HLSAE Featured Alumna - December 2023

Interview with Francine Vanderstricht LL.M. ‘72:
"If chance includes meeting the right people at the right time, then I have had a lot of it."

Dear Alumni and Alumnae,

As we conclude this exceptional year for our Association, marked by the joyous celebration of its first in-person Annual Reunion since 2019, the HLSAE is delighted to present Francine Vanderstricht, LL.M. ’72. She shares captivating stories about her life and career which have spanned across different continents and involved work for some of the world's most esteemed development finance institutions. Among her achievements and honors, Francine stands as a former President of the HLSAE and a distinguished recipient of the HLSAE Award.

Interviewer: Could you briefly introduce yourself – where do you come from and how/why did the law become your chosen field of study and thereafter, your profession?

F. Vanderstricht: I was born in Ghent, Belgium, into a family that was rather typical of that time: my father was engaged in the family business, while my mother dedicated herself to caring for her three children at home, having abandoned her musical career upon starting a family.

After completing my primary and secondary education in French and Flemish, respectively, my initial plan was to enroll in a renowned interpreter school in Geneva, but due to a health issue that required me to follow a treatment in Ghent, I decided to go to the University in town. I chose to study law because I thought it offered the broadest possibilities for the future and the widest opening of mind. While I wasn't certain about becoming a lawyer “defending ladies and orphans” in court, my inclination was towards business law or, at the time, academia and teaching.

In those days, the law curriculum consisted of two years of candidacy in philosophy and literature -which served as an introduction to the fundamentals of law- followed by three years of a doctorate in law. I graduated magna cum laude in 1971.

Interviewer: Could you tell us about your experience of applying to Harvard: how did you learn about the HLS LL.M. program and the requirements/documents needed for applying? How much did you know in advance what studying at HLS would be like, and to what extent was it a leap into the unknown?

F. Vanderstricht: At the end of my penultimate year at the university in Ghent, I felt the need to broaden my perspective and continue my legal education in another language and another country, with the ambition to expose myself to a different legal system. With that thought in mind and with the help of a relative of mine, I traveled to the United States, visited a few of the major East Coast law schools, amongst which Harvard, and informed myself of the application requirements in each of them.

I knew about Harvard and what it meant in legal education because of two of my law professors in Ghent - one had a daughter who was an HLS LL.M., and the other had graduated from the Harvard Law School LL.M. program in the 1960s himself. When I visited Harvard, I met and exchanged with some of the Belgians who were pursuing their LL.M. studies at the time, and visited the admissions office to discuss applications and collect the necessary forms and requirements.

I also realized the importance of securing appropriate funding to finance my studies. Upon my return to Belgium, I looked into scholarship options to finance my studies and discovered that for a law student like myself (as opposed to a graduate), the only scholarship I could apply for was the Frank Boas Scholarship which was only open to Graduate Studies at the Harvard Law School. When I received the wonderful news that I had been awarded the scholarship, I was thus “obliged” to choose Harvard!

Unlike many of my classmates, when I arrived in Cambridge in 1971, I already knew the environment I would be exposed to, so the great unknown for me was to define the study program I would choose to pursue. After discussions with the faculty advisers, my program included both courses in American law and courses in international law.

Interviewer: What was your experience at HLS like? What are your key memories from your time in Cambridge, either from an academic or personal perspective?

F. Vanderstricht: The most intriguing part for me was trying to decide what in that whole new world of law would be useful in Belgium when I would go back.

In the first courses I took, I was stunned by the way law was taught (the so-called Socratic method), which was totally different from what I was used to in Belgium. I was admirative of the faculty because it is very difficult to teach that way, and of the American students, who seemed more mature, serious, and determined than my peers in Ghent. I was also impressed by how accessible the professors were - you could just knock on their door and discuss whatever problem you had. In Belgium, my professors were more like gods in an ivory tower; only their assistants were working with open doors. One more thing left me a lasting impression: the library was open till midnight and many students took advantage of that.

I also remember my life at the dormitory- Hastings Hall. I shared the living area with a first-year law student, who was from Luray, Virginia, and, at first, I could not understand her because she had such a thick southern accent. We managed to understand each other eventually. Sharing the life of an American first-year law student proved to be a fascinating aspect of my Harvard experience.

The way I was taught at Harvard made me rethink my career plans of going into academia. I learned that instead of “defending ladies and orphans” in court, a lawyer could be a problem solver. The law could be utilized to pre-empt issues by structuring deals or ideas in a manner that aligns with legal standards and avoids illegality.

