On April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down near Kigali International Airport, which is just outside the nation’s capital.

His assassination sparked a fierce and bloody civil war that, within 100 days, claimed the lives of 800,000 people—almost 20 percent of the country’s population. The horrific genocide left Rwanda broken.

As part of its rebuilding efforts, the Rwandan government seeks to attract international investment to fund a series of regeneration projects—it aims to raise $500 million in 2011 alone.

A crucial step in fostering this economic growth is the restoration of Rwanda’s decimated administrative and legal systems. Court buildings and legal offices were destroyed or abandoned during the fighting, and by the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured Kigali in July 1994—overthrowing the government and bringing an end to the bloodshed—just eight of the country’s hundreds of lawyers and judges were left alive in Rwanda. Today, there are more than 600.

Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy has been at the forefront of this rebuilding process. Its “Project Rwanda” pro bono initiative has helped stabilize the rule of law and strengthen the justice system. The firm is providing a series of in-depth training programs for lawyers, judges, and the Ministry of Justice, and is helping guide the country through an ambitious process of constitutional reform.

The firm’s involvement began in 2008, following a meeting between A&O’s global head of know-how Paul Crook and former litigation head David Mackie QC, now the chief judge at the London Mercantile Court. Mackie, who founded A&O’s pro bono program and was the firm’s longest-serving partner before he left in 2004, had visited Rwanda as part of a trip organized by the International Lawyers Project.

“David saw that there was a gap we could fill,” says Crook. “A lot of people were already working in Rwanda around human rights and the follow-on from the genocide, but there was very little going on in the commercial law sphere. Helping to build up skills in the private sector is vital for further development in Rwanda’s public sector.”

The firm started working with the Rwandan Institute of Legal Practice and Development (ILPD), the National University of Rwanda, the Ministry of Justice, and the Supreme Court to provide training in commercial law. In conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the firm has run courses on international law, banking, and litigation. It has also taught government lawyers the complexities of large-scale investment contracts for natural resource projects and public-private partnerships—of crucial importance, given that the Rwandan government announced in March that it plans to spend $935 million on geothermal power projects. The firm is currently in discussion with the UNDP to pursue further projects in Rwanda.

A&O has also sent more than 200 legal textbooks to the Nyanza-based Institute of Post-Graduate Law and Development, the country’s government-run legal practice course provider, and last summer sent two associates to help it devise future training plans. In May 2010 the firm launched the first edition of the Rwandan Commercial Law Review .

These training initiatives have coincided with the country’s seismic shift from a civil law to common law system, and the change of its official language from French to English. Crook admits that providing legal training against an ever-changing legislative backdrop was “a challenge,” as was dealing with a general lack of experience among what remains a youthful population.

“There were very few senior members of the legal profession left after the genocide,” says A&O’s pro bono and community affairs group leader Chris Marshall. He founded legal charity Advocates For International Development before leaving to join the firm last year. “You meet key government officials, and they’re in their early thirties. That does bring a certain vigor, but also means there are issues around experience and knowledge.”

Crook is keen to point out that the project is still in its early stages: “It’s a long-term commitment—a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. The firm recently put in place a monitoring framework that will biannually evaluate participants’ common law knowledge and such soft skills as practice management and business development.

However, ILPD rector Vastina Nsanze says that A&O’s training is already “playing a key role in supporting the administration of justice in Rwanda. . . . Many of our laws are new, so our lawyers need guidance on their practical application.”

As part of its constitutional reform, Rwanda introduced new corporate regulations in April 2009 and followed that with a new law on security interests in personal property the following month.

“To have achieved what they have in such a short period of time is hugely impressive,” Crook says. “Going from a civil law code to a U.K.–style [common law] companies act is a radical step, quite apart from the language change. It took six years for the United Kingdom to fully adopt its latest companies act—they’ve done it in two.”

Crook says that there is a “strong economic driver” behind the reform: helping Rwanda better integrate with the rest of East Africa, following recent moves to bring neighboring countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—all of which are English-language, common law jurisdictions—into closer economic cooperation. A&O has been advising the Kigali Bar Association on the future structure of the Rwandan legal profession in preparation for greater competition as these markets open up for services.

“At the moment, there is no structure for a law firm in Rwanda,” Crook says. “The bar rules don’t permit firms to incorporate, so what you have are effectively virtual firms where lawyers come together under a contractual joint venture. Changing that is an important part of the market’s future development.”

Having put in years of groundwork building relationships within Rwanda, and raising awareness internationally, A&O’s project is now really gaining momentum. In April, Marshall made a presentation at the ABA Section of International Law conference in Washington, D.C., outlining the firm’s work in Rwanda. As a result, the country was selected as the venue for the ABA’s next International Legal Exchange trip, in March 2012. Several of the firm’s clients, including Standard Chartered Bank, have also signed up to support and participate in the next training event in June.

“Fifteen years ago, our country was destroyed and at the foot of a terrible war—there was no hope of justice, no hope of rule of law, no hope of life itself,” says Rwandan minister of justice and attorney general Tharcisse Karugarama. “We have come a long way, but there is still much to do to secure Rwanda’s future as a stable and safe home for its people. The training being provided by Allen & Overy will help do that by raising the quality of justice and aspirations of the Rwandan lawyers.”