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There is a void in my daily routine that only 16 crazy lawyers could fill.

It has been about a week since we closed the 2012 session of the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute, and with the e-mail and Facebook comments being exchanged, most of us are clearly still recovering from the high of living with newfound family for two weeks; or in my case, from the highlight of my nine months with ERI.

My colleagues and I had spent most of the preceding month preparing to train public interest lawyers from the Mekong region – making travel arrangements, communicating with resource persons, preparing a living space for the participants.

Our shared goal was to create a meaningful program, but my personal goal was to make it an experience that all the participants will cherish. I may have ended up cherishing it much more than they did. I keep thinking of the highlights of the two-week training, and I’m reminded of how it has, to me, been symbolic of the path of legal practice I’ve chosen – intellectually challenging, profound and out-of-the ordinary, but above all just joyful and inspiring.

A handful of memories stand out:

  • Walking into the training room and discovering a table covered with hi-tech translating devices that the participants had brought, to help keep up with the jargon;
  • a participant from Burma, shy and quiet the first day, was by the fifth day already discussing plans to start a legal resource center in a township about 160 km from Yangon;
  • a 68-year-old lawyer who partied harder than 15 lawyers only a third of his age, and showed up on time and energetic every single morning;
  • the remarkable and varied entrances of the participants: one arrived on the back of a motorbike, carrying his suitcase on his lap, another appeared in a suit (but went on to leave Chiang Mai in shorts and a t-shirt), another was woozy from car sickness, and yet another was exhausted and sweaty after wandering the bus arcade searching for me;
  • and singing Heal the World, Wind of Change, We Are the World and I Have a Dream on karaoke, never ironically.

To both organizers and participants, MLAI was about getting together and discovering new ways to do their work: transcending national boundaries and collaborating to find international legal solutions to environmental and human rights problems that could not be solved through domestic means.  And doing so with the utmost resourcefulness, creativity, openness, and passion. Much like the way the MLAI participants built a home for themselves in a shared house, in shared rooms with shared fans and shared chores, and no fancy hotel amenities. (Who needs a gym when you’re playing sepak takraw and table tennis everyday with newfound friends?)

This was how I first got to know ERI’s work back in 2009.

I was a participant in the first MLAI session, and the friends I made there are the same people I do actual meaningful work with these days – two of them are ERI colleagues, and most of the others are part of the Mekong Legal Network. I knew then that working with other public interest lawyers in the region was something I wanted to do, and that ERI was an organization that I wanted to work with. Three years after, this is reinforced, with me on the organizing side this time.

Inscribed on the walls of my law school in the Philippines is this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“The business of a law school is not sufficiently described when you merely say that it is to teach law or to make lawyers. It is to teach law in the grand manner, and to make great lawyers.”

For now, training Mekong lawyers on environmental and human rights law is my idea of law in the grand manner, and this year’s MLAI participants are my idea of great lawyers.