A version of this story originally appeared in The Am Law Daily on July 15, 2013.

Despite having two law degrees, Sokunthea Peng was pessimistic about the legal profession in Cambodia. To her, practicing law in her homeland simply meant contributing to a corrupt legal system, where judges and juries are bribed or otherwise under the influence of government officials.

“The old idea was, ‘Okay, being an attorney in the imperfect judicial system is really nothing,' ” says Peng, who has a bachelor's degree in law from the Royal University of Law and Economics in Cambodia, and a master's degree in law from Nagoya University in Japan.

But two Mayer Brown lawyers have inspired her to think differently. As part of a legal education program organized by the East West Management Institute—a nonprofit focused on strengthening democracy in 12 countries—Mayer Brown pro bono director Marc Kadish and litigation partner Matt Rooney have been teaching aspiring Cambodian lawyers the finer points of the legal profession, such as conducting cross-examinations and delivering closing arguments, among other court procedures.

Kadish began teaching the annual advocacy skills workshop in 2009 after learning about it from American Bar Association lawyer Steven Austermiller. Austermiller was in charge of overseeing the workshop at the time, as part of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, a subgrantee to East-West Management, which receives funding for its Program on Rights and Justice II from the United States Agency of International Development (the ABA phased itself out of the program in 2012).

In 2010 Rooney joined Kadish in Cambodia, and the two Mayer Brown attorneys have returned to the country every spring, meeting with law students from eight Cambodian universities.

“Just hearing them speak to different students about their long-term experiences working in the court and doing pro bono work, and seeing how they could actually expand their services across the world—that’s really inspiring to me,” says Peng, who was hired by EWMI in 2008 as a project officer to help organize the workshop and also organize mock trial competitions. “That’s really something that made us think the legal profession is something much more profound than we can sometimes imagine in Cambodia.”

Peng’s cynicism about Cambodia’s legal system is well-founded. The country ranks near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, coming in at 157th place out of the 174 nations surveyed. Reforms that would establish the independence of the judiciary and prosecutors, as well as delineate a clear structure for the courts, have been delayed for years.

The country’s tragic history has contributed to the muddle. Ruled by France from the mid-19th century until the 1950s, Cambodia retains aspects of its colonial legal system. But the country’s judges and lawyers were virtually wiped out by the genocide carried out in the 1970s by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. The killing only ended with the 1978 invasion by neighboring Vietnam, which occupied the country for the next decade. When Cambodia emerged in the 1990s as an independent country again, it needed to basically start from scratch with its legal system.

It did so with the assistance of the United Nations and other foreign countries, all of whom contributed to legal reform efforts. As a result, the Cambodian legal system is a hybrid of civil and common law elements, strongly influenced by France, Japan, Canada, and the United States in particular. But reforms have stalled since the 1990s.

In a recent report, Surya Subedi, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur assigned to Cambodia, lamented the slow pace of change since his first report in 2010. “The challenges are the same,” he wrote, “namely lack of independence, problems of capacity, lack of resources, widespread corruption, all resulting in a lack of confidence by the general public in the ability of the court system to provide effective remedies when human rights violations do occur.”

Efforts by NGOs have sought to fill the breach in the meantime but they also need to accommodate political realities. Originally, part of EWMI’s legal education initiative was to develop training programs for judges at the Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions—the only institution that trains judges and prosecutors in Cambodia. But EWMI faced unforeseen pressure from the Ministry of Justice and was forced to abort the plan halfway.

While those involved in legal education in Cambodia are hopeful reforms will be enacted, they are also banking on changing the system by teaching the next generation of lawyers how they should act.

“Corruption remains rife, and our program has certain limitations on what the donor wants us to do,” Austermiller admits, “but by training future lawyers and judges, they can learn how to reason, how to write, and how to argue effectively.”

Law is offered as an undergraduate degree in Cambodia, mainly taught in large lecture classes, explains Mansfield. But Phou Laysun, a fourth-year law student at Panha Chiet University in Phnom Penh, says he prefers EWMI’s more hands-on approach. “Sometimes things that I have learned in class, I may or may not use in the future at all, so I do not pay much attention to it,” he said in an email to The Am Law Daily.

Cambodian law students attend Kadish and Rooney’s workshop and then compete in mock trials the next day. “The lawyers are permitted to be more involved and more active and don’t have to be as passive,” Rooney says.

Because USAID's five-year grant to EWMI for the rights and justice program in Cambodia is about to end in September, Rooney and Kadish’s annual trips might be over. Coordinators of the program will soon find out if they were granted a request for a one-year extension, but the gears are in motion for Cambodian law schools to take over the projects EWMI started.

Mansfield said this is the first year the law schools have funded part of the mock trial competition and workshop, rather than EWMI paying the full cost. The competitions have become so popular that every Cambodian law school now has a team that competes throughout the year. In 2009 Prime Minster Hun Sen called the girls who won the competition that year “flowers of Cambodia,” Austermiller recalls.

"These [USAID] programs are not meant to go on forever—they are meant to put in place sustainable reforms that will continue once the program is complete," Mansfield said in an email.

Meanwhile, the two Mayer Brown attorneys plan to maintain ties with Cambodia. This year, for instance, they trained Cambodian law professors to put together a workshop similar to theirs. They also plan to serve as advisers with law professors and students via Skype throughout the year.

Peng says the legal education initiatives put in place by the rights and justice program in Cambodia are crucial for the next generation of lawyers.

“To me, it’s much more meaningful than just learning how to debate in front of a judge,” Peng says. “[The students] know they can debate and argue from different sides to make an argument, and apply that in a bigger context. That’s how democracy and how a functional legal system should work,” she adds. “Right now, it’s not the reality here.”

Email: qleung@alm.com.