Going Global: Minnesota Law Alumni Are Making a World of Difference
In this time of trade wars and shifting alliances, climate change and human rights crises, lawyers must often think and practice on a global scale. Across the country and the world, Minnesota Law alumni in a wide variety of practice areas and career fields are working on internationally important issues and making a difference. The following are just a few of their stories.
Bin Zhao ’97
Bin Zhao ’97 spoke no English when he arrived in Minnesota in 1987. With a master’s degree in literature and linguistics from Beijing University under his belt but only $50 in his pocket, he was, he says, “very curious to learn. China was completely closed then, and I knew nothing about what goes on in the rest of the world.” Today, Zhao is senior vice president for government and legal affairs at Qualcomm China.
He spent a year learning English, then several more earning a Ph.D. in linguistics with an internationally renowned Chinese linguistics professor at the University of Minnesota. The lifelong friends he acquired during that time convinced him to abandon his academic goals.
“They made me understand why law was important and how it could enrich my life,” Zhao says, adding that he earned about $10 a month before leaving China. At Minnesota Law, he qualified for resident tuition, but he would have to start from scratch.
“I knew nothing about law. In China, future rule-makers and politicians studied in the department of languages and literature,” he points out. The idea of the rule of law—as opposed to the rule of people—was a “completely alien concept.”
His English still poor, Zhao recorded his course lectures and discussions, taking precious eating and sleeping time to review his tapes. His intellectual property professor once confronted him about recording without permission. “That was an important lesson,” says Zhao, whose future would entail intellectual property tussles with companies such as Apple.
After graduating, Zhao landed jobs with multinational law firms Baker McKenzie and DLA Piper and with corporate giants Intel and Sony. He joined Qualcomm China in 2012, just in time for the company to be raided by uniformed Chinese government officials and fined nearly $1 billion for antitrust violations.
Since then, Zhao has litigated more than 30 complex, sophisticated matters, high-profile cases “other lawyers only dream of.” Yet the work can be grueling. When Qualcomm wanted to acquire a European company, for example, Zhao and his team managed to get clearance from eight different jurisdictions; only China failed to climb aboard.
Today Qualcomm is a leader in 5G technology and operates with a highly successful business model, Zhao says. “I’m not only very busy but also very proud of what I’ve been doing”—which he sees as smoothing the way for Qualcomm as well as for an industry that spans the globe. He lauds his professors at Minnesota Law for the extra help they provided, and he champions international legal learning.
“When they come back, they are new people,” he says of those who study abroad. “I am still benefiting from what I learned in my early years.”
Rosalyn Park ’02
“Seeing how hard women from across the world are working has always inspired me,” says Rosalyn Park ’02, who, as director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program in Minneapolis, is also committed to making sure governments enact and enforce laws to better protect women and hold offenders accountable. But her path to such a mission was “a little weird,” Park says. “I majored in botany.” She expected to pursue medical school or tropical forest conservation, but extracurricular human rights activism at the University of Wisconsin pointed her toward law school.
Whether studying orchids in Costa Rica or Maori law in New Zealand, the daughter of South Korean immigrants knew she wanted to work globally, exploring different ideas, cultures, and policies. “As Americans we are really fortunate, but other countries have laws that threaten safety and security,” she says. “Working as an intern for Anti-Slavery International in London really opened my eyes and helped cement my commitment to human rights.”
Park says she took advantage of every globally oriented course, clinic, and mentorship available at Minnesota Law, pointing out that coursework has changed significantly since then, making even broader opportunities available. She joined The Advocates soon after graduating, working as staff attorney and research director before being named director of the Women’s Human Rights Program in 2014. A widely recognized expert on transitional justice and the death penalty as well as violence against women, she has led fact-finding missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, Serbia, and Montenegro, always working with local partners to open doors.
“We monitor and document how laws are actually working on the ground. You have to peel back the layers to see where governments are falling down and why,” she says. Working with the Autonomous Women’s House in Zagreb, Croatia, she and her volunteer team discovered that domestic violence had been removed from the criminal code. After documenting abuses that fell through the cracks, they appeared before the UN’s Human Rights Committee; within months, Croatia reinstated the law.
“Working with other women’s rights defenders around the world who fight onerous laws with limited resources in difficult conditions really spurs me. I always come away so inspired and energized,” says Park. Committed to training lawyers, volunteers, supporters, and partners, she inspires others as well.
