Cocktail parties can be minefields and I’m always on my guard. You don’t want to be the wallflower but at the same time, you have to avoid being the pompous ass. It’s when people ask me The Question that I find myself in danger:
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer”, I reply
“Oh, what kind of lawyer? My friend is a lawyer.”
“I did international law.”
“You mean like Milosevic? What was that like?”
I wanted to say that it was like filling the ocean one teaspoon at a time; that I saw international organizations at their best and worst, a tangled mess of hope, petty turf wars, and a lethargy resulting not from the civil servants but an international system still bent on preserving the international status quo. I wanted to say that I had the chance to travel over 3 continents and I realize that people are fundamentally the same, even the war criminals.
At this point I risk a small smirk. I’m remembering a hot evening in Phnom Penh when the monsoon finally stopped. I was with friends, stuck at a bar because the streets were still flooded. We decided to kick back and enjoy mango cocktails, with our I.D.s round our necks - clearly marked “UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal” - stuck against our sweat drenched shirts.
The mangoes were delicious in Cambodia. My Khmer friends and I were having a good laugh at some of the foibles of our job. “You know Tom, you’re too big. Under the Khmer Rouge, they would have killed you. You would have eaten too much”, my friend said, laughing so hard that I had to join in.
I realize I’m gazing away for a moment so I look back at the person in front of me.
“It was challenging, but I enjoyed the work a lot.”
“So why are you in business school? Your job seemed a lot more exciting.”
“Well, I wanted to learn some real skills and I thought that it would provide the best toolkit.” I’m kicking myself mentally for saying “toolkit”. I’ve begun to espouse vapid business euphemisms. Why don’t I draw a matrix on your cocktail napkin while I’m at it?
“Really? I can’t believe that. What you were doing sounded more worthwhile than learning how to make a spreadsheet.”
“You’d be surprised.”
You’d be surprised by the fact that a lot of locals are not thrilled to meet a Western international attorney coming in to try to “fix” their countries by rounding up their former tormentors and putting them in jails that are often more comfortable than the squalor they live in. People weren’t as interested in reliving the past as much as trying to build a new future, and that future was often created through business.
They wanted to know how to open a restaurant and cater to the rich internationals coming in; how to export their handicrafts; or even to use basic computer applications. It was their ticket out of poverty and the best way to secure a future for their children. Business was hope for these people.
No doubt I bear a naiveté about the business world. I’m aware of the scandals and lapses in ethics that can occur. I do read the papers. But I have seen governments leverage the mechanism of the modern state to commit crimes on a level that few businesses could compete with. Hannah Arendt was right when writing about the Eichmann trial: genocide can only be a crime of the 20th century.
I risk seeming aloof as I find myself engulfed by an existential debate in my mind. It’s usually at this point I continue with some more small talk before wishing this person well. Besides, the ice in my drink has nearly melted and I want to get some air outside. It isn’t polite to let out a big sigh in company.
Tom Park is studying for an MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, class of 2010. He studied law at McGill and public policy at Harvard. Between 2004 and 2007 he worked in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the OSCE Mission in Pristina, Kosovo and the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. Previously he was an associate at McCarthy Tetrault, Canada's largest law firm. Tom is currently an intern at McKinsey in Toronto