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Firm initiative gives U.S. lawyer a chance to teach in Tanzania

Robert Mathias, Attorney with DLA Piper

For one local attorney, a chance to do pro bono work and help train lawyers in a developing country also provided the opportunity to witness one of nature’s marvels.

Robert J. Mathias, partner in DLA Piper’s Baltimore office and joint global leader and U.S. chair of the litigation practice, traveled to Tanzania in June as part of a pro bono project run by New Perimeter, a nonprofit global initiative of the firm.

The Tanzania Law School Teaching Project was designed to provide training to more than 170 students at the Law School of Tanzania. Before the law school was started by the government in 2007, students were trained through an internship program run by the attorney general.

It was the second year for New Perimeter’s two-week project in Tanzania, drawing in Mathias and a team of lawyers from DLA Piper, as well as counsel from the firm’s clients, including General Electric and Barclays Bank. The lawyers traveled to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, which borders the Indian Ocean on the east coast of Africa. Tanzania gained its independence from Britain in the 1960s, and its judicial system follows English common law.

Mathias’ trip happened to coincide with the annual great wildebeest migration, considered to be one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena in Africa. Every year more than 2 million wildebeest, zebra and other animals travel from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. With the chance to take personal time before classes started, Mathias and his wife traveled by plane and Jeep to take in the plethora of wildlife.

“There were literally millions of animals stretching as far as you could see,” Mathias said. “There were elephants, lions, and we were within feet of a cheetah at one point. It was spectacular, pretty much any animal you can think of in Africa we got to see.”

For Mathias, who got his undergraduate degree from Yale University and his J.D. from Harvard University, the trip fulfilled a long-held wish. “I’ve always wanted to do a safari,” Mathias said. “Then, I got this great opportunity to help out these students, work alongside colleagues I’d dealt with from afar, and I got to take a safari on top of it all.”

After the safari, it was off to Dar es Salaam to work with the students and help them brush up on alternative dispute resolution skills in a two-week course. The students drafted sales and purchase agreements as they learned general drafting techniques.

Mathias, who has been with DLA Piper since 1978 — except from 1983 to 1988 when he worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney — taught during the first week of the course. He said the hands-on classes gave the students a feel for how to draft dispute resolution clauses and handle subsequent negotiations.

“We would set them up as opposing counsel and the students really acted like it was the real thing,” Mathias said. “Some of them even walked out of negotiations.”

Mathias said alternative dispute resolution plays a big part in Tanzania’s judicial system. Mediation is favored by international companies doing business in Tanzania because they are leery of perceived corruption in the country’s courts, he said

“Corruption in the legal system has been recognized, and a lot of companies are unwilling to submit themselves to Tanzanian courts,” Mathias said. “So, usually they’ll push for mediation.”

Mathias said he was impressed with the crop of future lawyers coming up through the Law School of Tanzania. He also said that despite cultural and language differences, the students and the trip gave him a new appreciation for how similar people really are.

“Spending that kind of time in a place so unfamiliar really helps you gain an appreciation for how they operate and do things,” Mathias said. “I think what I took away from it is an appreciation of how people around the world are really more alike than they are different. People value the same things, like family, a good job and an education. The values are amazingly similar despite the cultural differences.”