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Carol M. Liao’s teeth were knocked out in the accident. One leg is now bolstered by a surgically implanted steel rod. A metal plate likewise shapes her face. None of that stopped her and a squad of Shearman & Sterling lawyers and summer associates — among them several Russian-speakers — from gaining freedom in the United States for a young political dissident whose escape from Moldova, an obscure and recently re-Stalinized republic of Eastern Europe, seems like something from a Robert Ludlum novel. By special arrangement with Judge Margaret Reichenberg of the Executive Office for Immigration Review Court in Elizabeth, N.J., Liao, 23, was appointed lead attorney for the Shearman team. Then in six weeks flat, she and her colleagues won their case for asylum. Liao’s own ordeal began last December in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where a family lawyer is currently attending to the business of suing the motorist who slammed into her last December as she walked across a street. “I’m totally fine now,” said Liao, 23, a student at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. “Thank God for good dentists. And I guess I’m a pretty good healer.” Understandably, Liao had looked forward to leaving Canada last May for New York, and the relative serenity of a summer associate job in the mergers and acquisitions department of Shearman & Sterling. As she put it, “I remember thinking, just give me the dry stuff.” Instead, more drama was just around the corner. As a first generation Taiwanese-Canadian, Liao was predisposed to volunteering for immigration cases. Which she did, rounding out the cosmopolitan team of Andrew H. Abernethy, 32, a New Zealand native; Nicola J. Espie, 29, a capital markets associate; Olga R. Beloded, 36, a leasing department associate and Russian speaker born in Ukraine; summer associate and Russian speaker Nora Pines, 23, a student at New York University School of Law who was born in the southwest Asian republic of Azerbaijan; Elaine Yerkhova, a summer associate and student at Hofstra University School who translated Russian text to English; and summer associate and Canadian countryman Randall Martin, a student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. CREDIBLE FEAR Officially, Abernethy was lead attorney in the cause of Dimitri (not his real name). But as Liao became increasingly involved in case preparation, Abernethy was confident in yielding his role. The tasks included obtaining documentation for Dimitri’s claim of credible fear in fleeing from Moldova, taking affidavits from experts confirming the political and economic turbulence in Moldova, and securing medical evidence to show that Dimitri had been beaten and tortured. Special appointment for a law student is possible in immigration court because cases are so strongly fact-based, said Saralyn Cohen, pro bono attorney at Shearman. “She certainly stepped up and dealt with it in expert fashion,” Abernethy said of Liao. “She gathered up all the forms, she did the direct examination and cross-examination at the hearing. “And we had a lot of resources for her — a lot of very smart people, good research and good translation,” he added. “We pulled it off quicker than we expected — certainly much quicker than [Dimitri] expected. He’d been told by guards and inmates that he might be locked up for another six months.” Nothing, of course, guaranteed Dimitri’s freedom, no matter how long his wait. He lived in fear of returning to a country that sociologist Chuck Portz calls “thoroughly corrupt.” Portz, an adjunct professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey who lived in Moldova while filming a political movie titled “Bucharest Express,” said the odds against Dimitri surviving a return to his home country were long. “If they sent him back,” said Portz, “he’d just disappear.” FLIGHT AND DETENTION In the months and years prior to his lock-up at the federal Elizabeth Detention Center, Dimitri had fled brutal police and military authorities in Moldova, making his way to western Europe only to wind up as a virtual slave laborer for a gang of corrupt businessmen. He then escaped to a second country in western Europe where he eventually stowed away in the cargo container of a commercial ship — a 3-by-12-foot steel tank he shared with three other men on a claustrophobic voyage across the Atlantic that terminated at the Port of Newark. On the morning of July 28, the day of decision, Liao received a telephone call from Dimitri. “He said, ‘Carol, I’m very scared,’” Liao recalled. She had her own nerves to contend with as Judge Reichenberg called her court to order. Liao said, “I had prepared a very strong and long closing argument, just to get everything on record in case we had to appeal.” But Reichenberg asked Dimitri to leave the courtroom temporarily. She told Liao and her team, as well as counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that she would grant asylum, obviating the need for closers. “When [Dimitri] came back into the courtroom, we gave him a thumbs-up, but he didn’t know what that meant,” said Liao. Notwithstanding her own injuries, she added, “The tension in that [courtroom] was the most I have ever experienced.” Cohen said such tension is typical of asylum cases, for which she often enlists summer associates. “It’s so dramatic at the end. If you win, you sit in the waiting room after the ruling, and then in a few hours your client walks out of those steel doors to a whole new life,” said Cohen. “It’s always very tearful. “And it’s something you never forget. It’s one of those things that makes all your hard work worthwhile.” In Dimitri’s case, legal skill was matched by the particularly personal understanding of Pines, a member of the attorney team who emigrated from Azerbaijan when she was 13 years old. “There were certain things I understood about [Dimitri], not just in terms of [Russian] language, but in terms of my being from a former Soviet republic,” Pines said. “I knew about the clash of Russian and Romanian cultures in Moldova. I knew [Dimtri] was all alone, in a completely new place. I know how that feels.” “We try to help create symbiosis whenever possible,” said Anwen Hughes, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights who conducted the intake interview with Dimitri and subsequently contacted Cohen for volunteer lawyers. “It certainly does make for greater understanding between lawyer and client.” A CLERKSHIP Liao is now back home in Vancouver, where she has one more year of law school. After that, she said, she will clerk for one year at the British Columbia Court of Appeal. The day she flew back home from New York was another decision day for Liao: her exit interview with Jonathan Jewett, a partner in Shearman’s capital markets group, who offered her a job as an associate. “He said everybody loves me and that if I didn’t say yes they’d all be angry,” said Liao. She said yes.

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