Law Graduate Works
in Human Rights Court
December 6, 1999
For many people, becoming a judge marks the pinnacle and often the end of their career. For Ela Grdinic, being a criminal court judge in Croatia was the first step in a global journey that brought her to Connecticut and ultimately took her to France.
Ten years after she received her law degree from the Zagreb Faculty of Law, Grdinic (pronounced Gradinik) was juggling judicial responsibilities with her work in Croatia's peace and women's movement and with teaching duties at the Centre for Women's Studies in Zagreb.
As she became immersed in human rights law, Grdinic began to feel that further education, specifically in the United States, would enable her to move her career in that direction.
Grdinic applied for and received the Ron Brown Fellowship, which allows graduate students from Central and Eastern Europe to study at leading institutions in the United States. The fellowship is named after the late Ron Brown, the U.S. secretary of commerce who died while promoting U.S. business interests in the Balkans.
As a recipient of the fellowship, Grdinic was chosen by the School of Law for its Master of Laws program. Several months after finishing the program, Grdinic couldn't be more pleased.
"I became familiar with a different way of thinking about the law and a different way of applying the law," Grdinic wrote recently from her office at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. "A whole new philosophy behind the American legal system opened for me."
Grdinic was one of 12 foreign students who took a break from their legal career to enroll in the law school's Master of Laws, or LL.M., program last fall. Twenty-seven students are enrolled this year. Students can receive an LL.M. in U.S. legal studies or insurance law.
The one-year program, which is considered the cornerstone of the law school's international programs, is designed for foreign attorneys who want to learn about the United States' legal system and then return to their home country to contribute to the development of the legal profession there.
"All foreign lawyers in the LL.M. programs are distinguished graduates from law schools in their own countries," says Mark Janis, a professor of law. "We provide them with an introduction to U.S. law and American society. After a year with us, they return home very well acquainted with us."
LL.M. students must take a seminar on U.S. law and legal institutions. They may take any other law school classes and must also complete a thesis.
Grdinic's class included students from Africa, Europe and Asia.
After being out of school for a decade, Grdinic says she found it strange to be back in school but soon made the transition. She was especially impressed by the way students voice their opinions.
"In Croatia, students have a very passive role - they just listen and take notes," she says. "Studying in a dynamic and participatory atmosphere was completely new for me."
During her year at the law school, Grdinic learned much about American criminal law. Most important, she learned about international human rights, a topic she now deals with daily as a legal officer at the registry of the European Court of Human Rights.
The court is the most successful enforcement system on human rights, she says. Forty-one European countries are under the court's jurisdiction.
In her current position, which she began in September, Grdinic prepares cases of alleged human rights violations against Croatia for proceedings before the court. That process can include drafting legal opinions, communicating with the parties involved and participating at the public hearings.
Grdinic says her one-year stint at the law school prepared her well for her current position and others that may follow.
"Through my studies in the U.S., I realized how law is a very extensive area and is connected to all spheres of life," Grdinic says. "I feel as if a whole new universe related to law has opened for me."