Interview with Michael Maya – September 2022

Monday 5 September 2022

Manuela de la Helguera
CAF – Banco de Desarrollo de América Latina, Mexico City; North American Regional Forum Liaison Officer, IBA Young Lawyers’ Committee

Michael Maya
Director, International Bar Association (North America Office), Washington, DC

How has the IBA changed since you joined as Director for the IBA’s North America office? What are the main contributions it has made to the legal community in that time?

At its root, the IBA is the same organisation it was when I joined in 2013, only stronger. Today, the IBA has a more diverse membership, more women active in the organisation, a more robust cadre of Group Member firms, more members generally, more regional offices, an even deeper commitment to public service, the list goes on.

Of course, the most significant changes at the IBA were occasioned by the onset of the pandemic. In 2020, Covid-19 turned both the world and the legal community upside down and the IBA was forced to adjust just like everyone else. We went from having dozens of in-person conferences each year to hosting zero. Overnight, the IBA had to re-tool in order to remain relevant to our members and the legal community. It was remarkable to see the organisation respond to the crisis as quickly as it did.

Some of the things that are the source of greatest pride for me – and this is just since the onset of the pandemic – include the IBA’s efforts to keep a spotlight on the war in Ukraine; the support the IBA provided to the legal profession throughout the pandemic, including by conducting countless free webinars and linking legal professionals via cutting-edge conference technology; the remarkable support we have provided to Afghan legal professionals after the Taliban regained power; maintaining a spotlight on important issues such as equality and diversity, including by issuing reports on the subject; calling out regimes that used the pandemic as a pretext to violate human rights and chip away at the rule of law; providing significant IBA and IBA Foundation funds to frontline legal aid charities hit hard by the pandemic despite the fact the IBA’s revenues were at their lowest ebb, perhaps ever.

Thankfully, we are back in the swing of things with the return of in-person conferences. Conference attendance is not where it was pre-pandemic quite yet, but that’s where we are headed. After cancelling our Annual Conferences in 2020 and 2021, we are delighted that the Annual Conference in Miami from 30 October–4 November will be very well attended. Miami will be the place to be for international lawyers seeking to reconnect after this protracted, involuntary hiatus. 

What do you value and enjoy the most from working at the IBA? 

I have the privilege of working with committed, smart, loyal and spirited IBA colleagues, and the same can be said of the IBA officers and lawyers with whom I collaborate on a daily basis.  Lawyers who work on international issues are a special breed. They tend to be more open minded, more interesting, better travelled of course, and are in possession of a unique brand of emotional intelligence. Highly developed emotional intelligence, in addition to the usual intellectual firepower required of lawyers, is essential if you are working with people from different cultures.  If you don’t read social cues extremely well in your own country, what are the chances you will thrive in a room, or a Zoom call, populated by people hailing from different continents and different traditions?

I also find the IBA’s commitment to the international rule of law especially inspiring. Laws and legal institutions helped clean up the mess in which we found ourselves in the wake of the Second World War. The tide has turned in the wrong direction in the last 15 years with the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy worldwide, but the IBA has been calling out the actions of autocrats and populists throughout these rough 15 years, and before that as well, of course. 

Tell us about your experience in Africa. What are three lessons you learned?

I assumed the directorship of the American Bar Association (ABA) Rule of Law Initiative’s (‘ROLI’) Africa program, while simultaneously serving as ABA ROLI’s Deputy Director. As an aside, the reason I know the IBA’s Executive Director, Mark Ellis, is because I was his deputy at a predecessor organisation, the ABA’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI). As my focus was on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and I had lived in Moscow and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I had a steep learning curve when it came to Africa. 

Three lessons? First, Africa has an incredible future. This will be a remarkable century for the continent, a time when it really comes into its own after huge swaths of it emerged from decades or centuries of colonisation. Its population is growing. It is the world’s most youthful continent, which is very meaningful given that much of the world is struggling to care for its aging population and is facing a shrinking workforce. Not so with Africa. 

