By Sheila Pursglove
While visiting micro-entrepreneur clients in Tanzania a decade ago, Deborah Burand was thanked by a woman for giving her “soft knees.” Baffled, Burand thought she had misunderstood. Then she learned that, thanks to microcredit loans, the woman had used business profits to pay for her children’s school fees—instead of having to kneel before her husband to beg for money.
It was an eye-opener for Burand, now a clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, and co-director of the U-M International Transactions Clinic. She has been passionate and active in the microfinance sector since 2001.
“I soon came to learn that providing access to financial services to the very poorest people in the world is much more than a series of financial transactions,” she says. “When I saw the power that access to financial services can bring to poor women and improve women’s status in their families and communities as well as become an engine for moving families out of poverty, I became a secular missionary for the microfinance sector.”
In 2008, Burand helped launch the International Transactions Clinic, where many of the clinic’s clients are changing the world for the better in profound and lasting ways, she says.
“There’s much to love about working in this clinic as it offers law students a chance to grow and then apply their international legal skills to making the world a better place—before they even graduate from law school.”
In the fall of 2007, Burand—then working at the Grameen Foundation—was contacted by U-M Professor Michael Barr, who was surveying microfinance networks to learn which might be willing to use a law clinic for pro bono legal support. Grameen Foundation already was well served on a pro bono basis by several law firms.
A few months later, Barr invited Burand to Ann Arbor to brainstorm about the proposed launch of the International Transactions Clinic that would focus on legal support for microfinance institutions and other organizations in the microfinance sector.
“I realized how ground-breaking such a clinic could be,” Burand says. “At some point in our discussions, I moved from merely being a commentator on the clinic’s design to saying things like ‘If I were directing a clinic like this, I would….’”
Burand did not think the clinic should limit its reach just to microfinance—but could offer pro bono services to a wide range of organizations and investors seeking to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems.
U-M Dean Evan Caminker asked Burand to direct a “pilot” of the clinic for three years, with the help of ITC co-founders Barr and Professor Tim Dickinson.
“I think we were tasked with becoming ‘academic entrepreneurs’ who would build something entirely new—the first international transactions clinic in the world,” says Burand.
Approximately 90 percent of the ITC’s first year clients had connections to microfinance; nearly five years later, about 10 percent of clinic’s clients work in the microfinance sector. The diverse range of clients have an international focus and willingness to tackle challenges like poverty, housing, environmental degradation and climate change. Many work at the base of the economic pyramid in emerging markets and provide services and products to billions of people living on $2 a day or less. Others are “impact investors,” making international investments that are expected to generate positive developmental, environmental or other social returns as well as financial returns.
Law students learn drafting and negotiating skills for conducting cross-border transactions, analyze ethical issues in international business, build skills at structuring and documenting investments in enterprises in emerging markets, and deepen their understanding of international economic and financial policy.
Burand, who also teaches impact investment lawyering, returned to Michigan Law a year ago, after a leave of absence to serve as vice president and general counsel to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S government’s development finance institution. OPIC has “book-ended” Burand’s legal career—she worked there as a legal intern while a second year law student.
“To return to OPIC—almost three decades later—as the general counsel was an extraordinary and rare opportunity,” she says.
Since OPIC offers a range of debt and political risk insurance products to U.S. companies investing in emerging markets, Burand knew she would love the myriad of international legal issues likely to cross her desk as the general counsel.
“What I didn’t anticipate was how much I also would enjoy and learn from my fellow professional colleagues,” she says. “This is a government corporation where the in-house lawyers are mission critical to the success of the organization. To have a chance to be part of and lead the very talented legal team of OPIC was one of my career’s highlights.”
Last fall, Burand joined the board of directors of the MicroBuild Fund, established by Habitat for Humanity International to help provide funding and technical assistance for housing improvements around the world.
“I’m delighted to see what was once just a twinkle in the eye of an ITC client come to fruition,” she says. “It’s a real honor to be able to participate in the governance of this extraordinary ‘proof of concept’ fund—the world’s first fund aimed at providing finance for housing improvements for the very poor.”
Prior to joining the U-M Law School faculty, Burand—who previously worked for the Federal Reserve Board’s legal division and in senior legal and policy positions at the U.S. Treasury Department—held several senior positions in the microfinance sector. She was executive vice president of Strategic Services at the Grameen Foundation, overseeing teams that provided strategic services and products to microfinance institutions around the world. This was during the time that Dr. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh won the Nobel Peace Prize—“a very exciting time to be part of the Grameen family,” Burand says.
At FINCA International, another global microfinance network, Burand launched the Capital Markets Group and served on the boards of several transforming microfinance institutions.
She also was a co-founder and first president of Women Advancing Microfinance (WAM) International, launched in 2003 as the first professional association in microfinance. Since that launch in D.C., the ranks of WAM—practitioners, consultants, donors, regulators and other stakeholders—has grown beyond the United States to include WAM chapters in countries where many of the clients of microfinance reside. And Burand travels each summer to Turin, Italy, as a member of the faculty of the Boulder Microfinance Training Institute, where she teaches courses on securing debt and equity finance for microfinance institutions.
Burand also was the co-topic leader for finance for the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative; and in 1993-1994, was an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations—during which she was seconded to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and worked on legal issues related to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as they developed new central bank and commercial banking laws. Currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, she also has chaired the board of Microfinance Opportunities, and served as a member of the Investment Committee of the Global Commercial Microfinance Consortium and the Advisory Board of Microvest.
Burand’s first international experience was as a high school foreign exchange student to Norway.
“I caught the international travel bug that summer and have never lost it,” she says.
As an undergrad at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., she spent a semester studying international organizations in Geneva, where the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations advised her to consider pursuing a joint graduate degree. This she did at Georgetown University, combining a law degree with a master’s degree from the School of Foreign Service.
After law school, she joined the global law firm of Shearman & Sterling in New York where she worked on debt restructuring deals for Brazil and Argentina; advised bank advisory committees in the negotiation and implementation of Brady Bond deals that restructured the sovereign debt of Vietnam and Peru; and supported, on a pro bono basis, the development of the world’s first debt-for-nature swap conducted by D.C.-based Conservation International to help finance support for the operation of the Beni Biosphere Reserve in Bolivia. Burand spent a year full time at Conservation International, helping it conduct other creative financial transactions to finance its conservation efforts in Latin America.
While working in microfinance Burand traveled overseas at least once a month, now she travels internationally three to four times a year. In her leisure time, she is a freelance magazine writer, with most of her published articles focused on travel; she also has written about art and dogs.
“I own two very bossy—they can’t help it, it’s genetically programmed into them—Polish Lowland Sheepdogs, Belle, 10, and Beau, who is a year old. Between the two, I’m herded safely around my house. And God forbid if I try to change what they think is the daily routine!”
A native of Anderson, Ind., who now calls Chelsea home, Burand sings alto in her church choir, is part of two creative writing groups in Ann Arbor and Chelsea, and last summer attended the Bear River Writers Conference at Camp Michigania. She is still working on a novel she started in Paris in 1998.
“Attempting to write the ‘great American novel while living in Paris’ is a bit of a cliché but it also was a lot of fun! Sometimes I wonder if I should move back to Paris so that I can get the book finished,” she says with a smile.
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