The Washington, D.C., office of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) sits discreetly on Pennsylvania Avenue. Across the street from the hub of government buildings in the Federal Triangle and a few blocks from the White House, the location speaks to just how closely the coalition would like the United States to align itself with the forces seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The modest digs are home to a small band of SOC officials who act as a liaison to the U.S. government to help the anti-Assad forces circumvent sanctions against Syria, lobby for aid, and strategize over their next steps on Capitol Hill and at the United Nations. Among them is Bassel Korkor, who has served as the SOC's U.S. legal adviser since it was formally established in November 2012.
Korkor, however, is not one of the half-dozen full-time employees who work for the SOC in D.C. and New York. Instead he donates his time pro bono, juggling his commitments to the opposition with his career as a midlevel litigation associate at Jones Day. He is one of a growing number of Am Law 200 lawyers who are using their legal skills to support the Arab Spring revolutions that spread in early 2011 from Tunisia to Libya, to Egypt, and now to Syria, the bloodiest standoff to date between an entrenched dictator and pro-democracy forces.
Drawn from firms including Cleary Gott­lieb Steen & Hamilton, Covington & Bur­ling, Jones Day, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, these lawyers have advised on such varied matters as new constitutional and legal frameworks, International Criminal Court proceedings, tracking of overseas assets of previous regimes, and transitioning to new democratic governments. They may not always achieve the results they envision—events on the ground can move more quickly even than a team of lawyers working around the clock—but they believe they can have an effect.
"My wife likes to say that I need to do something here, with the skill set that I have, [that] will mean that all the death and destruction in Syria will result in change [so] the fighting won't be for nothing," Korkor says. "I hope that doesn't sound too cheesy," he adds, voice trailing off.
Born to Syrian Christian parents in Cleveland, Korkor has been closely involved in the SOC's attempts to win recognition and support in the U.S. When the revolution broke out in Syria in March 2011, Korkor started doing pro bono work for several Syrian American humanitarian groups that formed an umbrella organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Syria.
"It was clear that these groups needed more advice on government affairs, and I had experience advising on sanctions, national security matters, and compliance work," says Korkor, who was an associate at Arnold & Porter before moving to Jones Day in the fall of 2012. He began working for the SOC following its formation in November 2012, initially focusing on relatively basic matters, such as how the SOC's U.S. arm should be organized. Over the last six months, his work has evolved to include helping draft a U.N. resolution, meeting with congressional staffers on legislation to express support for the opposition, and working on circumventing the U.S.'s tough sanctions against Syria to get resources to the opposition forces on the ground.
"At times I'm doing things that you don't always send a lawyer to do, such as negotiating a U.N. resolution or bouncing off ideas for peace negotiations," says Korkor, who says he's logged more than 1,000 hours on Syria work in the past two years.
Korkor says that one of the reasons he joined Jones Day was its commitment to international pro bono work and its spread of offices (he divides his time between the firm's Cleveland and D.C. offices). "From a career perspective, this is a great experience," he says. "I've been charged with a significant amount of responsibility, and I appreciate that I'm able to help." Among other things, his work includes helping plan for a possible vote at the United Nations General Assembly in September to formally recognize the Syrian opposition as Syria's representative to the U.N.
Not every lawyer working on Arab Spring matters enjoys Korkor's level of involvement in his client's decision-making process, but even junior lawyers have a chance to make a significant contribution. Consider Colleen "Betsy" Popken, a litigation associate in Orrick's San Francisco office.
When Popken's job offer at Orrick was deferred in the wake of the recession, she took a pro bono fellowship after finishing her studies for an LL.M. in international law at the London School of Economics. Popken wanted to pursue a fellowship in public international law and, if possible, live overseas.
Orrick pro bono counsel Rene Kathawala suggested that she work for the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), which brands itself as a global pro bono law firm. Since its creation in 1995, PILPG has advised on international law in such places as the Balkans, Somalia, Tanzania, and South Sudan. The group offered Popken an opportunity to work on international law, although not the chance to live overseas again—she would be based at PILPG's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The start of Popken's fellowship coincided with the first events of the Arab Spring in early 2011, so she quickly found herself providing legal and policy advice on Egypt's revolution and advice to the Libyan Transitional Council, the group allied against Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. In August 2011 she started advising the Syrian opposition, first on protecting minority rights in a new constitution, and then on a range of topics including conflict resolution and possible proceedings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Although Popken has a background in international law, she admits that "the learning curve is steep. But you're working around the clock on these issues, so you're totally engrossed, and you learn very quickly."
Popken's Arab Spring work for PILPG did not end when she started as a litigation asso­ciate in Orrick's San Francisco office in January 2012. Since she joined the firm, she has participated in workshops in Copenhagen and The Hague on transition planning for a post-Assad Syria. In the process, she has racked up more than 500 pro bono hours.
"I treat this work as I would any other client work," Popken says. "Certainly at times it's been tricky to balance my pro bono work with the rest of my caseload, as it is for any young associate, but Orrick has been very supportive."
For most firms looking to become involved in Arab Spring–related work, organizations like PILPG or Human Rights Watch provide an ideal conduit. Formed by a group of former U.S. State Department employees, PILPG maintains close ties to several Am Law 200 firms, including Baker & McKenzie, Cleary, Covington, DLA Piper, Jones Day, Orrick, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
PILPG says it annually provides more than $15 million worth of international pro bono work advising transitional governments, helping new democratic regimes, and advising on international criminal cases. For some firms it has become a major source of international pro bono work. Covington, for example, has had almost 150 attorneys log around 7,700 hours over a nearly 10-year relationship with PILPG.
Such is PILPG's reputation that it has worked in all four countries—Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria—that have seen revolutions in the Arab Spring. Although PILPG declined to identify the specific groups it works with in each country, it prides itself on offering a unique perspective by getting its own staff on the ground as soon as a situation is considered safe enough.
"One of the keys to our success is that we're lawyers, and we rely on lawyers at firms, so we like to analyze a matter and then give our clients options," says PILPG president and cofounder Paul Williams. "That goes a long way, because so many people like to tell our clients exactly what they should do."
Although advising on new constitutional frameworks or prosecuting former warlords is not typically part of a law firm's day-to-day workload, lawyers who work on PILPG matters say that the leap from their typical private-practice cases isn't too daunting. "PILPG is very good at providing background and highlighting the sensitivities in a matter," says Mipe Okunseinde, an associate in Covington's Washington, D.C., office who has worked on a range of issues for PILPG, including, most recently, a project related to transitional justice in Syria. "It's not that different from coming out of law school, joining your new firm, and being put straight on a new matter," he says. Except it may be more likely to be featured on the next day's front page.