Teaching Report–Week I

On Friday, I finished my first week of teaching.  I am beginning to get the sense that I have gained traction with a reasonable number of students.  We ended the week still deep in a discussion of the different entities under which to conduct business.  I have woven in a sense of the US tax system, since tax planning drives entity selection more often than not.   The students seem to relate to the connection.

I have had confidence to attack more complex subjects outside the text of the lectures that have been translated.  This drives the translator crazy, but I do this slowly on the blackboard and bring everyone along.  There is an art I am trying to master that simplifies the language but not the content of sophisticated topics; I keep reminding myself that these students are really smart or they would not be here; the issue is language, not intelligence.

The students sit in three rows of small wooden desks, with the rows reaching far into the long narrow room.  There are a row of windows on my right as I face the class, letting in light but without a view of anything.  The class stands at the start of each class; I say “dobroe utro” (good morning) as a start and they are seated.  The school has told me that I must take the five minute break when the bell sounds between the two periods during which I teach; rules here are really rules, no American insubordination.

When I arrive the classroom lights are off.  The lights are off in most hallways most of the time, and in many rooms also.  In our dorm the hall lights are on timers, the halls go dark periodically and you need to bang on the wall switch.  Clearly electricity is rationed here.

I stand behind a larger desk, my notes spread out in front of me, the blackboard at my back.  I am using the board and not powerpoint because the board allows me to draw arrows, take tangents, stop to explain when the expressions are particularly blank.  I am of the view that powerpoint almost always is a bad idea, anyway; it allows the mind to relax, and the argument that some people learn visually does not require use of powerpoint,  just the use of the written word in some form at some point.  But, as the joke goes, I digress.

Questions have increased markedly, on Friday I spent 15 minutes at the start answering               questions about the prior lecture that had been given the translator in writing.  At break and at end of class I get lots of questions.  Since some students are assigned to walk me back to the dorm at the end of class, they are impatient to get me moving; I have to tell them to wait, I want to deal with the questions.  I suspect I am causing some of them to miss class in the following period, but I need to keep the students engaged.

My last lecture included a segue into deep capitalism: I traced a venture capital investment by describing the rights of different classes of stock at various stages.  The students really seemed to find that of interest.

So for the first time, I gave an assignment over the weekend.  I asked them to be prepared to talk in class about why all companies should not be organized as LLCs, since the form is so flexible.   We will see if I can break the so-called “rule” that there is no way  to have a Socratic teaching experience in Russia.

I will separately blog at length, when time permits, on the cultural and physical aspects of our experience here, which are really fascinating, but I am attempting to separate those aspects from the teaching reports, as I recognize that not everyone wants to hear about the roads, the foods, the manners of the place.  I plan an omnibus blog on all of that, but give me some time to get it all down.

Russia after One Week

This post will discuss observations about the town, university, people and situations we have encountered. It is long and detailed but intends to provide the texture for our visit and other comments.

Foremost, our visit is fascinating and educational in the extreme and the people we have met at or through the university, and many of the people we have simply come in contact with, have been absolutely warm, cordial and forthcoming. Observations in this blog are just that: factual observations, not express or even implicit criticism of the people, university, town or country.

Next, you need some context. We are not in a major city, nor a tourist center, nor a place in which English is commonly encountered. It is not easy to explain overall gestalt without sounding condescending, but no condescension is intended. Picture yourself in Des Moines, Iowa, a flat farm country prone to cold winters, but in a city nonetheless, and a city with a university of serious intent. Now try to assume that that city was occupied by the Nazi army within the memory of the older inhabitants, and that every other person had some relative killed in the war giving rise to that occupation. I think it not possible to grasp the texture of things without this kind of orientation, however contrived it may seem.

How to organize observations? Let me try a couple of lists, then trace three days of experience in some detail.

