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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Bernadette Atuahene

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-17

So, the reporter asked Bernadette Atuahene yesterday, how did she manage to attend two Ivy League universities in two different cities simultaneously? How was she able to get a law degree from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. at virtually the same time?

And, he wanted to know, how did she also find time for legal projects in Santiago, Chile, and housing and urban-development work at the University of Witswaterstrand in South Africa.

His own Oriental heritage suggested a perfectly plausible answer: through levitation. But Ms. Atuahene, an African-American who deals with sovereign debt issues at the Wall Street law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, had a more realistic explanation.

"I've always had ambition," she said. "I recognized from my childhood what a privilege a good American education was, and I also recognized that spiritual values were important in life, that it was important to use one's education in the cause of reaching out to people. These have been the drivers in my life. I always wanted to make something of my life."

The relentless ambition manifested itself when Ms. Atuahene, the daughter of a Ghanaian-born lawyer and a midwife, saw that the high school she attended in Los Angeles was on the wrong side of town. Her desire to improve that environment took her through the University of California in Los Angeles at a rapid clip, obtaining a magna cum laude degree in political science and African-American studies. She also bagged departmental honors; the chancellor's community service award; a distinguished scholar award; a Woodrow Wilson fellowship at Princeton Summer Institute, which included a full scholarship to Harvard.

And in between winning these awards, Ms. Atuahene also helped organize a campaign in behalf of community residents, addressing disparities caused by Los Angeles' zoning laws and procedures. She negotiated with the city's planning department, and various state legislators, to implement community-based solutions to these problems.

She traveled to Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, and Chile to monitor economic, social, and cultural rights. For that effort, she received Amnesty International's Patrick Stewart Human Rights Award.

At Yale Law School, where she said "there were no rules, and you were free to work your imagination as much as your personal energy permitted," Ms. Atuahene was an editor of the Yale Journal of International Law; a participant in the university's Cuba Exchange Program; a legal intern with the death-penalty project of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP; a research assistant with Yale's "Non-Profit Prison Project"; and a political action coordinator of the Black Law Students Association.

And as though all these engagements weren't enough, Ms. Atuahene also taught law, policy, and international development -- a course she helped create which explored various law-based strategies for achieving legal and judicial reform, development economics, and gender-parity in development, economic and social rights -- at both Harvard and Yale. She taught undergraduates through the Harvard economics department's tutorial program at Harvard. And she was an instructor at Yale's college seminar program.

With this kind of frenetic schedule, one would think that Ms. Atuahene's post-graduation plans included some rest. But she was off to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar to the Constitutional Court.

"I worked extensively on cases challenging the constitutionality of government statutes and policies in the area of freedom of expression, labor rights, political structure of national and provincial legislatures, criminal extradition, and freedom of information," Ms. Atuahene said. Her work also meant writing pre-hearing legal memoranda, which involved statutory interpretation as well as comparative constitutional and administrative research from India, Australia, England, Canada and America. She assisted with writing of judicial opinions. And she coordinated the revision of Constitutional Court's rules of procedure.

But wasn't it a somewhat of an unusual journey from the legal corridors of Johannesburg to the paneled boardrooms of Wall Street, where Ms. Atuahene's corporate specialty is in sovereign debt issuances and restructurings as well as real estate financing transactions.

"I was a summer associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in 2001, and I participated in drafting offering circular for government of El Salvador's bond offering," Ms. Atuahene said. "I went to Hong Kong, and participated in drafting corporate contracts for debt restructuring transaction for an Indonesian state-owned firm. I speak Spanish. I'm at ease when it comes to my current on Argentine debt restructuring, capital market transactions for the Mexican state owned oil company, Pemex, as well as my work with the government of El Salvador."

In her work, she must travel to deal with local central bank governors and finance ministers. Ms. Atuahene acknowledged that her youth sometimes surprises senior officials.

"But when you're there to do due diligence on behalf of your clients, you can't avoid asking the tough questions," she said. "That's where people skills also come into play. You've got to be able to get along with those with whom you do business, but you've also got to ask those hard questions."

One hard question she posed to herself: Was corporate law what she really wanted to do?

"And my answer was, 'Well, I went to Harvard and I went to Yale, so how long do I have to chase merit badges?' -- so I made a decision," Ms. Atuahene said. "I decided that I would be a mentor for young lawyers. I decided I would teach. I think I've accumulated enough experience that I could put to use to help train lawyers."

That means in the fall Ms. Atuahene will head to the Chicago Kent College of Law to teach property law, international development, and international business transactions.

"My ideas aren't just out of textbooks," Ms. Atuahene said. "They are a product of my experience. They've been informed by my unique experience. And I want to inject those ideas into the public discourse. Being a teacher will allow me to do that. You won't find me jailed in the Ivory Tower."

Then she grew quiet for a moment.

"I can promise you one thing," Ms. Atuahene said, presently. "I've always brought passion to everything I've done. I want to help my law students find their own passion. And I'll be there, rooting for them."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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