To sum up: my experience at HLS has been very positive and has helped me to get a quick start in my professional career. The quality of legal education, the flexibility of the study program, the general organization of the School, and the uniqueness of its library impressed me a great deal. More than substantive knowledge of the law in various domains, Harvard taught me a method to analyze and solve legal problems. Moreover, Harvard’s class discussions and discussions among students have been useful in later negotiations that I conducted with people from various nationalities, backgrounds, and cultures.

Interviewer: You lived and worked in New York- first as a summer associate at Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander, and later, following your graduation from the Harvard Law School, as an associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. What attracted you to American law firms, and what did you learn/take away from your working experience there that was unique to America and maybe different from working in Europe at that time?

F. Vanderstricht: The two months at Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander before my LL.M. studies at Harvard was my first experience of practicing law and served as an introduction to the practice of business law in the United States, working in a foreign language in a large firm.

It was very interesting, very challenging, and very exhausting- I was literally hanging in the subway when returning home in the evenings, but as an introduction to HLS, it was formidable. The use of the English legal language, the research of precedents, the team discussions- everything would prove very helpful in the years to come.

Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, where I ended up after my LL.M. studies, was a continuation of what I had learned and done at Harvard and at Mudge, Rose: with more maturity and knowledge, I continued to improve at legal drafting, research, legal thinking, and the anticipation of problems. I acquired extensive experience in commercial, corporate, and tax matters on an international level and in drafting and negotiating contracts of all kinds.

Law practice was very different back then: we had no computers, no internet, nothing of that kind. A short anecdote in that connection: when preparing a prospectus for a bond issue or any similar document bound for the SEC, numerous drafts circulated within the law firm. Corrections were made on the successive drafts internally, with the collaboration of the night secretarial pool. Once the draft had reached its final form, young associates like myself were tasked with taking it to the external printer. Working through the night, we closely proofread each page of the prospectus, ensuring accuracy and precision. Then finally, at around 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, the partner in charge would arrive to collect the “final product” and take the train to deliver it to the SEC in Washington, D.C.

If I had to compare the experience of working in New York with working in Belgium later in my career, I would say the pressure on young associates was different in New York. We Europeans were trained as American lawyers, but we were not going to stay in New York, so were less under pressure than our American colleagues.

Interviewer: From 1978 to 1986, you were the Head of the Legal Department at Société Belge d’Investissement International. Could you tell us a bit more about that part of your career- what skills, qualities, or circumstances made you the selected candidate for that prestigious position, and what were the geographies and projects you focused on?

F. Vanderstricht: The General Counsel position at SBI became vacant around the time I decided, that since I was not going to consider a partnership at Cleary, it was time for a change. My experience at Cleary taught me how to negotiate, draft, anticipate, and work hard to meet the expectations of the clients of the firm.

SBI is a financial institution that supports Belgian interests abroad, mainly in developing countries, but not exclusively. It provides equity and debt financing for projects with a Belgian element to it - be it a transfer of know-how, a Belgian shareholder, or another Belgian connection. The legal department was thus continuously involved in drafting and negotiating joint ventures, loan agreements, and technical assistance agreements as well as in researching the best structure for the projects under the various legal systems prevailing in the various countries where the Belgian projects were materializing. I was also involved in solving legal problems which might arise during the life of the projects.

SBI supported financially many projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even the United States. In fact, one of my pet projects was a joint venture in Tennessee between one of the largest US breweries and a small Belgian company that produced “aluminized” beer labels. It was particularly dear to me because my own father was a brewer.

Another project I remember vividly involved shea nuts in Mali. Shea nuts share similar characteristics with cacao nuts, but unlike cacao, they grow in the wild and cannot be cultivated. They grow mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast. In Mali, traditionally, women collected these nuts, bringing them home to transform them into shea nut butter and shea nut oil and use them for their own needs. SBI supported a project led by a Belgian company specializing in vegetable oil production to set up a local Malian company in charge of the industrial transformation of shea nuts into shea nut butter and oil. Rather than keep the shea nuts for themselves, Malian women were encouraged to bring them to the “Chief of the Village” who would collect the nuts and sell them to the local newly created Malian transformation company, providing the women with a source of income and consequently a degree of financial independence. One of the challenging aspects of the project was the actual process of producing oil from shea nuts with a degree of purity which would render it a credible competitor of the cacao nut for the chocolate industry. But besides the “technical” problems that had to be solved, there were also “regulatory” problems that needed to be dealt with. In many countries around the world and at the EU level, regulations only allowed cacao nuts to be used for the production of chocolate. It was thus necessary to engage in lobbying efforts to persuade the scientific community in those countries and in the EU of the fact that the actual characteristics and specifications of shea nut oil were appropriate as an ingredient to produce chocolate.