Things I have never seen nor heard during one week in Belgorod and some surroundings within 25 miles of the city center: a convertible car; a GPS in a car; a traffic jam even at rush hour in this city of 450,000; a subway; an airplane overhead; the word “Communist” (always “Soviet”); the words World War II (always “the Great Patriotic War”); an American style interstate highway; an American newspaper; an American car other than a Ford or Chevrolet; a large car other than a Mercedes or BMW; a house of worship other than Russian Orthodox; a wooden residence (log type) such as was seemingly universal in my prior visit to the then USSR (1977); a student taking notes on a laptop (though you see them in internet cafes on occasion); a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts or Arby’s or Roy Rogers or any hamburger joint other than a Mickey D’s; a Chinese restaurant; a bottle of Russian wine (other than sparkling wine) in a restaurant; a jogger.

Things I have seen that I did not expect: exactly one McDonalds; French wines on menus (predominant but never anything good); odd use of old car tires (planters, sidelines on soccer fields); numerous supermarkets that are well stocked (the supermarket near us has everything you would find in a Super Stop and Shop, plus wine and beer, with many Western brands on the shelves, as well as large whole frozen fishes in freezer bins, beer to be pumped into your own bottle, and 5 liter water jugs at very low cost for drinking and cooking (no one, even local people, drinks the water in town due to the chalky earth although there seem to be good wells just out of town); clothing stores that are more specialized (you don’t find a Macy’s but) have complete lines of clothing comparable to a mid-market US store, in all sizes; specialty shops that are very deep in inventory (and a sporting goods store better stocked than any I have seen in the US, with gear and clothing for all sports but strangely not a single racing bike within a sea of thick-tired bikes for adults and children); a grand total of one person on a bike in seven days (this was out of town also; granted it is cold, but not that cold and the streets are wholly clear of snow and ice); streets and roads in generally good repair, with larger roads similar to say Route 9 and secondary roads like a three-lane country road with passing lane in the middle; many many gas stations; no obvious extremes in wealth (clearly some houses are bigger, newer and better, but no seeming slums and no McMansions).


Friday. I get up at 8:30, shave, rotate the recharging electronics in their adapters to European two prong plugs, shower and eat a bowl of cereal and milk (we have shopped in the supermarket yesterday, we visit most every day, it is about two blocks away), instant coffee. I leave with Laura and Matthew, who today will attend my lecture for the first time, when I respond to the knock on my door; three of my students are there to walk me to class in the next building. I arrive and lecture from 10:15 to 11:40 (see prior blog for classroom details). My students walk me back to the dorm, I go up the elevator 9 floors to change from my jacket and tie to casual clothes. We go downstairs and walk two blocks to a café which serves a buffet lunch; inexpensive, decent food and you can look and point so no need for language. Soup, three entrees, two drinks, a couple of desserts about $16, no tip. Although we had been told that someone would take us on an excursion at two that afternoon, no one has arrived by 2:30 and since everyone is incredibly prompt we telephone our keeper who tells us this is a free afternoon but we will be picked up at 5:30 for an event. We walk over to the supermarket for light shopping, visit the bowling alley on the third floor (half empty, big ball, we do not play), let Matthew play an electronic game in the arcade, go back to the room to hang out, read, etc. At 5:30 our keeper picks us up and walks us a couple of blocks to the theater within the University building next door for the International Student Jamboree. The hall is filled with several hundred students. They are dressed in typical attire. The men are wearing jeans, zipper jackets, an assortment of shirts. No one in the entire city seems to have a hoodie except Matthew and me. The women (who seem generally tall and almost always incredibly thin)wear skin tight jeans and high heel shoes or high heel boots even during the day. There are students from about 40 countries here and students from about 9 countries danced, sang, spoke, etc. Every student must take two years of Russian first so everyone is fluent in Russian and the student body seems wholly integrated. We were shown to first row seats (we are visiting dignitaries here). There were three hours of presentations by students from Ecuador, Brazil, Muslim countries from the mid-East, Thailand ,China, India; these people are eating our lunch in terms of building cultural bridges and long term relationships around the world, I think; there is high consciousness of international bonding to create peace and trade, etc. The concert ended at about 9pm, we went back to the dorm, ate a light dinner we cooked ourselves on our very slow stove, and Laura and I drank a half bottle of vodka and ate some odds and ends and passed out exhausted.

