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With his tiny army of young lawyers, Edwin Rekosh expects to change the world. He reasons, “It’s the way to really reform society. It actually takes only one or two individuals, with the right network of support, to go against the tide, you know. “By nature, we’re subversives,” said Rekosh, founder and executive director of a program at Columbia Law School with a mouthful of a name: the Public Interest Law Initiative in Transitional Societies. “And that’s better than rifles. The right kind of subversion never killed anybody.” Once the holidays are over, Rekosh will pack his bags and set his subversive sights elsewhere: namely the newly created Columbia University Budapest Law Center in Hungary. The new center in Budapest, scheduled to open in March 2002, would be the first overseas institution established by Columbia Law. Officially, it is an expansion of Rekosh’s program, which has made its home at the Morningside Heights campus since 1997 to advance human rights principles in the post-communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. “We’re trying to shape whole new legal cultures,” said Rekosh, 39, himself a 1988 graduate of Columbia Law. “Which can be done. In small stages.” For starters, there are investments to be made in idealistic young lawyers from abroad, who first come to Columbia and New York City for study and work fellowships, and no small amount of culture shock. To labor and minority-rights lawyer Anton Bourkov, for example, virtually all he has seen in the U.S. is the opposite of life back home in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, a metropolis on the Asian side of the Urals. “I mean it. Everything is different – everything,” said Bourkov, 25, one of the current seven-member class of program fellows. “You have in your classrooms blackboards, yes? And white chalk? In Russia, chalk is black, board is white.” As for mind-sets, “We have a totally different way of thinking,” said Monika Ladmanova, 27, a Prague lawyer and Columbia fellow. “The state [in the formerly communist Czechoslovakia] was always something you had to struggle against.” In the democratized Czech Republic, Ladmanova has worked as a staff attorney for organizations involved in women’s rights issues and legal assistance for asylum seekers. “Even now, it’s we and them,” she said, with reference to Czech citizens versus their government. “Here [in the U.S.], it’s the opposite. You have no idea. Here you have critical thinking.” PROGRAM UNDERWRITERS Which was Rekosh’s most subversive idea in creating the Public Interest Law Initiative. Fortunately for Columbia, Rekosh was a consultant to the Ford Foundation prior to his inventing the initiative. The program’s two-year fellowships are underwritten by his former employer, as well as the Soros Foundation. Each year, seven candidates are nominated for the fellowships by non-government legal organizations from among their home nations. During the first year, fellows are in residence at Columbia, interacting with graduate students in the law school and the School of International and Public affairs. The fellows also serve internships at human rights and public interest law agencies in New York City. In the second year, the fellows return home to work as salaried staff lawyers for their sponsoring agencies. The fellowships, valued at $35,000 to $40,000, cover their travel and U.S. living costs, as well as home salaries in the second year. Columbia University makes the in-kind contribution of including them in classroom instruction. During that second year at home, the Columbia fellows launch specific civil rights projects. In the current class of fellows, those projects include women’s rights in the Czech Republic, legal needs of the mentally ill in Lithuania, the institution of class action litigation in Russia and the rights of crime and war victims in Serbia. At home in their respective countries, fellows can rely on support for their individual projects from the network of organizations allied with Columbia Law’s program: human rights groups and legal education programs at more than 60 universities in the former Soviet empire. That very breadth of outreach eventually prompted Rekosh to add the Budapest connection to New York. “It really can’t be headquartered here,” Rekosh said of the Public Interest Law Initiative and its mission. “It’s got to be closer to the needs. In many cases, these [legal reform] projects would wind up being isolated little islands and victims of conservative forces in their societies.” TEACHING LAW REFORM Progressive forces do not necessarily take hold in rapid fashion. That is one of the several lessons that Rekosh said he has learned from the fellows who take part at the Columbia seminar he leads as an adjunct professor, “Applied Law Reform in Eastern Europe.” As Rekosh suggested, “Ideas don’t travel directly from point A to point B. You have to think more deeply. For instance, about concepts such as judges and the police, and how they’re perceived.” Columbia fellow Sanja Milivojevic spoke about alternate perceptions. “Trust the police?” asked Milivojevic, 29, an attorney with the Victimology Society of Belgrade. “In Serbia, it was the same guys who beat us for years. Even now when I see police, it’s chilly.” Dovile Juodkaite said the most elemental lesson she learned as a Columbia fellow is the power of an individual lawyer’s dedication to a social cause. “It’s so very different here in [the American] study system,” said Juodkaite, 25, an attorney for the Lithuanian agency Viltis, which provides legal service to mentally impaired persons. “In Lithuania, the professor lectured. We were not taught critical analysis, or discussion even. “It was beautiful for me to see that here everything depends on you, that you can really study and then build things,” she said. “I am not thinking about myself as part of history, but to see some people I can help. “When I go home, I will get results.” Speaking for herself and other fellows, Milivojevic mentioned another elemental lesson. “As a lawyer, we are sort of avant-garde,” she said. “We are expected to put in more effort, to find out what is happening abroad. “We are not missionaries, but we’re trying to do what we can. We are lawyers and scholars. So that’s the best we can do.” REFORMIST IMPULSE The program seeks to instill that reformist impulse abroad, as well as the idea that public interest law is not some codified system to be simply grafted onto other cultures. “American [juridical] ideas can be considered good or bad, but they always become intellectually stronger with transnational support,” said Rekosh. “It is more pragmatic to have positive legal values become universal by dealing with completely different assumptions and approaches that our fellows bring. “For example, American law students would immediately want to litigate [a civil rights case] before a favorable judge,” said Rekosh. “But our fellows would say, No, that doesn’t make any sense because our judges are weak and corrupt. “This provokes a lot of debate that winds up educating both our students and our fellows. And this, in a word, is transformative.”

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