Projects of this nature are really beautiful: you start out with something small, in a small and economically disadvantaged country, and then unexpectedly they blossom to encompass various facets of law and life.

Interviewer: You also acted as a special legal consultant to the World Bank and EBRD: are there any projects that you were involved in and are particularly proud of, due to their complexity at the time or their development impact, looking from today’s perspective?

F. Vanderstricht: In the late 80s and early 90s, the IMF believed that it was not the role of the State to be directly involved as a shareholder in companies and take on industrial risks. As a condition for their support, the IMF required governments to privatize their industries. My work for the World Bank and later for EBRD primarily revolved around this aspect. Both institutions sought external consultants, not their own staff, to advise governments on those questions. This involved drafting legislation to attract private, often foreign, investors, to divest from public enterprises, and to create a “private legal framework”.

One of the most memorable projects I undertook with the World Bank (UNDP) took place in Laos.

Laos was starting to open up economically but remained a communist country with centralized power. In dealing with foreign investment and privatization, the initial step of our team involved a thorough review of the existing legislation. Even though Laos had enacted four laws before the project started to make sure that foreign investors could invest in the country, there was no private legal framework existing. It was impossible to buy land: there was no property law since everything was state-owned. It was a virgin country, legally speaking, so our team of experts had to start from scratch, making proposals of legislation that needed to be enacted before the foreign investment law could be revised and complemented with references to the newly enacted laws, as far as, e.g. property, labor or accounting was concerned.

Our team was coming in for short-term missions and worked with the resident foreign investment and privatization advisor who continued the work while we “the foreign advisors” were not in the country. The amazing thing about the people in Laos is that they progressed at great speed while we were not in the country, working thoroughly on the assignments we had left with them of course with the help and the guidance of the resident expert. After 4 years, when we left the country for good, they had the tools to deal with foreign investment and privatization on their own. The last time I went there, the issue was no longer about taking a critical view of existing legislation or drafting new laws. Instead, we were training the government officials who were going to implement the new legislation.

As a side note: The UNDP project in Laos was extensive and encompassed a wide range of issues to be solved, and while our team handled foreign investment and privatization, the general teaching and training program for lawyers and judges in Laos had been awarded to Harvard.

For EBRD, I worked on privatization in Azerbaijan and Ukraine. This included examining existing legislation and making recommendations for adopting changes or new laws, as well as for the training of local lawyers.

In working in developing countries, you sometimes encounter unforeseen challenges. To be able to advise a government, the foreign adviser needs to collect, read, and understand the local existing legislation. The collection and translation of the laws and regulations (mostly in English) is thus an absolute must. In that respect, we faced a major challenge in Azerbaijan: the existing laws were written in Azeri, but using the Cyrillic alphabet, making it extremely difficult to find a translator into English.

Interviewer: Did the fact that you are a woman ever impact any of your career choices? As you mentioned during your speech when accepting the HLSAE Award, there were very few women at Harvard Law School and in management positions in the workforce. What led you to have the kind of career that was not only inaccessible but also unimaginable to many women of your generation?

F. Vanderstricht: My parents always insisted that I should be independent, and they stood behind me when I said I wanted to go to university, or later on, to study at the Harvard Law School. There were not many women registered at the university at that time, but I was not the only one - about 10% of law students in both Ghent and Harvard at that time were women.

Although I was in the minority, I did not feel discriminated against neither in Ghent, nor at Harvard. I also did not feel at a disadvantage while working at Cleary in New York.

Cleary had no female partner [yet] during my time in New York. The first woman attained partnership a few years later, in the Wills and Estates Department which was considered a notably "feminine" area of law. There was a one- or two-year gap thereafter before the first woman was made partner in the Corporate department.

Perhaps this is why during my tenure in New York I perceived that American female associates were under pressure to outperform and work longer hours than their male counterparts. In my case, as a foreigner who was not competing for partnership, I had no feeling of being asked to do more or less than other members of the team, and I always had a good working relationship with my male colleagues.

This has been the case throughout my career, and it probably had to do with my upbringing. I am not a pushy person; I do not try to overwhelm others. When working with men, I would not act as a man. I always tried to be attentive, listen carefully, keep a low profile, and strive to be better prepared, rather than openly confrontational. Instead of bluntly confronting my counterpart in negotiation, I would rather try to swiftly introduce an alternative way of approaching and solving the problem we were facing and from that perspective convince him or her of the merits of my proposed solution. That way, I was accepted for what I had to say in my area of expertise – the law – and had a solid way of defending the point of view that worked.