Saturday. We get up about 8, are picked up at 10 to go on a hike in the woods. (Just to jump ahead, of course we never did get to hike, though the vodka arrived before noon.) We were first driven to the country to see the University’s newly built retreat for students and faculty. Spectacular brick and grass campus, rooms for 600 people, tennis courts, café, indoor pool, sculptures. The faculty uses it for team building and students can use it in good weather without charge. There are rooms and camp shacks for the students. The place is the best maintained facility we have seen in Russia, and the University is very proud of it. A quick light lunch with vodka was served at about 11:30 by the Professor in the midst of all this. We then were taken to a local museum in a small town. Professor Grobowsky, who is generally responsible for us, drove off to find someone with a key to open the museum in this small town about 40 kilometers from Belgorod. Matthew stayed with Laura and our keeper Katya, in the town square, where there was a small playground. I had a chance to wander around what appeared to be a typical local town; narrow streets, few cars, all driveways unpaved, small brick houses with tin roofs and fences of various materials surrounding almost all the yards, etc. The museum had exhibits of the town from Medieval times (it was a fortress against the Tarters and Turks) to date with, of course, heavy emphasis on the Great Patriotic War. Seems half the town was killed and all the town was burned. You can get a feeling for how it was possible to have a tank battle with 1200 tanks and over a million dead in one battle; the lands are flat, barely rolling, open fields, few trees except for some fir and white birch lining the roadways. Interesting sidelight: when Matthew needed to use the toilet in this town museum, an old woman walked him around back to an outhouse, a wooden shack with a hole in the ground and strips of newspaper instead of toilet paper. Matthew’s first experience with how the world really is (“Oh ,gross!”) Then back to the dorm to rest up; we were picked up at 5:25 by our keeper and her friend who is yet another translator (with a cell phone tuned to the Google translation site) and taken to a play in the town playhouse; very elegant, professional, and of course all in Russian. An historical costume piece about Katherine the Great, people in dungeons being whipped, the usual…. Then our family and our keeper and extra translator went to dinner in a nice restaurant, a rarity with an (almost) English menu, fish tank, large TV in the dining room (a standard feature in restaurants here, this one blessedly not turned on), a decent meal with French wine and a tab for about $180 for full dinners with champagne and wine for five people. We walked back to the dorm, arriving at 11:20. Guess what stops running at 11:00? The elevators. Nice hike up nine floors. Too hyped to sleep, we sit up talking until 2 am before we pass out.

Sunday: This was supposed to be a day off. No such luck. We are picked up by the Professor and a new translator (we have worn out our keeper, she gets the day off) and it turns out we are going to lunch at the home of the translator, who is a fifth year language student about to become an English teacher at good old BSU. When we get to the car, we find three cars instead, and a whole bunch of people who are invited lunch guests. We all drive about a half hour to the edge of town, a small house of brick with a mud yard and stone driveway, corrugated tin roof. We meet our translator’s mother and father and aunt, her boyfriend (an engineering student), and the five other people we met in town who were family friends. The first floor consists of a living room converted into a bedroom for the parents, a den-like room, a rough laundry and a small well-equipped kitchen. The second floor has a couple of bedrooms, a small single bathroom and a living room set with a lunch table. It is not possible to explain the food spread, but to suggest that there was soup, four or five appetizers, several main courses, blini and cavier, shashlick skewers of lamb cooked on the spot outside, a couple of desserts. Tea from a samovar prepared outside because the core was heated to boil the tea water and was fired with small kindling wood (so that the core of the samovar was spouting fire and smoke from the top). All the rooms had detailed ceilings with painted designs; some rooms had beautiful light fixtures of crystal and florettes; other rooms had a single hanging bulb. The floors were covered with oriental rugs on top of linoleum. An odd mixture of elegance and some roughness in the finishes. The other guests turned out to be part of a Russian folk chorale of some note, which included the mother of our translator and the translator herself; they gave a concert before lunch and during lunch, replete with Russian costumes, accordion, etc. Suffice it to say that lunch lasted for 6 hours, and we returned home food-buzzed and the adults somewhat buzzed with a mixture of champagne and, yes you guessed it, about 6 vodka toasts. (Details: you must drink your glass of vodka in one slug of course, and the third glass is drunk for love so must be held in your left hand as it is closest to your heart.) So we have invitations to go ice fishing and come cooking in the home of our translator’s sister (a little bit further out of town; the woman was a singer of Russian songs in Russian and European restaurants in Dubai, which frankly is a bit at odds with one’s preconception of a country Russian woman cooking blinis in a primitive kitchen). In the words of the sage, “go figure.” We are driven back to the dorm, where we are now; Laura is skyping with her mother in Florida, Matthew has gone to bed, I have prepared my lecture for tomorrow and of course am now wrapping up this blog post. Just another typical day in Mother Russia.

