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Yale Law School




From 2004 to 2006, the author led the pro bono representation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (“SPLM”), assisting the SPLM in drafting and negotiating the National Interim Constitution of Sudan, the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan and the Constitutions of two “transitional” states. The representation was part of an emerging trend in pro bono representations. In small but increasing numbers, private law firms have begun to take on pro bono projects with global significance - assisting governments and civil society in post-conflict countries to deal on an even footing with foreign investors, for instance, or working with international criminal courts to prepare indictments of war criminals. This development within the legal community is connected to changes in the scope and ambition of the “corporate responsibility” initiatives of many multinational corporate clients of the firms leading the internationalization of pro bono services.

Private law firms are hardly unique as third-party participants in the highest levels of inter- and intra-sovereign processes. Certainly, it is well known that foreign government assistance, inter-governmental organizations such as the UN or World Bank, and non-governmental organizations play a large role in the social and economic development of poorer countries. Less light has been shed, however, on the role those same entities play in the fundamental sovereign processes of formation, dissolution, war, and peace, and no discussion at all exists regarding the new role of law firms in such weighty international affairs. A close look at the way law firms operate in that rarefied space provides an illuminating contrast to the behavior of other actors.

The entry of law firms and multinational corporations into the ‘market’ of global affairs - long the exclusive domain of governments and inter-governmental organizations - offers many advantages to clients in developing and post-conflict countries, but also poses dangers which can and should be mitigated. One of the foremost benefits private law firms offer is their unique ability to ensure - even to guarantee - local ownership of the process and its content due to the strict requirements of the attorney-client relationship. These include attorneys’ obligations to follow the directives of their clients, to keep the confidences of the client and to act independently of any third party. Unlike other players in the field of international aid such as foreign donor governments, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private foundations, private lawyers providing pro bono services do not receive donations, do not have “mandates” other than those dictated by the client (bounded, of course, by ethical regulations), and do not have real or imagined “constituencies” to which they are accountable, other than the client. Yet the enforceability of the ethical code that gives rise to those advantages is questionable in a transnational representation. A lack of regulation raises questions about legitimacy and accountability, and may suggest a specter of legal imperialism.

A practical approach to mitigating those disadvantages can be gleaned from the novel work of an increasing number of scholars writing within the Global Administrative Law (“GAL”) paradigm. GAL scholars have analyzed the myriad ways in which disparate national administrative standards have been synchronized, though not necessarily harmonized, in various contexts (e.g., environmental concerns, accounting standards). A key concept in GAL scholarship is that of transnational networks - patterns of regular and purposive relations (and institutions) among like regulatory bodies working across borders dividing countries and demarcating the “domestic” from the “international.” The article will draw on this and other concepts and principles identified by GAL scholars proposing ways to bring a measure of accountability to transnational pro bono activities (indeed to transnational lawyering, generally) that respect the domestically self-regulated legal profession and which cannot (and should not) be harmonized across jurisdictions. Rather, the article suggests that regulation of global pro bono service should graduate from “accidental distributed administration” to “deliberate transnational network administration.” Without some attention paid to the way law firms operate in this arena, there is a risk that the ethical obligations of attorneys will become little more than a cover for advancing Western corporate interests.

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