On a winter day when the record for the snowiest February in the Twin Cities was broken, Peruvian Sandra Mercado Azurin was navigating the Minneapolis skyways with ease.
Even though she’s more than 4,000 miles from home and braving a winter very different from the balmy ones in Peru, the LL.M. in U.S. Law student is eagerly making a difference for future female Peruvian St. Thomas Law students.
Mercado Azurin is a member of Women in the Profession in Peru (WIP-Peru), an organization dedicated to elevating the voices of female attorneys in the legal profession. She started her classes at St. Thomas last August and shortly afterward worked with Cristina Calderón, director of global outreach for St. Thomas Law, to formally establish a partnership between WIP-Peru and the school.
“We share the belief of the importance of gender diversity in advancing the common good and believe the LL.M. in U.S. Law degree will further the impact of lawyers from WIP-Peru,” Calderón said.
The Journey From Peru to Minnesota
For more than six years, Mercado Azurin has worked in Lima as a senior lawyer for Interbank, a leading financial services organization in Peru. She first heard of the University of St. Thomas when St. Thomas Law Professor Mariana H.C. Gonstead and the school’s dean, Robert Vischer, attended a conference in her home country and talked with Raúl Suárez, a co-worker of Mercado Azurin’s.
Mercado Azurin and Suárez’s supervisor, Zelma Acosta-Rubio, Interbank’s general counsel and a leader in WIP-Peru, encouraged them to apply to St. Thomas Law. They did, and both were accepted. As they transitioned to St. Thomas and met faculty and staff, it became clear that there was a natural partnership that could be formed between Minneapolis and Lima.
The one-year LL.M. in U.S. Law program introduces students to the legal system, which is beneficial when they work with U.S.-trained attorneys on international transactions or disputes that involve U.S. law and legal institutions.
As an LL.M. student, Mercado Azurin took classes in a wide variety of areas, including Contracts, Negotiations and Lawyering Skills for LL.M. students, taught by Professor Robert Kahn. He had good things to say about her: “Mercado Azurin is a smart, hardworking, diligent person who brings her experiences as a lawyer into the classroom. She is well respected by students and faculty alike and has a wonderful legal career ahead of her.”
Mercado Azurin’s future career in Peru will be influenced by the contrasts she sees in the U.S. She said that while female Peruvian lawyers struggle with some of the same problems as those in the U.S., the issues are handled differently.
For instance, law students at St. Thomas take harassment training, while that type of training would not be encouraged in Peru.
“There is inequality in the world,” Mercado Azurin said. “Women don’t have the same salary as men. Here in the United States, there are more organizations that fight the struggle.” She cited Minnesota Women Lawyers as an example.
Paired With Hennepin County Judge Mary Vasaly
Mercado Azurin was familiar with Minnesota Women Lawyers, thanks to her partner through the Mentor Externship Program, Hennepin County Judge Mary Vasaly.
“[Vasaly] is an amazing person,” Mercado Azurin said. The two talk about topics ranging from whether the legal profession is “male-driven” to how Vasaly handles her responsibilities as a judge.
“I have been able to work alongside my mentor, gain knowledge of the American legal practice and attend and participate in meetings with her legal staff, all while applying what I have been learning in my LL.M. classes,” Mercado Azurin said. “In addition, I have been able to gain firsthand knowledge of her work with female lawyers who seek a judicial career, increasing gender diversity in the American legal system.”
Vasaly said that mentoring Mercado Azurin has been a valuable learning experience for her too. They have discussed the legal system in both countries and how the systems vary, both in terms of delivering justice and providing women lawyers opportunities for advancement.
“It is vitally important that we are all able to draw best practices from legal systems all around the world, to improve the quality of justice for everyone,” she said. Vasaly also said she was impressed with Mercado Azurin’s interest and enthusiasm for improving justice internationally by getting involved with organizations such as Global Rights for Women.
The Peru Partnership Vision
WIP-Peru’s mentorship committee will play a critical role in the partnership with St. Thomas Law. Beginning this fall, the committee plans to integrate the LL.M. in U.S. Law opportunity into its mentoring program as a recommended option for lawyers to consider.
“WIP-Peru is particularly excited about our Mentor Externship Program, given that they are also committed to mentoring and practical experience,” Calderón said.
WIP-Peru had several interested lawyers so far and will be making its recommendations soon for the 2019-20 academic year.
“My vision is to continue establishing this relationship grounded in our shared sense of mission. I believe that both St. Thomas and WIP-Peru have the passion to develop lawyers not only who are very competent in the work that they do … but also that they have that sense of mission toward advancing the common good,” Calderón said. “For that to occur globally, for the Peruvian lawyers to have the opportunity to come and learn legal English to a greater extent and to be exposed to the American legal system and then to be able to bring that experience back to Peru and advance the work that they are seeking to do, this partnership could really help promote that opportunity for them.”
Calderón said that the students in the LL.M. in U.S. Law program bring tremendous value to the school because of their experience and diversity. Over the five years of the program, 14 nations have been represented; this is the first year for students from Peru.When Mercado Azurin graduates, she plans to return to Peru and spread the word about St. Thomas Law. “Many people in Peru have the potential but not the resources,” she said. “In Minnesota, people have different kinds of opportunities … with all of the corporations and tech companies.”
As far as Minnesota goes, Mercado Azurin will share with potential students that the winters aren’t half bad, and that she actually likes the crunch of the snow under her feet.