Final thought: at each event with the faculty, there are formal toasts to world peace and friendship between peoples. The toasts could seem somewhat dated and embarrassing, except that they are heartfelt and sincere and clearly seriously believed by one and all. We do not dwell, in our own minds, on the reasons for our coming here to teach, but those reasons are indeed consistent with the toasts. So here we are in the midst of an exercise in cultural bridge building, while at the same time trying to teach classes, hold down the vodka, and learn something about the country while we go.

When I get back to Boston, I will need a vacation. I will now sign off, go help wash out some underwear (with a possible five day wait for laundry, we cannot afford the risk of sending anything out), finish scraping the mud out of the treads in our outdoor shoes, and then fight with Laura for control of the Kindle.

The Russian Students and Professors

I have just finished my third day of teaching; we have gone through the US legal system at the speed of light, covered contract law just as fast, and now have begun the heart of my teaching mission: business law.  We have started our discussion of business entities: proprietorships, partnerships, corporations, LLCs.

I seem to have a core of about 50 students, and each lecture is attended by two translators and a smattering of law and English faculty, as well as sundry drop-ins (attendance at lectures is open).  I speak for 85 minutes without break; I lecture in English and the translators — well, they translate using copies of the lectures I sent previously.  If I vary much from the prepared text (for example, if I put something on the blackboard to expand on a point) the translators tend to get a little panicked, and pound out words on a translation program on their laptop).  I think some students are getting most of it, but by no means all.

I suggested to my faculty contact that, after I lecture, we post the English language version of each lecture on the internet;  I think many but not all students have computers.  I was told this was not necessary.  I never got to suggest the posting of the Russian translation and frankly I sometimes wonder how precise that translation might be.

I get virtually no questions during lecture.  If I ask if I have been understood I get a couple of nods and not much else.  I plug onward; what is the choice?

After class, I do get a rush of questions.  Some are oral from those best in English.  Others have been written in Russian and given to a translator to present to me.  They do reflect a general understanding of what I am saying; a couple have been very precise.  Some ask me to contrast the US system to what the students have been taught about Russian law, which they are patient to explain to me; these questions typically focus on criminal law, which many of the students are focused upon; likely the result of the lack of business focus and infrastructure in the country.

This afternoon we were escorted (me, my son, my wife, our translator and two professors) to the broad plains outside Belgorod upon which the battle of Kursk and related tank battles were waged during World War II.  (It would be hard to overstate the continuing topicality of the war; in three days we have been taken to two War museums and several battlefield stops.)  Faculty questions:

*As in Russia, is there a lot of land that does not belong to anyone?

*How often to union law cases end up in court (seems everyone in Russia is in a union, workers and professors and even the students; it was suggested that the lack of labor law protection gave rise to the union movement, not unlike earlier US labor law)?

*How many lawyers are there in the US Congress?  (Seems that democracy has resulted in popular election of a legislature

full of gymnists, actors, etc. and no lawyers, so the law faculty finds that the laws that exist are foolish.)

*Is it true that companies in the US actually have their own lawyers within the company? (Seems no Russian companies have in-house counsel.)

