Overseas Missions


Attorney taught law in Cambodia, volunteered in India, Nepal and Tanzania

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A trip to Cambodia three years ago sparked attorney Catherine Groll’s interest in returning to teach law in a country where the Civil Code only came into being in 2011.

On Groll’s 2012 trip, she and Cooley Law Professor Emeritus Karen Truszkowski visited the American Bar Association offices in Phnom Penh, and met with Steve Austermiller, a legal education adviser and country representative for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, and head of the USAID-funded ABA legal reform programs in Cambodia.

Austermiller, whose program partnered with Cambodian law schools and non-governmental organizations, the Royal Academy of Judicial Professionals and Cambodian Bar Association, was teaching Alternative Dispute Resolution at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) in Phnom Penh, one of the country’s oldest higher educational institutions.

After visiting RULE, Groll was inspired to join Austermiller and volunteer teachers from around the world who were putting together a curriculum. She returned in 2013 to spend five months as a visiting professor, teaching the first Tort Law class in the English-based Bachelor of Laws program launched in 2000, while staying in touch with clients in Michigan via Skype and e-mail. She brought to bear 15 years of experience as an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School where she was awarded the 2010 Frederick J. Griffith Award for teaching excellence.

A litigator for 22 years, former owner of the Law Office of Catherine Groll PLLC and now a trial attorney with the Mike Morse Law Firm in Southfield, Groll was eager to help a country that is rebuilding its legal structure. In the late ’70s, dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge movement particularly targeted lawyers, civil servants, religious leaders, and other intellectuals.

“Almost all the legal professionals were murdered or fled, leaving only six licensed lawyers in the entire country, and law books were destroyed,” Groll explains, adding that Cambodia is rife with corruption, and that several licensed “lawyers” are accused of buying the bar exam passing score, and bribing officials. “Citizens have a hard time getting the sort of legal advice Americans take for granted. 

“There are only 650 lawyers serving a population of 15 million citizens,” she explains. “Numerous foreign law firms have opened their doors in Phnom Penh, but cannot practice without hiring a Cambodian lawyer to appear in court.”

Each of Groll’s 45 students at RULE had to have at least an 11th grade comprehension in English reading ability.

“While Khmer is the official language, almost everyone speaks English,” she says.

Groll, who spent a year writing a torts textbook for students that referenced American Law, also rounded up donations of laptops.

“Families struggled to pay for education, at great personal sacrifice,” she says. “The average family income would be equivalent to 600 U.S. dollars a year.”

She also assisted in coaching the Cambodian International Moot Court teams and the Commercial Arbitration teams that went on to capture honors.

Groll found that working with Cambodian law students was a far cry from working with their U.S. counterparts, who were relatively confident they would pass the bar, find well-paying jobs and go on to succeed in the legal field. Cambodian students settle for jobs as legal assistants, or work for a nonprofit foreign organization because they cannot afford the $25,000 bar exam fee.

“And yet, they were passionate and excited about their futures, because they would be able to use their legal education to help the citizens of Cambodia — and they believed change would ultimately come to the country, even if future generations were the ones that benefited from their willingness to become educated without promise of a job,” she says.

Groll stays in touch with many of the students.

“It means a lot to me to have that ongoing connection,” she says. “They all know they have an open invitation if they ever come to the States. I’ve written numerous letters of recommendations for their efforts at master’s programs in Australia, Scotland and England, and I truly wish there were more opportunity for them to study here in the United States.”

Groll also was approved by the Deputy Prime Minister to teach Evidence Law and Critical Thinking to new judges at the Judicial College. This first-ever class of judges was strictly monitored.   

“Many judges in Cambodia had no legal training, were corrupt and had been appointed due to their friendship with the upper echelon members of the government,” she explains. “All of my lectures were taped, and I had to submit lesson plans in advance. I had to be very careful not to disparage the current system in any way. Journalists were killed brutally and people disappeared when they spoke out against the Prime Minister and his politics, and I knew I could only be effective if I honored the boundaries.” 
According to Groll, none of the judges had heard of evidence, or judicial ethics, or the concept of a jury.

“Those ideals did not exist in Cambodia, but some highly educated law school Cambodian graduates who had been privileged enough to attend Harvard, and go to law school in London and Japan, had very strong ideas about what needed to happen to create a fair judiciary and the judicial college was developed along that basis,” she explains.

Cambodia was not the Cooley Law grad’s first volunteer trip. In 2000, she spent two weeks in Nepal, building houses of mud and thatched roofs for Habitat for Humanity. She also volunteered with Habitat in Tanzania, where she was dismayed to see the burned out shell of the U.S. Embassy in Dar Es Salaam that was bombed in 1998.

“It stood in bleak despair as a reminder that Tanzania was vulnerable to terrorist factions,” she says.

Groll found a pervasive sense of instability and fear, with many Tanzanians living in abject poverty, unable to keep their own land, which was repeatedly taken from them in violent uprisings.

“Without good leadership and government structure, people had to fend for themselves, and most did not have electricity or good supplies of running water,” she says.

Seven years later, she volunteered with Cross Cultural Solutions at the Missionaries of Charity Sisters in New Delhi, India, tending to women with mental difficulties at the Mother Teresa Home for the Destitute and Dying.

“I loved them all and was very torn when I had to leave,” she says. “The nuns gave me a picture of Mother Teresa and a bottle of holy water, both of which I have to this day, two of my most precious possessions.”

Groll now has set her sights on Ethiopia, where loss of cattle and destruction of crops due to drought has left tens of millions of people in need of food assistance.

“I feel certain I will get there in the next few years to do whatever small thing I can to bring comfort and caring,” she says.

“As lawyers, we typically live fairly privileged lives, and may take our good fortune for granted,” she adds. “These trips remind me that in its most basic and simplistic way, connection between people is what makes life meaningful, and hands down, some of the most poignant and significant moments of my life have occurred on these trips.”