How many people get the chance to get involved in one of the firm's pro bono projects which takes them with a group of lawyers from around the world to Zambia for a week? Not many but the fortunate few, me included, did just that at the end of March on the New Perimeter legal writing course at the University of Zambia. What an experience it was. From not knowing my colleagues other than by name and reputation, I found myself working closely with them over the period before we left for Lusaka, exchanging ideas and dealing with the preparatory work for the course. Then we were all plunged into an intense week of teaching, mentoring, marking papers, listening and learning. By the end we were all tired but exhilarated and had made friends for life.
The University of Zambia has many challenges with which to contend, primarily relating to resourcing of its library and the need for additional computer equipment. Despite that we were met by extraordinary enthusiasm from the students who had signed up for a course which ate into the first week of their holiday.
Split into four classes, the teaching teams worked in pairs, and here I need to mention the enormous benefit the DLA Piper team derived from working with lawyers from Boehringer Ingelheim (BI), who partnered with us on this project. As the course was aimed at legal writing, having a client's perspective was invaluable. The fact that the BI team came from Germany, Spain and Austria added an incredibly useful language advantage - part of the course covered English grammar - something they had all learnt. They knew the rules better sometimes than the English speaking DLA team!
Our day started with a working breakfast going over the day's programme and discussing any issues we felt might arise during the course of the day. We then all piled into the van with all our equipment and our faithful driver Sam drove us the short distance to the campus. Lusaka traffic being what it is meant the timing of the journey could be a bit unpredictable but we managed to arrive with time to set ourselves up before the students started to drift in. We had brought pads of paper, pens, post-it notes and other goodies to share with and encourage the students to participate. When we broke at lunchtime we had to go off-site. Not ideal but we coped and were back in the classrooms for the afternoon session, which often ran over, as the students were keen to cover all elements of the day's programme and did not want to lose or waste a minute.
As the week progressed we found the students gained confidence and their participation increased significantly. The style of teaching we adopted of encouraging them to give us their opinions and answer questions was new to them, as they were used to having lectures where no one other than the lecturer spoke. Slowly but surely they started to enjoy the discussions that ensued from questions raised either by us the teachers or by the students themselves. By the end of the week they were in full lively swing, and we hope that the questioning approach they had started to adopt would enable them better to cope with the challenges of their legal studies. One further aspect of the course which brought an extra dimension to the whole project was the involvement of representatives from DLA Piper’s local group firm, Chibesakunda & Co. Advocates. They gave the course tremendous support by arranging for some of their associates to participate in several of the sessions. Their local perspective really captured the students' attention and interest, and they were all incredibly positive and impressive role models. Several of the participating lawyers had themselves studied at the University.
In the evenings we sampled local cuisine and the hospitality of our Chibesakunda colleagues and the University Law Faculty. One of the evening highlights came on our last night when we were at a restaurant where we encountered what we learnt was quite a tradition - namely a public proposal of marriage. This event was known to the assorted friends and family surrounding the happy couple but not to the bride to be who was taken completely by surprise and overcome with emotion. It was a loud and happy event and rounded off an amazing week.
The closing ceremony of the course, where each student was presented with their certificate by their class teachers, was (and I do not think I exaggerate) life affirming and very moving. The excited group and class photo sessions afterwards were a fitting end to an exceptional week. All of us, I know, count ourselves incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to participate in and contribute to this project from which we hope the students will have gained something of real use to them in their current studies and future professional life.