Both students and teachers constantly ask what we think of the Town (which reminds me of Worcester), the University (which is modern and attractive but without obvious US counterpart at least to me) and the student body.  These questions are so frequent that it is apparent that they all are seeking some signal of approval.  Frankly, the hardest area in which to give approval is the assessment of the student body.  As teaching is by lecture with few questions and (so far) very little after-class contact, it is hard to reach an honest general assessment.  Surely some students are very sharp and interested, and our translator (who was an advanced student as well as now a teacher/intern) is smart and passionate about everything, but I am not sure how I will reach an assessment of the quality of the bulk of the student body.

My teaching in the morning leaves afternoons and evenings free and an almost endless series of cultural and other events have been arranged for us by the faculty; today ended with a dinner replete with vodka toasts.  In coming days it seems we will have a concert, a theatrical review, a hike in the forest, etc.  These folks are truly totally cordial and committed to making our stay enjoyable and educational.  We are very much enjoying the experience, but at the end of each day we are all pretty tired.  Speaking of which, I will now sign off and prepare tomorrow’s lectures; I am not sure how to explain US corporate tax to students who don’t have an understanding of what a corporation might be….

Of Teaching and Computers

This entry is in two parts.  The first is for those who want to hear about my first efforts at teaching law here in Belgorod.  The second part relates to the three day effort to establish computer contact through the university computer system (which is the system I am using for this post).

There are about 70 students in my class.  They are somewhat far along in their five year course work as undergraduate law majors.  As they enter university from high school, they are a young group — perhaps 18 to 20.  I did not count specifically but there are many women, over half.

My lecture was filmed  — not sure why and no one asked me about it, but it is of course fine with me.  A law teacher translated as I went along, every sentence or two or three I would stop and the translator would repeat what I said, guided by a text I had sent over by email a month in advance for translation.

I have chosen to use the blackboard rather than powerpoint.  It allows me to write or draw lines of connection when I sense the students need help; some speak little English, some much English but no one I have met is what I would call fluent (English is required in High School).  My first blackboard graphic was a US map to locate information about me personally (where I was born, went to school, where my older kids worked, etc.).  Other graphics included a chart of our court system and information about separation of powers (the first lecture is an orientation in US law and government).

In future lectures I will talk about contracts,business entities, finance, the UCC, securities law, IP, real estate, and the ideal business law system.

I got two questions: the first was about independence of judges (are they named for life?  interest in independence of judges it seems)and the second was whether I thought that citizens in Russia should be a broadly allowed to have guns at home as the US Supreme Court recently held under the Second Amendment.  The student knew about the origin of the “militia” language in the second amendment and its origin in US history — pretty sophisticated I thought.

One final detail: it seems to be an honor to pick me up in my room, walk me to the lecture (3 minutes, next building) and then walk me home; an “honor guard” of several students seems assigned to this task.  I do hope that this practice gets transferred back to my lawfirm, as I enjoy being attended to by a retinue….


Seems it is a big deal to get on line through the university.  Please understand that everyone is totally polite and tries very hard to be helpful, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  The best way to get on  line is via WiFi in many nearby cafes, where faculty and those students with computers seem to congregate.  But how much coffee can you drink, and how much beer?  Also, it would be necessary in the long run to get on line in the dorm room; Matthew can read or sleep and I can work.

So there is a central registration for use of the university plug-in broad band.  (The library wifi is available only to students who have taken a full computer course.)  You must bring your computer to a central office where they program it for plug-in, check it for virus, inspect your unviersity ID, and collect 400 Euros for unlimited access for me and my wife Laura in our rooms (but only one of us at a time).  We leave our computers for a couple of hours at the office (during this time we visit the nearby museum dedicated to the massive tank battle of Kursk in the  Second World War, which liberated the area of Belgorod from the Nazis and turned back the German invasion, freeing the Town from occupation at the cost of about 830,000 Russian lives just in this one massive 1943 battle).

Back to the office with a Russian brochure about the museum (nothing in any other language), and we pick up our computers and two technicians who come back to our rooms with us, plug in the computers, test the connections, make sure we can log on, and we are now all set.  The total process took us about three days from the time we first inquired of the law faculty about internet, and were then told we could use the computers in the faculty of law offices which we tried without success.