Krisann Kleibacker Lee ’03
Krisann Kleibacker Lee ’03, a native Midwesterner, caught the global bug early. At the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, she majored in English and literature but studied policy issues as well. She spent a semester in South Africa, learning about British law as apartheid was ending. She spent a year in Japan, teaching English. By the time she got to Minnesota Law, her interests ranged wide.
“They made sense to me as related, although I hadn’t understood them as being related,” says Kleibacker Lee, global lead lawyer for sustainability at Cargill in Minneapolis. Love for poetry taught her that words matter. Summer internships with former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle raised awareness about environmental and labor issues. South Dakota roots demonstrated how agriculture fits into the policy puzzle. Global experience fueled her passion for equality and human rights.
Yet after she earned her J.D., Kleibacker Lee was undecided. “I did what a lot of people do when they don’t know what they want to do. I got a clerkship,” she says. After clerking for then-U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Jonathan Lebedoff, she joined Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels) in Minneapolis and spent five years focusing on environmental, natural resources, and agriculture law. She learned “a ton about the nuts and bolts of law,” but as a law firm associate, she felt one step removed from client challenges. She was working with a slice of the facts rather than making decisions, anticipating problems, planning for the future, and potentially changing mindsets and cultures.
Her environmental law experience opened the door at Cargill, which she joined in 2011. The company later restructured to focus on sustainability as a strategy and established land use, climate change, and water as sustainability priorities. Charged with a pilot program to determine how Cargill’s law department should support its evolving mission, she decided to innovate.
“I said they should name a sustainability lawyer—and hire me,” says Kleibacker Lee, who is skilled at navigating separate but interrelated issues. “A collaborative approach is required to solve these problems—everything from palm oil issues in Malaysia to deforestation in Brazil to child labor in West Africa.” Cargill policy must work locally and globally, and because the company operates in 71 countries, buys products from more than 120, and employs lawyers in 30, Kleibacker Lee must work across global time zones. She also speaks frequently to law schools eager to foster sustainability programs.
“I like to build small and scale up. My job is much more diffuse and complex now, as Cargill embraces its global role,” says Kleibacker Lee, who credits the Law School for excellent preparation. “They gave me the basics for what I need to do in this job. All the building blocks were there, although I didn’t realize it at the time.”
Megan Manion ’16
Global goals also emerged early for Megan Manion ’16, who studied political science at the University of Wisconsin and received a postgraduate Fulbright-Hays fellowship to study the Yoruba language in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Later, in Minneapolis, she worked with The Advocates for Human Rights and as a legal and medical advocate at the Sexual Violence Center, where her direct contact with survivors revealed systemic gaps and the urgent need for gender-sensitive policies and legal reform.
“I wanted to use this experience and training to ensure that legal and governance institutions work better for—and are informed by—women,” says Manion, who in 2017 began working at UN Women headquarters in New York as a policy analyst on women, peace, and security. “I hoped I could push the envelope forward a bit.”
She chose Minnesota Law for its strong international human rights program and faculty as well as hands-on clinic and research opportunities. The chance to work on real-time issues with the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims, as a research fellow for the Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, and as a Robina Foundation fellow with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid helped shaped her understanding of global challenges.
Since joining UN Women, Manion’s human rights work has focused on transitional justice, preventing violent extremism, and countering terrorism. Her assignments have taken her to Chad, the Netherlands, and other countries. For the past six months she has supported the UN Women office in Afghanistan and is moving there to become a justice and security specialist.
“My work in the field has been a reality check,” she says. “Significant work remains to be done, and in order to build laws and policies that protect them and promote their rights, women must be able to participate meaningfully and lead the way. They often risk their lives to do this, and I feel very privileged to work alongside them.”
Nooshin Soltani ’05
Nooshin Soltani ’05 calls herself an “accidental immigrant” whose multicultural background has influenced her leap from a high-paying Manhattan law firm to the U.S. Department of State. Now a foreign service officer on the Romanian desk in Washington, D.C., she has no regrets about essentially starting over.