A second lesson is that, yes, colonisation is over, but the race to control Africa’s vast natural resources is in high gear, with China emerging as the deftest actor.  Its investment in Africa is staggering. This is not charity, mind you. They think, or better still, they know, that they are getting something for their money, and it is deeply worrisome. 

A third lesson is a somewhat grim one. The climate crisis will affect Africa profoundly. It already has. If the world does not get its act together, the number of climate refugees will balloon, and they almost certainly will look first to Europe as a refuge. This is inherently destabilising and provides populists and autocrats in Europe a talking point that will always resonate with a segment of the population. Look no further than Viktor Orban in Hungary or Marine Le Pen in France.  

What do you consider are the three main skills lawyers should develop to succeed, especially in the North American legal community?   

First, know your stuff. Technical mastery is not something you can fake, especially when dealing with sophisticated clients.

Second, focus on developing your people skills. Of course, clients like to hire the smartest lawyers, but with so many smart lawyers out there, lawyers who are pleasant to deal with, who are calm and emotionally intelligent, will always stand out in the eyes of current and potential clients. Also, people skills are what your law firm or your in-house colleagues reward too, so those trying to make partner or become a general counsel should be team players and demonstrate leadership skills, which include decency and integrity. 

Third, early in your career, make connections with as many people as you can, and maintain those connections. Having a big network of supportive friends and colleagues is not only good for your personal wellbeing, but it also pays dividends in terms of work opportunities, referrals and so on. Anyone who is active in the IBA already knows this, as a key reason people are active in the IBA is because they genuinely value the people they meet through the IBA, and those friendships invariably translate into professional opportunities down the road. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told that a huge percentage of someone’s book of business has some nexus to friends and contacts they have made through the IBA.

During the past two years, the world has been isolated working from home. How can we re-connect now that in-person events are back?  

There is no replacement for in-person connections. There was a palpable sense of joy and relief among the participants at the North America/Latin America Regional Forum Conference in Miami in December 2021. For many, it was the first time they had connected in-person in two or more years. I think we must accept certain risks in the ‘new normal’. We’ve not completely returned to pre-pandemic days quite yet, but we are very fortunate to have vaccines, boosters, masks and upgraded ventilation in public spaces.    

Why do you feel so strongly about promoting the rule of law? How did you get involved in this issue?  

The rule of law is frankly our salvation. Rules matter. What else is there? Goodwill only gets you so far. In fact, adhering to the rules matters most during times when goodwill and trust are in decline. It’s a pendulum, and we are swaying in the wrong direction at the moment. The rule of law rendered post-Second World War prosperity possible, an era characterised by fewer deaths from conflict than at any other time in human history. It also was an era that saw more people rise from poverty than at any other time in history. 

As you probably know, the rule of law and democracy have been in decline for the last 15 years.  Putin’s regime in Russia explains part of that decline. So, too, does China. They have made it safer and easier to flout the rule of law, as they are happy to serve as benefactors to countries that act contrary to the rule of law and do not respect human rights.

But the West is to blame as well, particularly the US. If the rule of law is measured against, for example, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, then there is no question that the rule of law in the US is declining. I am patriotic, so it pains me to concede that the US is making it easier for other countries to aim low when it comes to the rule of law.  

As for my personal interest in the rule of law, 25 per cent of my family perished in Auschwitz at the hands of a Nazi regime that completely turned its back on the rule of law and basic decency. Learning of this at a young age had a profound effect on me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to contribute to promoting the rule of law in the former Soviet Union, where the rule of law also was largely absent for decades. Let’s remember that Stalin engineered a famine and genocide in Ukraine that killed millions in the 1930s. Countless people, millions in fact, were executed or sent to die in Russia’s gulags without any due process. To this day, there has never been a proper accounting for these horrors, and I believe strongly that is one of the reasons that Putin has been able to thrive with impunity. In contrast, look at Germany, where there was a thorough accounting for its actions during the Second World War. Today, Germany is a true rule of law stalwart, one of the countries I admire most. 