Enough for now.  We have internet, we are registered with the local police, we have found the huge and very well stocked supermarket and the teaching has begun.  More later as our three weeks wear onward.

First Days in Russia

We are in Belgorod.  We arrived in a light snow but Sunday and today, Monday, the weather was partly sunny and temperatures in the 40s.  The few inches of snow on the ground are slowly melting.

The first two days have been devoted to orientation.  I have a “Keeper” who speaks decent English and who has toured the city and university with us.  Together with a law professor, we have met the dean, some faculty, the administration.

I write this blog entry from a Cafe one block from the faculty dormitory in which Laura, my son Matthew and I share two rooms; one shower, one bath, five beds, a small kitchenette.  We eat our meals outside except for breakfast, for which we have purchased eggs, cereal and, while we are at it, a couple of pots (of which there were none).

The people are very attentive and things have been going well on all important fronts.  I start to teach tomorrow: about 100 students who are required to attend my classes.  I am teaching, as I had blogged earlier, elements of US business law and I am now told that my 8 lectures must cover 14 sessions of 105 minutes.  I think I will have to improvise.

But that should not be hard.

For example, I have a lecture on real estate and mortgages.  And foreclosures.  But I now learn that in Russia there is no mortgage industry.  If someone wants to buy a house, they must save up all the money first.  So before I launch into the issues of mortgages, I am going to go back to square one and explain what the hell a mortgage is!  Wow.

I will report after a few classes, when I suspect that the information I will have to impart will be more substantive and less personal.  But this is a fascinating place and experience and I look forward to more reports when the bureaucracy finally figures out how to get me directly on line so I do not have to sit here in a cafe getting half drunk in order  to be able to post a blog.

Plus, I have no idea what I ordered for dinner….

First Day in Salzburg

There are 100 or so US lawyers and one Nigerian lawyer being trained here in Salzburg, Austria to teach law in former Soviet countries under the auspices of the Center for International Legal Studies.  We will go into various countries, including Russia, Latvia, Hungary,Mongolia, Solvakia and Poland, for between 2 and 4weeks.  We will teach students majoring in law, which is an undergraduate major under the European system.

We are housed in an 18th century castle overlooking a lake, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.  Our rooms (son Matthew has his own) are large and elegant, and all meals are served in a huge dining hall with chandeliers, carvings, ceiling paintings, etc.   All very decadent.

The preparatory courses are quite interesting.  Major take-aways on day #1:

*The Russian legal system is not based on Roman precedents.  It was slow to develop, as was the Russian state.

*Although post-Soviet legal practices now include juries in more sophisticated cases, there was no use of juries until current times.

*The Soviets believed that the legal system was a device to exploit the poor, and would disappear with the establishment of a Communist state.

*Our students will be bright (not all that many go to University), unprepared (seldom reading the lectures,which were sent ahead, in advance) and totally unused to the American system of teaching law by Socratic means; you take your life in your hands by expecting classroom participation.

I specifically asked about how careful one should be, in Russia, about discussing such knotty issues as judicial corruption.  The answer was, in essence: pretty careful.  My proposal will be to present the US system; I am not expert in comparative law, and will leave all comparisons (and any implicit criticism) to the imagination of the listener.

Lastly, one of the most interesting aspects of the experience is the diversity of the volunteer attorneys.  They are from all over the country, coast to coast.  Most come from small firms; some are solo practitioners.  The courses to be taught range from a total survey of some broad topic (as in my case, business law) to very specific matters: alternate dispute resolution, prison law, US tax.  As all volunteers must have at least 20 years at the bar, we are a senior group; I would estimate that about 20% are women and I think that all of those are litigators.  And, finally, I sat down at the first lecture, turned to my left and shook hands with a classmate of mine from lawschool,  who I had not seen since 1966.  Small world indeed!

