.

T.S. Eliot recently reminded me in one of his essays that a man is a different person in each decade of his life (8). As I move through my seventh decade, I feel my most useful role to my clients is that of a legal-cultural interface between two legal systems that share many similarities and yet remain profoundly different. France is a Latin country, secular, adamantly non-religious, yet strewn with the vestiges of 1500 years of Roman Catholic ritual, tradition, and philosophy.

If within the past century France finally broke the iron grip of the Church, it has not yet broken free from the concept that law exists to be transgressed and then the transgression pardoned. This is not a concept that I learned at the Law School, but it is a subterranean current of French legal life. Yet in the past few decades much has changed in France. The French Republic has inched closer to a Common Law mentality. Pressures emanating from the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights increasingly impact on French practice. The European Court of Human Rights fills a role in Europe today quite analogous to that filled by the U.S. Supreme Court during the period of the Warren Court in the 1960s (9).

The tug of history and the push of contemporary practices often conflict. In the judicial sea these conflicts produce whirlpools and currents which are neither easy to fathom nor navigate. To assist clients to meet their objectives and to escape the treacherous shoals of two legal systems is my task. This unique role puts a heavy premium on cross-cultural understanding and experience. If only I had another half century to plumb the depths and study the currents, I might draw the navigational chart that would reveal all.

Since 1973, Ronald P. Sokol, ’62, LL.M. ’63, has practiced and taught law near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. While he is admitted to both the American and French bar, his clients come from around the world. Information on the Sokol Practice may be found at:

1 Drew, Eckl & Farnham

2 Sokol, R. Justice After Darwin, The Michie Company, 1975.

3 Sokol, R., “Reforming the French Legal Profession,” 26 Int’l. Lawyer 1025 (1992).

4 Sokol, R., “Falling into a black hole of diplomatic immunity,” International Herald Tribune, August 14–15, 2004, p. 5.

5 1848–1870.

6 Sokol, R. “Freedom of Expression in France : The Mitterrand-Dr. Gubler Affair,”

7 Tulane J. Int’l. & Comp. Law 5,6 (1999). 7 Affaire Plon, ECHR, May 18, 2004, Requête n° 58148/00.

8 “For a man who is capable of experience finds himself in a different world in every decade of his life, as he sees it with different eyes.…” T.S. Eliot speaking in 1940 at the 1st Annual Yeats Lecture, published in On Poetry and Poets, (London, Faber & Faber, 1957), p. 257.

9 See Sokol, R. “Justice emigrates to Europe,” International Herald Tribune, July 17–18, 2004, p. 4.

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