Spreading the word



Twelve years ago, Stuart Cohn’s phone rang. Cohn, Levin College of Law Associate dean for international studies, John H. and Mary Lou Dasburg Professor, and director of the International and Comparative Law Certificate Program, had already had a long anddistinguished career in private practice and academia. Even so, he could never have guessed the subject of the call, nor the incredible path on which it would lead him.The caller’s name was Swithin Munyantwali, executive director of the Uganda International Law Institute. Uganda, like many countries, was emerging from a socialist economy after the downfall of the U.S.S.R., and needed help. Munyantwali asked Cohn if he was interested in teaching a three-week program on developing a capitalist system to officials from Uganda and neighboring countries.

“So I foolishly agreed to do that,” Cohn said, half-jokingly. “I had never done anything like that in my life.”

The majority of Cohn’s work, both in private practice and in academia, had been focused on corporate law, securities, and other commercial law.

“This was much more like finance,” he said.

Despite initial misgivings, Cohn decided to dive into the endeavor, which was a significantdivergence from his legal experience. He reviewed Uganda’s existing regulations, and was surprised by what he saw.

“They had in place a fairly good set of laws and regulations,” Cohn said. “So I began to wonder, ‘What am I really doing over there?’ ”

But after arriving in Uganda following a long plane ride to Africa, he realized how badly they needed guidance.

“They had all these laws in place,” he said, “but they had no idea how to operate, efficiently, a capital market.”

To develop an efficient economic system entailed training professionals, creating investments, and creating confidence in the market.

“The laws and regulations didn’t answer any of that,” he said, explaining that the laws had been borrowed from the country’s neighbors and Western countries.

Cohn said he drew on his personal experiences and legal knowledge to help teach the program, although he was worried after the first day that he had told the program attendees all he could.

“ I came home and told my wife, ‘I’ve got two weeks and four days to go, and nothing left to say.’” Cohn said.

That turned out not to be the case, and the program was such a success that he was invited to teach the program again for the next two years. During the following year, a member of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research attended and was so impressed by the program that he invited Cohn to develop programs for the U.N. Since then, Cohn has brought similar programs to locales across the African continent, in Vietnam and other places around the world, and now also online.

Cohn describes his experiences overseas as very eye-opening, and, as associate dean for international studies, he hopes the law students whom he helps study abroad have similar experiences.

“I hope they come back seeing the importance of respecting differences, and that there are many ways of approaching legal and other problems,” Cohn said.

And Mr. Munyantwali, the caller who started Cohn on this journey?

“People ask me, ‘Why did he call you?” Cohn said, laughing. “And to this day, I still don’t know why.”