An Historical Perspective as I Depart

A friend shared this blogsite with a few people and one of those, Tony Radbill, started a modest email exchange with me.  Our discussion drifted to Siberia (I had hoped at one time to be able to teach there, just to get a look at that vast and mysterious area) and Tony replied with the below observations.  I pass on those observations with his kind permission, and with my thanks to him.

We leave tomorrow afternoon, first to Salzburg for “training” which seems to include a Mozart concert and a strudel pull.  Both of which no doubt will be vital once in Russia….  I will blog on occasion, assuming internet capability, from both Salburg and Russia.

Below are Tony’s remarks:

” The mention of Siberia provokes some thoughts from me. My interest in Russia was awakened not only by the fact that my late Father was born in Odessa and the family escaped the maws of the Bolshevik Revolution, but due to the fantastic books I have read on its history. Through America’s pre-eminence and the medium of Hollywood one is well aware of the myths, realities and epic settlement of the American West. Equally majestic; written with lots of blood and effort is Russia’s eastward expansion. In fact, the expansion from the relatively small Grand Duchy of Muscovy was to all points of the compass.  Some of the books I have read that touched on this subject were: Ivan Le Terrible  and Catherine La Grande by Henri Troyat;  Peter The Great by Robert K. Massie; Potemkin by Sebag Montefiore;  The  Marquis de Custine And His Russia In 1839 by George F. Kennan and so many more books.

I think a perfect introduction for your son, perhaps in an abridged form if it exists, is Michel Strogoff by Jules Verne.. This adventure deals with a plot involving the Tartars and  a renegade Russian to eject the Russians from Siberia and found a new empire. Heroically thwarted by an officer from the Tsar’s army.  It is really gripping and will spark a young, bright mind.

With all the tumult in the Middle East the Russians have been making extra siren songs to invite Western investors to develop their Siberian resources. Ergo, your lectures there are so important to try to establish a reliable business legal framework for foreigners and the Russians themselves. The real irony for me is the long -term demographic challenge for the Russians in Siberia and elsewhere in their country. The Chinese are exercising a great commercial pull in Siberia and whether they have deep down accepted the loss of Siberian territory in the Manchu time to the Russians history will reveal before the end of this century.”

Designing the Perfect Business Legal System

Is it possible for government to decree an ideal business climate, or must that business  climate be generated organically, by business itself, and with the least possible governmental interference?  A penchant for strong liberal government “interference” is attractive; however, experience in the business sphere indicates that centralized government control comes with costs: lack of direct knowledge, tendency to question innovation, and limitations driven by the quality (or lack of quality) of the government bureaucracy itself.

Addressing these questions with students in a society that has traditionally had a managed economy is going to be very interesting.

In any event, for good or ill here is an outline of some initial thoughts on creating a perfect business law environment:

*abolish any federal system and thereby create a single “government” at least for business matters; it is hard enough to comply with requirements of one government, having differing state laws and state court systems is expensive and counter-productive

*require alternate dispute resolution; going to court takes forever, costs a fortune under the US system, and strongly favors the deep-pocket litigant

*establish a single “entity” of entity for all businesses; the founder of a business simply selects tax treatment and automatically enjoys insulation from liability as if a corporate form were adopted

*each industry should be called upon to generate “standard” documents or contractual provisions

*a new regulatory system should be created to regulate capital formation; the current almost universal use of unregistered “brokers” in the sale of smaller businesses criminalizes an important business service

*reduce  much of the reporting burden on public companies; over-regulation drives business away, and limits economic exits for investors thereby limiting investment itself.

I hope to blog regularly during my teaching in Russia.  It is not yet clear to me what sort of computer access I will have.  My predecessor had to borrow the office of another faculty member and utilize hard-wired computers.  The degree to which WiFi and blackberry will be available to me is something I am just beginning to explore (once I have straightened out my housing, visas, how to get rubles and a whole bunch of other mundane but necessary arrangements).  More on all of that in a subsequent blog.

Russian Teaching Program Set

After months of waiting (I cannot really say negotiating, because there was no communication coming from Belgorod State University law faculty until this month), the subject topics for my lectures finally have been approved.