“At some point, I knew I would pivot toward public service,” says Soltani. “We weren’t refugees, but coming from Iran, I felt blessed and moved to give back.” At age 4, Soltani and her family moved to a Kansas City suburb so her father could get cancer treatment. After he died, her mother remarried and the family stayed. Soltani studied political science and sociology at the University of Kansas, then chose Minnesota Law for its solid reputation and a chance to relocate.
More important than coursework were the professors she discovered at the Law School, whose diverse interests, experiences, and perspectives offered inspiration. Professor Oren Gross, for example, encouraged her to dream big, beyond Minnesota.
“That vision resonated with me,” says Soltani. She participated in the Uppsala University exchange program in Sweden, which she found “fascinating. I did not know the European legal system, and seeing the law through that lens spurred much interest in what I would do later.”
After a brief stint at Faegre & Benson, Soltani spent five years handling mergers and acquisitions at the powerhouse New York firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, an intense experience she deems formative but not for the faint of heart. Comparing her freedom and opportunity to the extended family she left behind in Iran, she began to think more broadly, outside the law.
“Some people like paper and grappling over deal points. I liked the policy level of engagement and vision,” she says. “So I said I’d be a diplomat.” She applied to the State Department on a whim, embarking on a lengthy process that eventually landed her assignments in Armenia, on the Caribbean desk, and most recently in Prague. Reflecting on a career she finds “amazing” but sometimes frustrating due to slow-moving bureaucracy, she cites Colin Powell’s notion that there is no better work than international relations.
Soltani’s challenges resemble those she encountered while managing huge transactions and teams at the law firm, she adds, and her legal expertise has proved helpful. Now, however, she feels more personally invested in policy issues and public service.
“Having been raised in a different culture but moving to the U.S., I can relate to many things that are happening today. I feel more connected to people in that way,” she says. “I’m glad I made this jump. Who knows where the future will take me?”
Maya Suresh ’14
Hailing from a family replete with University alumni and blessed with a love for learning, Maya Suresh ’14 confesses she was scared to enter the real world after earning a finance degree from the Carlson School of Management. So enrolling in law school made sense— until it didn’t.
“I went into law school thinking I’d become a lawyer, but I hated it,” she says. She confessed to business law Professor John Matheson, who assured her that some of the smartest law students he knew became not attorneys, but CEOs, astronauts, authors, and other professionals instead. Intellectual property law Professor Ruth Okediji (now teaching at Harvard) also came to her rescue with a frequent admonition: “Being a lawyer is one of the least interesting things you can do with a law degree.”
Suresh combined her love for luxury goods and affinity for business and trademark law into a career that included stints at Deloitte in Minneapolis and Tiffany & Co. in New York City, where she handled global store strategy, operations, and policy. While she enjoyed these traditional jobs, Suresh, who studied abroad in Uruguay and speaks Spanish, yearned for more challenge on a global scale.
In early 2019, she joined Booz Allen Hamilton in New York as an international strategy associate. She consults on pure play strategic initiatives for clients within the Middle East/North Africa region and is excited to be on a startup team in a developing area. “As of this morning, women in Saudi Arabia no longer need permission to get a passport,” she says.
Still, she is well aware of all the progress that has yet to be made. “You don’t get to just go to Saudi Arabia if you feel like it. I will get to experience a country and culture that a lot of people may never experience.”
Although her fashion affinity may be limited to choice of abaya, Suresh expects to lean heavily on her law school skills, from critical thinking to understanding legal implications wherever they apply. “Whether related to business strategy or political strategy, or public or private industry, you can’t escape them.”
Christopher Chinn ’04
Christopher Chinn ’04 describes his law school years with a term seldom heard in these parts: exotic.
Born and raised in Honolulu, educated at Yale, and working in France, Chinn opted for the ultimate Midwest experience. A real campus. A top-notch law school with reasonable tuition and diverse students. A chance to study area history while working in the rare books library, and to retrace the path of his Japanese-American grandfather, reportedly stationed at Fort Snelling.
Feeling somewhat like a foreign exchange student, Chinn became one of Professor (now Emeritus) David Weissbrodt’s mentees. “His course in international human rights law excited me, although international public law and diplomacy is not something you can plan a career around. Only about half a dozen law firms in the world are known to specialize in that,” Chinn says. The Law School’s LL.M. program kept him connected to international law students, however, and an exchange program sent him to the University of Lyon’s Jean Moulin III Law School in France.