What would you say to the new generations of lawyers about promoting the Rule of Law in these changing times?

I would start by saying ‘don’t take the rule of law for granted’. It is foolhardy to think that once you have the rule of law, it will somehow remain intact forever. Young lawyers need to be vigilant about what is going on in the US.

There are so many ways that lawyers can contribute their time, including pro bono time, to strengthening the rule of law, either at the local, national or even international level. One especially inspiring example was how many of the busiest, most highly regarded firms, including IBA Group Members such as Paul Weiss and Debevoise, found time to address the ill-conceived ‘Muslim Ban’ by, among other things, deploying lawyers to airports. Lawyers in the US, such as Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are some of the most heroic figures in modern US history on account of their work promoting the rule of law before they ever became judges. They should serve as an inspiration to all of us!

Organisations like the IBA make great efforts to build a better rule of law culture, how can IBA members get involved and contribute towards this objective?  

The IBA’s Rule of Law Forum is a good place to start. Lawyers can also consider donating to the IBA Foundation, which has been conducting Rule of Law ‘Town Halls’ in cities across the US. These Town Halls are free and open to the public and have been deftly moderated by Homer Moyer, a US lawyer whose name is synonymous with efforts to promote the rule of law here and abroad. 

Law firms can also donate their time to the IBA’s Legal Projects and Research Unit or to the IBA’s North America office in Washington, DC. We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have received enormous contributions from Hogan Lovells and Debevoise & Plimpton in connection with the two inquiries we have conducted on North Korea in the last five years.  The first focused on crimes against humanity in North Korean political prisons and could not have been conducted without the pro bono assistance of Hogan Lovells. The second focused on crimes against humanity in North Korean detention centres and would have been impossible to conduct without the pro bono contributions of Debevoise.

To understand what the total absence of the rule of law looks like, I also encourage people to watch the 12-minute mini-documentary we produced in connection with the most recent North Korean detention centre inquiry, which was presided over by some of the finest judges in the world, including the former Presidents of the International Criminal Court and the Rwanda Tribunal, as well as judges who sat on the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia Tribunals.  

How do you foresee the rule of law in the coming years in North America and globally?

In the short term, I am not terribly optimistic. Unfortunately, it seems we are having a hard time mobilising people, and in turn politicians, to engineer a course correction when it comes to the rule of law in the US and abroad.

It may be that we will have to hit lower lows before people wake up and realise how far astray we have gone, and how badly we need to right the ship. There are geopolitical forces that make this hard at the moment, such as the leadership of Xi and Putin, but they are not the main cause of the decline of the rule of law in the US, that’s for sure. At least in the US, I think the decline in the efficacy and responsiveness of government institutions, the predictable erosion of trust in those institutions, and the worrisome role of traditional and social media in shaping our views, easily eclipse anything nefarious going on abroad.

We are highly fractured right now, and it’s hard to predict what event or events will reverse this phenomenon in the next, say, five to ten years. My gut tells me that those events won’t be happy events, as wake-up calls are not generally fun calls to get. But I am a big believer that people, and especially Americans, will eventually come to their senses!

I also think the private sector has a profound incentive to help get things back on track, as stability is good for business. So, for example, we need a stronger rule of law when it comes to climate action. The private sector needs to exert more leadership in this area, and I think it will as our situation worsens. They may turn out to be the ‘grown-ups’ in the room. I think the military is also alarmed by the national security implications of the climate crisis and will become more forceful advocates for robust climate action in the years to come.

What are your three rules to thrive?

First, work hard. Second, take very good care of your mental and physical health, and third, be nice.  And by ‘nice’ I mean things like being a team player, giving credit generously, and treating people, especially young professionals, with respect and a light touch. Young professionals in their first years out of college, grad school and law school may act tough, but they are remarkably fragile. Junior colleagues almost always look to their more senior colleagues for guidance, inspiration, and above all, approval. Yes, supervising people may be tough, but being supervised is tougher.