The first lecture will cover (perhaps too ambitiously) the shape of American law today:  the federal system, the courts, the role of case law, the role of administrative law, and the function of federal preemption (the primacy of federal law over state or local laws which are inconsistent).  It seems to me no one can appreciate a description of how American law operates unless they have this as a starting context.

The temptation to dwell extensively on the United States Constitution has to be resisted, I think; giving a single lecture on the entire structure of American law doesn’t leave enough time to wax poetic, nor does the Constitution have much to do with the day to day operation of businesses.

Some of the other subjects are mundane nuts and bolts:  contract law, different types of business entities, business names and trademarks, and real estate ownership and leasing.

I have attempted to slant a large part of the curriculum toward establishment of an entrepreneurial business community.  There is one lecture entitled “Raising Money for Business” that discusses the non-equity financing of business.  There is a separate lecture on practicalities in the issuance of equity both on a private basis and in an IPO.

I had suggested a session which traces the history of a newly formed high technology company.  I thought that such a program might merge the theoretical with the practical, and also might have appeal, given the recent establishment (late 2010) of the so-called “Russian silicon valley.”  Actually, the Russian statute is entitled “The Law On The Innovation Center Skolkovo” and establishes a zone in which participants may only exercise research activities and emerging commercialization from that research.  Numerous Western companies are making multi-million dollar investments in this project.

Regrettably, the faculty did not seem to want to focus specifically on such a case study.  Rather, the culminating lectures will focus on how to establish “The Ideal Business Law System,” based upon my (admittedly personal) assessment as to “what is good and bad in US business laws.”  As my thoughts gel on how to structure the ideal legal system to support business, I will share my concepts, and solicit feedback, in a subsequent blog post.

The Perils and Pace of Communicating

I have delayed posting until I had some preliminary feedback from Belgorod State University as to my general plan, which is to teach many of the basics of business law (obviously at a pretty general level) but also spend time on the design of a legal system which would be encouraging to the growth of business.  I hope to construct this design based on the good and bad in our system, as informed by your comments.

As you might have gathered by now, my communications have been painfully slow.  I work through an English-speaking and very helpful person at the University, but the School does seem to work at its own pace.  Right now, I await contact with an English-speaking professor at the law faculty, to measure receptivity to my concept.

Since my lectures are to be fully written here in the US, and sent to Russia to be translated (presumably as an aid to my oral translator and to the students themselves), I am anxious to get drafting.  But I am hesitant to invest too much effort unless and until I get some feed-back.

The teaching format has been described to me as straight lecture, with an unwillingness (or lack of experience) on the part of the students to engage in classroom dialog or even ask questions.   I am assured that after class there are ample opportunities to interact and that questions in that context are free-flowing, so I am practicing by drinking lots of vodka and then having my wife, also an attorney, pepper me with legal questions.  I am a wine person, and have proven very inept at the exercise.

In business news here, there is much to ponder and much to consider in terms of carrying messages to the students in Belgorod:

*tax policy:  what if anything is the real effect on business of raising (or cutting) taxes on earned income for the wealthy?

*information gathering by investors using expert consultants: how can you increase knowledge in the marketplace, seemingly a goal that should be universal, without giving unfair advantage to the person industrious enough and rich enough to pay for expert consultants?

*monetary policy: is it smart to relatively devalue to drive exports

*what do you manufacture?  how important is it to grow local consumer consumption, vs hard goods, exports, infrastructure?  once you think you know the answer, what if any role does government have in effecting that outcome, and how can it do so?

*retirement age: is 75 the new 65? (in France, 62 is the new 60…) what is the impact of retirement age on business models?

*patent suits: the Wall Street Journal reported recently that a company, formed to hold patents, had amassed about 38,000 of them and was in the business of collecting royalties or, for the first time, bringing suit against infringers who would not pony up; a good idea to allow such a free market result?

Posts to date have been helpful indeed but what I really need is for someone to take a shot at designing one section or area of an ideal business environment, pointing out what legal regulations could be useful to support identified and desirable business practices.  Anyone brave enough to try his or her hand?