An Interview with Suren Avanesyan

Q. Since you were already a lawyer when you began as a 1L, how do you think your law school experience differed from that of your classmates?

In many ways, my experiences were not much different from those of my classmates. My two major preoccupations as a first-year law student were spending many hours in the law library and bracing myself for daily exposure to the Socratic method of teaching in order to learn legal thinking. However, being a product of a civil law system that had gone through eight decades of Soviet law, it was inevitable that I became a legal comparativist. The most difficult part intellectually was moving from a deductive mode of applying law to fact patterns mechanically to treating law as a living concept.

Was there a law school experience that was particularly important or meaningful to you?

Just like every other law student at the UW-Madison, I had a number of experiences that fall into this category. The one that comes to mind right now is taking a class with Professor Richard Bilder in International Human Rights. A requirement for that class was writing a paper on any topic that would fall under the rubric of international law of human rights. I saw this as an opportunity to look into how constitutional and domestic laws interact with international treaties—hence, I came up with the topic for my paper—constitutional protection of human rights in Russia. Professor Bilder was very enthusiastic about the topic that I chose, and I spent a great semester writing that paper with his guidance. However, my experience with that paper did not end after the class was over. Professor Bilder suggested that I publish this work, and the next several months were spent on fine-tuning this paper and making it an article. Throughout the process of writing this article, he was always there for me. In the end I published it in a well-known journal, which further solidified my interest in pursuing a career in international law.  

How did you become a research assistant? What kind of work did you do for Professor Hendley?

While I was studying English in Madison in 1995, one of my professors suggested that I should meet Professor Hendley, who had done a lot of groundbreaking research in Russia. I called her and explained who I was and what I was doing in Madison. She invited me to come to her office and by the end of that meeting asked me if I wanted to do research for her. I agreed and the rest is history. Meeting Professor Hendley in 1995 was a very important event in my professional life. She became my mentor and the fact that I am now working in international law is in large extent because of her.

Why did you decide to get an LL.M. in International Legal Studies?

I wanted to have the experience of living in New York City, so when the opportunity presented itself, my wife and I decided to take it. I had for many years contemplated a career in international law and getting an LL.M. was the next logical step. Studying international law with some of their advanced legal thinkers was an added attraction.

How did you find your first job after law school?

When I was at NYU, I was a student of Professor Stephen Holmes and later became his research assistant. When he heard about my interest in international development work, he suggested that I contact the Russia team at the World Bank. I did and was hired as a consultant for them, working on legal reform projects in Russia. Working for the World Bank was a great learning experience and opened the door to many career opportunities. I have to say that I was fortunate to have good mentors at every professional stage of my life and that enabled me to do things that seemed impossible only a few years before.

What suggestions do you have for students interested in doing international law?

Various people come to their careers in many different ways. If international legal practice is something that you feel you want to do—just do it. Sometimes it is a process that takes a long time. However, if you persevere—just like with everything else—you will get there. The trick is to know what your final destination is. There are many ways to have an international component in whatever you do—whether it is corporate or immigration law, or teaching law, or working for the government. There are many classes taught at the UW-Madison that focus on international subjects. Perhaps taking these classes is the first step. Getting to know people who work in the field is also tremendously helpful.

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