The last week of November, I had the honor to be invited to various events for the Rentrée du Barreau de Paris, the opening ceremonies of the legal year in Paris.
On Tuesday, November 26, I spoke on a panel organized by a bar committee dedicated to “nouveaux métiers du droit” or new careers in the law. The panel dealt with internal investigations into claims of sexual harassment, an area in which my firm and my partners Hailyn Chen and Tammy Godley are deeply involved. We had an excellent turnout of Paris bar members in the magnificent library of the Ordre des Avocats de Paris in the old Palais de Justice, and we compared the French and US approaches. The greatest differences seemed to turn on protections the French afford witnesses and defendants, although recent changes in both systems seem to bringing them closer together.
The formal ceremony for the bar opening on Friday, November 29, again at the old Palais, started with a “class photo” of visiting bar leaders from around the world. We then heard speeches by the outgoing Bâtonnier de Paris Marie-Aimée Peyron, and the vice-bâtonnier Basile Ader, the Mayor of Paris, the Attorney General of France, the President of the French Senate, and two young women lawyers who had won a contest for best oral argument and who gave impassioned remarks. I was struck by the frankness with which the speakers addressed contentious issues such as the system of retirement funding proposed by the government, defended by the AG, and decried by Paris Bar leaders. Regardless of the merits, the back and forth was a reminder of the Rule of Law, and the importance of being able to debate issues like this in a free, open dialogue, even where passions run high.
Throughout the week, we were feted by our Parisian hosts. Martin Pradel and his firm Betto Perben Pradel Filhol hosted a remarkable dinner at Taillevent for several African bar presidents, and I was particularly moved by the difficulties faced by lawyers in Cameroon as described by Maître Tchakoute Patie Charles. On Friday night, international bar leaders were treated to a sumptuous dinner at the Quai d’Orsay, in magnificent salons built by Napoleon III to impress foreign dignitaries (it certainly had its intended effect that night!). And on Saturday night, we joined members of the Paris bar at a champagne reception throughout the hallways of the Palais de Justice, where I had the chance to meet with many bar leaders, including Mari Fujii, Vice President of Daini-Tokyo Bar Association regarding the upcoming anti-death penalty conference in Kyoto.
The entire event was especially fascinating because we have no true equivalent in the United States. While there are certainly annual bar dinners by the ABA and state and local bars, the importance of the role of the bâtonnier in France and the substantive contribution and ceremonial grandeur of the Paris rentrée drew a marked contrast with American bar events.