His practice niche, however, remains small. Chinn contends that law schools offer more international arbitration courses than the market justifies; the same may be said of international human rights law. Yet, as the world shrinks, practitioners everywhere, including in Minnesota, are likely to need international law expertise at least occasionally. “For someone practicing any type of private commercial law, it would be strange not to have matters related to another country. Since I’m based in Europe, being familiar with other laws and jurisdictions is par for the course.”
Before law school, Chinn polished his French while training at Coudert Brothers, an international arbitration law firm in Paris. After graduation, he worked for New York international law firms Covington & Burling and Baker McKenzie before returning to Paris in 2012, when he passed the French bar. With Paris-based firms Hafez, then Mayer Brown, then his own firm, Chinn Arbitration, launched in 2017, he has represented clients ranging from a West African hospitality company and a Canadian contractor to a Middle Eastern information technology company and a European aeronautics service provider.
Though committed to Paris, Chinn remains a fan of Minneapolis, “the cultural capital of the Midwest—with great food. The quality of life and economic opportunity for the average person are second to none,” he says. And although he was unable to attend his 15-year class reunion recently, he still keeps tabs on the Gophers.
—By Cathy Madison, a Twin Cities-based writer
Minnesota Law’s LL.M. Program: A Quarter Century of Global Impact
International students who enroll in Minnesota Law’s LL.M. program are already trained lawyers in their own countries. They arrive in Minneapolis to study American law with the goal of better preparing themselves for careers when they return home, wherever that might be.
Since the LL.M. program began 26 years ago, it has graduated approximately 850 students from 84 countries, many of whom today are making notable impacts in global business and policymaking. Using their LL.M. degrees, they’re running companies, practicing law around the world, and advising governments and international organizations on public policy.
“Most of our LL.M.s are here because they’d like to gain some expertise in American law in order to apply it to their legal work overseas,” says Kara Galvin, director of International and Graduate Programs. “But in addition, the soft skills they gain are invaluable. What these international students achieve here only solidifies their drive, and proves that they can do anything when they return to their international careers.”
Advising on Global Policies in Chile
Karina Uribe Peña, LL.M. ’17, for example, transitioned from Minnesota Law to become legislative advisor for the National Congress of Chile, where she works on major global policy issues such as combatting money laundering, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and antiterrorism. Uribe Pena also teaches international law at the University of Valpraiso and, in her free time, works on human rights issues.
A large part of her professional work, she explains, involves coordinating international relations with other countries and with international organizations. “My time in Minnesota was incredibly valuable for my professional training,” she says. “I work now with different international institutions, and most of these relationships require speaking English—even better if it’s legal English. Moreover, working in Minnesota in the human rights field has helped me share those experiences in my job as well as with my students in the university.”
Also invaluable, says Uribe Pena, are the soft skills she developed at Minnesota Law. “Sharing time with people from different cultures, now many of them my friends, developed in me an ability to work effectively across cultures and make social relations in different contexts. Those soft skills really matter in my work here in Chile.”
Leading a Multinational Company
Pavel Shteling, LL.M. ’12, is CEO of Norwegian Park LLC, working out of St. Petersburg, Russia. The company operates a growing number of activity parks in Russia and Scandinavia (currently 25 and expanding). These activity parks attract a million visitors annually.
After graduating from Minnesota Law, Shteling interviewed with Norwegian Park for a job as legal advisor, but soon discovered the company was looking for a new CEO.
“The condition was that the CEO should be from outside, with good English skills, a good education, and have some management experience. I didn’t meet all the requirements, but they decided to give me a try, a probation period as CEO. I had to prove myself.”
Shteling did just that, and was offered the job permanently after four months.
Shteling’s experience in the LL.M. program prepared him well to become a CEO doing business internationally, not to mention dealing with legal issues around contracts and property law, among others.
“Being CEO is very challenging work, but my LL.M. degree and international experience definitely gave me a huge advantage,” he says.
The LL.M. program fully prepared him “to formulate an opinion, defend a point of view, and seek relevant information,” he says. “Almost daily in the LL.M. program, I participated in discussions, worked on group projects, and not only mastered theoretical knowledge, but got practical, hands-on experience. All these skills have actually been very valuable for my current leadership role.”
—By Chuck Leddy, a Boston-based writer