Congressmen to CEOs: HLS’ LL.M class

BY LEA SEVCIK

Lewis International Center.
LL.M. Candidates board in Lewis Center.

You could learn a lot from an LL.M.

Though every year’s J.D. class features its own cast of superstars, students often forget that the students enrolled in the Master of Laws (or LL.M., as it is commonly known) program bring to the table an even more diverse set of accomplishments. Because LL.M. students already have law degrees, usually from foreign countries, their experiences are as varied as the globe is broad, with many coming from the upper echelons of their respective government, business and legal communities.

This year’s class of 142 students hails from 58 countries, with backgrounds ranging from professors, judges, politicians and national Supreme Court clerks to CEOs and a former police corporal. The most represented country is Japan, with 10 students, while most other countries have between one and three student representatives. Below, The RECORD profiles a few of the many students that make up this year’s LL.M. class.

Ivo Keltner, from the Czech Republic, spent two years as the youngest lawyer at the Czech Securities Commission, where he began working while a law student. He then joined the restructuring team of a major Czech bank, where he was in charge of untangling one of the largest bankruptcies in Czech history. Keltner currently sits on the board of directors of seven corporations, including the biggest Czech foreign investment corporation to date. He also spent a year in the army and still holds the rank of First Lieutenant in the Czech Republic’s Reserve Army.

Keltner says he came to HLS because, “if you want to do anything all around the world you have to have at least some knowledge of US legislation and standards.” So far he is enjoying the Harvard Law School experience, which differs from the Czech Republic, where “professors don’t use the Socratic method, and our exams are 99 percent oral — I can barely remember a written exam.”

Nadia Hadjdova, of Bulgaria, finished a Masters of Law at Oxford after winning a full scholarship. She then joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Never having worked in English before, Hadjdova is proud that she learned to cope in an entirely new environment and had the opportunity to work on many complex international matters, including the restructuring of a colossal Russian corporation that “produced everything from trucks to tanks.”

At HLS, Hadjdova has been most surprised at the instructions given to women in preparation for recruiting. “In Bulgaria, it is not appropriate for women to be dressed like men. Women wear colorful clothes, trouser suits, scarves, jewelry and silk. The concept of a business suit is foreign to me. But here, you have to wear all black or blue. It seems you have to project the image of a spinster.”

Pieter Leenknegt, from Belgium, already has four degrees under his belt, and says he came to HLS “purely for fun.” Leenknegt already has an LL.M. from the prestigious College of Europe and an art history degree with a thesis on equestrian statues of Franco. Leenknegt has also been an “external collaborator” for the International Labor Organization, a representative of Belgium at the World Trade Organization and in charge of appeals at the German Forced Labour Compensation Program in Switzerland.

“I had to more or less determine the criteria under which we’d grant an appeal,” Leenknegt said. He said he was disturbed that, “farmers found it apparently quite acceptable to have laborers from Eastern Europe working for them without compensation and sometimes in sordid conditions.”

At HLS, Leenknegt says he has become more aware of differences between Europeans and Americans. “Americans should amend the Constitution, which has built-in immobilities from the eighteenth century, but that’s taboo. It’s perverted that the government has to rephrase the right to environment or traffic safety in terms of commerce.”

Shervin Majlessi, from Iran, comes to HLS from Canada’s McGill University, where he was writing a doctoral thesis on private and public participation in the World Trade Organization. He finds it impossible to compare HLS and his law school in Iran.

“At the time I left, law school was the most conservative of all the schools except for the divinity school. The way you dressed was regulated, you were reprimanded for wearing blue jeans, and you couldn’t wear a tie because it was a Western symbol.” Yet he said the school was intellectually challenging: “I watched people change within four years. They’d come as a fanatic with fixed ideas and come out a totally different person after sitting though a constitutional law course with a very good professor.”

Majlessi feels a pull towards public policy and politics, but still holds back. “I grew up with fear — lead your life, keep quiet, try to survive — because any way of life that differentiates is a no-no, you’ll get yourself killed. I’ve seen many unfortunate examples of people who lost their lives or spent years in jail without being that important.”

Lucia La Rosa-Ames, from Italy, says she met her first Protestant when she joined the U.S. Trial Service Office as a Foreign Criminal Jurisdiction Specialist. “I really loved that job,” she said. “There are 15,000 American military people in the south of Italy, and the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement raises a lot of legal issues. My main duty was to defend the interests of the U.S. when a member of the foreign forces was involved in a crime and Italy wanted jurisdiction.”

La Rosa-Ames was also impressed with the integrity of the U.S. Navy: “As a woman in a position of leadership, you are always on the defensive because you have to overcome discrimination, but there I really felt that it didn’t matter that you were a woman or man.” La Rosa-Ames came to HLS because, “in order to go forward with your career, you have to keep coming back to study. I need to know better the American system and way of reasoning, because the way in which you face legal problems is different.” La Rosa-Ames says her dream is to work in public service within the U.S.

Birgir Ragnarsson, of Iceland, found himself bored during his final two years of a five-year law degree. After graduation, he was catapulted to political prestige as legal adviser to the Minister of Industry and Commerce, then to senior attorney at the Icelandic equivalent of the SEC. Ragnarsson was then asked by the Minister of Commerce to draft a legislative bill on electronic signatures, and Ragnarsson’s bill became Icelandic law in 2001.

Since then, Ragnarsson has started a company that issues digital ID cards: “It was founded in the upswing of high tech, and we had very high expectations of growth. It’s different now, but we’re doing well because people always need security, and all the banks are our customers. We eventually want to move into the government sector.”

Asked why he came to HLS, Ragnarrson jokes, “Vanity — the reputation of schools in the States is that they’re the best schools in the world — and the name Harvard.” His role as managing director of a growing company did not stop him from coming: “You always get so involved in what you’re doing, you will never get more time. You just have to do it.”

Comments