Nominee: Sam Cooper, Class of 1984
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sam Cooper ’84 continues to work remotely from his home in Pittsboro, North Carolina, following his evacuation from Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, in late March 2020 due to COVID-19 after a U.S. State Department travel advisory. His remote work on the PRLM project ended in December 2020. The ongoing status of the project is uncertain, according to Cooper, due to Myanmar’s recent military coup.
Q: Starting in January 2020 you will be in Yangon, Myanmar as the Deputy Chief of Party/Senior Justice Sector Advisor Promoting the Rule of Law, what does that position involve?
A: Promoting the Rule of Law in Myanmar (PRLM) is a 5-year USAID funded project. The main objectives include: 1) Strengthen the administration of justice; 2) Improve the quality of legal education; 3) Strengthen access to justice; and 4) Mitigate the impacts of trafficking, corruption, and support transitional justice.
Chemonics International, Inc. is the implementing organization that retained me to serve as Deputy Chief of Party (DCOP)/Senior Justice Sector Advisor. Primary responsibilities focus on advancing the first two objectives. Main counterparts are Myanmar’s Office of the Supreme Court of the Union (OSCU) and the Office of the Attorney General (UAGO); PRLM helps each to advance their respective 5-year strategic plans.
I think of my position in terms of program management, DCOP responsibilities include program management, which draws on my legal and international experience. Current efforts include the following: Establishing a commercial court, to include a specialized IP division, developing a judicial training institute, expanding a nationwide case management system, and implementing a pretrial witness and victim interview process.
Q: How did you get in this position?
A:“One thing leads to another.” By example, I was travelling in Southeast Asia during the summer of 2019. Following a week in Bhutan that included a trek to the Tiger’s Nest, I visited a friend in Yangon, Myanmar who was serving as Chief of Party for the PRLM project. He and I had known each other since 1997, when he was serving as Rule of Law Liaison in Tbilisi, Georgia and I was serving as Rule of Law Liaison in Riga, Latvia; both American Bar Association projects. The DCOP position opened. I applied, followed by the Chemonics hiring process and USAID’s approval.
Q: Tell us, what other jobs have you taken that similarly focus on good governance and the rule of law? My first overseas position was a 1-year pro bono posting in Riga, Latvia; serving as Rule of Law Liaison and part of the ABA’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI) program and made possible by taking a leave-of-absence from my position as an assistant district attorney in Chatham County. A few years after returning, while working as an ADA, I accepted a job in Koror, Palau; serving as Assistant Attorney General – Legal Counsel for the country’s Foreign Investment Board.
Following my return to North Carolina, I served as a criminal magistrate in Guilford County; thereafter accepted a posting in Bangkok, Thailand with ABA Asia, serving as Regional Anti-corruption Advisor, a position that focused on assisting then eighteen signatory countries to the Asia Development Bank (ADB) – Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Anti-Corruption Initiative Asia/Pacific.
Again, I returned to North Carolina and again served as an assistant district attorney in Orange and Chatham Counties, which was followed by accepting a National Center for State Court position as Senior Justice Sector Advisor in Jakarta, Indonesia. My responsibilities here centered on advancing development and implementation of the Republic of Indonesia’s Office of the Attorney General (AGO) Reform Agenda.
Again, I returned to North Carolina and soon thereafter, following appointment by Judge Carl Fox, I served as Chatham County Clerk of Superior Court from 2009 until stepping down in 2018, after working for 24-years with NC’s judicial system. My one thing leads to another, stateside-overseas career pattern continued and next included the 2020 posting in Myanmar.
Q: Where did your desire to go abroad and take U.S. legal principles with you come from?
A: Nature and nurture are involved. I would say that I was born with a chronic case of wanderlust and I was raised by parents that exemplified and modeled public service. My father served his community as an Agricultural Extension Agent and Chair. Family dinners often ended with him saying: “Gotta go to a meeting.” My mother served her community as a public-school teacher.
Q: Do you have consistent job functions or skills that have been applicable across all of your positions? How did Campbell Law School help prepare you for these roles?
A: A couple of mindsets come to mind: First: Everybody has a story. Second is a Maya Angelou quote: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” I recognize that access to justice is quite personal, e.g. making a non-native English-speaking person feel welcome in the Clerk’s office or making sure that a transgender person’s name change process was respectful and comfortable. I say live, let live, do good.
Q: Looking back at your distinguished career serving Chatham County and the North Carolina judicial system, has traveling the world’s legal systems made you appreciate the systems in North Carolina?
A: Yes, certainly, though I am mindful of similarities. By example, legal systems, like people, are wired to resist change, i.e. “we always did it this way;” there is never enough funding; court facilities can always be improved, to include improving insufficient IT infrastructure; there’s never enough training and/or time for training. Bottomline: Legal systems, for better and worse, are dynamic and aspirational works in progress.
Q: Can you tell us one story or memory that still sticks around as having a lasting impact on your career?
A: Sharing one impactful story or memory out of many unimagined experiences is not possible, though I will likely always remember discussing justice with a former Soviet Union judge in Latvia, after he poured me a shot of vodka in his office at 10am to recently facilitating a Zoom discussion on justice with Myanmar PRLM staff in Yangon. Or, scuba diving “Blue Hole” in Palau, or riding a camel in Mongolia to having lunch in a Pittsboro restaurant that I knew as the former Chevrolet dealership and being greeted by a lawyer, former juror, former defendant, a DV survivor, or the lady with a speeding ticket that played bridge with my mother. (The restaurant and my birthplace are across the street from my former office in Chatham’s historic courthouse.) Impactful experiences of being local and not being local are many.
A favorite Mark Twain quote comes to mind: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Q: What does Campbell Law School’s motto “leading with purpose” mean to you?
A: I associate Campbell’s motto with creating an intention, staying mindful of, and guided by the intention, and allowing unimagined “one thing leads to another” opportunities to unfold vs. attempting to control all outcomes. Observation: Most lawyers don’t end up doing what they start out doing.
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