Why two female lawyers travelled to Bhutan to progress a new democracy

Why two female lawyers travelled to Bhutan to progress a new democracy

Nestled deep in the Himalaya Mountains, Bhutan is not a country often making airwaves. It would be easy to forget therefore, the huge transition underway as the country shifts from absolute monarchy to democracy.

But one global law firm, did not let this knowledge slip by.

In 2008, White & Case wrote to the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck offering to meet with him and discuss how the firm could assist the country in strengthening its changing government. Soon after it was mutually agreed that building a law school was paramount to the country’s continued success as an emerging democracy; allowing Bhutanese lawyers to be trained in a contextually relevant way with appreciation of local culture, values and history.

2018 marks the 10-year anniversary of the firm providing pro-bono legal advice as well as administrative and fundraising support in building a new law school and law library. In celebration, two of the firm’s Australian female lawyers travelled to the Kingdom to train Bhutanese District Court Judges in environmental law.

Women’s Agenda reached out to partner Michelle Keen and Associate Kirsty Campbell to hear about their experience and the importance of global companies striving to make a positive difference in the world.

What compelled you both to embark on the journey to Bhutan in July 2018?

Kirsty: “I jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the workshop – mainly because I have always wanted to go to Bhutan. It seemed such a mystery and I was fascinated by Bhutan’s seemingly orderly path to democracy.   But also, environment and planning law is the area that Michelle and I have worked in for many years and I thought that we had some relevant experiences to share. Bhutan is at a pretty exciting stage – having developed its environmental and planning laws, but not really tested them in the courts yet.”

 Michelle: “In addition to my role as a Partner in the environment and planning area I am the Australian Pro Bono Partner.  Given we had a request for training in my area of expertise I thought it was important that I set an example, and participate and hopefully inspire and encourage others to take on these challenges. It’s also great to be able to showcase to our teams and new employees the opportunities that White & Case provides.  I also wanted to support Kirsty who was very keen to be involved.

It was a privilege to travel to Bhutan to facilitate a two-day workshop on environmental litigation with Bhutanese judicial staff and government legal officers, and to have contributed to the development of their ideas in this area. Also, personally, I was able to travel somewhere I’d never been before and experience and learn about their culture and challenges.”

How has the establishment of a Law School in Bhutan, progressed the country’s new democracy? 

Bhutanese are very proud of their political independence and their unique culture. Being a tiny country with a small population probably makes it even more important to have national institutions such as the law school that can recognise and preserve local culture, values and traditional legal practices.

Michelle: “For Bhutan to successfully embrace commercial environmental litigation, it’s crucial the Law School’s students be taught with their specific legislation and case examples. As we taught concepts of environmental law, and drew from our Australian experience, we attempted to provide examples of the types of cases that might be brought in Bhutan to ensure all teachings were relevant. The establishment of the Law School aims to ensure Bhutanese are taught about their own system and laws, to preserve their culture, values and history.” 

Why do you feel it is important that global law firms involve themselves in work like this?

We [white & Case] are in the fortunate position to help workshop and set up a framework that enables commercial activities to be undertaken in a way that are consistent with local environmental views and obligations. Additionally, many corporate law firms, including White & Case have thrived from globalisation. We have interconnecting offices working on cross border transactions.

Michelle: “Lawyers have a unique place in society, and with that comes a special responsibility. I believe all lawyers have a duty to help others with their skills and experience, and for me, being involved in helping the Bhutanese shape their environmental legal system was extremely rewarding.  It was an amazing opportunity to meet the Bhutanese government lawyers and to work with them to consider how environmental cases might be brought in Bhutan and the elements required to make their green bench a success”

 Kirsty: It’s such a useful thing to step outside what is familiar and think about issues from a different perspective. It was also a pleasure to get to know some of the staff at the Bhutan National Legal Institute and the workshop participants and learn a little about their experiences. I would never had had that opportunity had I not been part of White & Case’s pro bono service.

How do you feel it’s impacted your overall perspective on law and your career?

Michelle: “My time in Bhutan highlighted the vital role the community and public interest groups plays in environmental law. Yet the public can only participate if there is access to justice. The establishment of a Law School in Bhutan, and commitment to ongoing training assists with this access.

 On a personal note, travelling to Bhutan and preparing for the workshop made me appreciate my work and the opportunity to work on many of Australia’s biggest environmental impact cases.   Although preparing a two day workshop on top of normal work and family commitments was a stretch it consolidated my view that you should always accept new challenges, even though a lot of work and time sacrifices have to be made. It is very rewarding and the sacrifices are always short lived.   I forgot that I had given up many weekends to prepare the workshop when I was hiking to Tiger’s Nest monastery listening to prayer flags blowing in the breeze!

 Kirsty: “While in Bhutan I was reminded of how connected we are through the global nature of law and legal concepts. When Michelle and I first started to plan the workshop, we weren’t quite sure where to start, so we of course reviewed their environmental legislation. It was interesting to see how many themes and concepts Australia and Bhutan have in common, founded in international environmental law. It was also interesting to see a modern constitution with much more robust environmental rights and duties than we have here in Australia. I really enjoyed the process of preparing for the workshop – taking a step back and considering what works well and what doesn’t here in Australia. It’s not just the laws that are important, but how they are interpreted and enforced, and by whom.”     

Will you go back?

Michelle: “Kirsty and I will definitely be staying in touch with the people we met in Bhutan! We will continue to be involved in pro bono work and maintain our relationship with Bhutan, as we’re very interested to see how and what environmental cases may be brought to the green bench.”



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