Interviewer: You met your now husband, Charles Prion Pansius, at Harvard: what, apart from Harvard Law School, brought you together, and are there any secrets to a successful marriage and professional partnership while managing highly demanding careers and working in different countries?

F. Vanderstricht: Indeed, we met at the Harvard Law School through working groups and other activities we were involved in. Charles had come to the United States with a Harkness fellowship, which was a two-year program with the possibility of a doctorate at Berkeley, but following graduation from the Harvard Law School, he also joined Cleary and worked in the New York office for a few months. I showed him around because I had arrived there a month earlier. Then he left for Berkeley, and I stayed in New York, but a few months later we met again in the Brussels office of Cleary, and, again, having arrived before I showed him around. At that point, we decided to join our lives and our forces.

After leaving Cleary, I joined the SBI. In the meantime, Charles had created a small legal consulting firm in Brussels, specializing in domestic and international business law. Eventually, I decided to leave SBI and join him in his firm.

We managed to run and develop the firm together and be a couple. We had a secretary in common, offices in common, but each of us had his/her own area of expertise and a lot of respect for the achievements of the other. When needed we assisted one another especially when one of the two was overburdened. We coordinated our business travels so that both of us were not absent at the same time, and we tried not to be away from home for more than two weekends in a row. Although it was not easy, we made an effort not to discuss business at home!

How much of your career has been determined by chance?

F. Vanderstricht: If chance includes meeting the right people at the right time, then I've had a lot of it. It manifested itself in small steps, like when I chose law and enrolled at the University in Ghent, where two professors spoke about Harvard, sparking my interest in applying.

Another crucial meeting occurred in late 1969/early 1970, when an unknown to me cousin who had studied law in Belgium, had earned an LL.M. at Columbia before World War II, and ever since lived and worked in New York, came to Belgium. While in Belgium and meeting some of his relatives, he learned about a young Belgian Vanderstricht who studied law in Ghent and expressed a desire to meet me. Unexpected encounters can change your life; this one certainly changed mine. He invited me to the U.S. and arranged for me to meet U.S. lawyers and visit U.S. law schools. Following his suggestion, I traveled to the U.S. in September 1970 and as I mentioned earlier in the interview, this trip led me to visit Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Virginia Law Schools, in addition I was offered a summer traineeship at Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander.

While at SBI working on the aforementioned shea nut project in Mali, I connected with someone from IFC. Later, this person left IFC to work for a Canadian mining company. When the mining company had a project in Mali, he called me asking if I could assist him in obtaining the necessary mining permits for the project to take shape. That was the start of my becoming an “expert” in mining laws which made me work in that field for several clients in several French-speaking African countries.

Another project I worked on for SBI was the creation of a local tannery in Kenya, where I met someone who was representing an independent private group of investors. He had a contract that needed to be adapted to the ongoing negotiations, and not being a lawyer himself he asked me to assist him. So, we worked through the night to adapt his standard contract to the specific requirements of the project. When he returned home, he spoke highly of me to his colleagues, and that's how I started working independently on missions in Africa with this private investment company. One of the staff members of that investment group later started his own consulting firm, and I worked for him in Laos, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere.

While at a Cleary alumni reunion in Amsterdam, I reconnected with a former Cleary Senior Partner. At the time, he was establishing the legal department of EBRD and hiring lawyers to staff it. Although he had already recruited a few lawyers, the Financial Institution had too many projects and needed external assistance. As he heard the type of work I was doing for the World Bank, he suggested that I could do similar work for EBRD for a while.

As you see, it is all very intricate, and chance has played a significant role in my career.

Interviewer: What gives you the most joy today?

F. Vanderstricht: I would like to take a step back to address this question. While working in the Republic of Congo, I had the opportunity to meet an IMF lawyer who told me about the International Development Law Institute (IDLI) in Rome. This institute was established to provide training and technical assistance to lawyers and other legal professionals from developing countries, particularly government lawyers. The aim was to equip them with the skills necessary for negotiations with lawyers from developed countries, whether from the IMF, the World Bank, or other organizations.

During a Cleary alumni reunion in Rome, Charles suggested that I meet the librarian at the Institute to inquire about the availability of translated laws from the developing countries I was working with. These laws were notoriously difficult to find. So I visited the Institute and engaged in a conversation with the librarian, who subsequently recommended that I meet the person in charge of the foreign experts who taught at the Institute. As a result of that meeting, I was recruited as a teaching expert. Thus, my journey at IDLO began in 1988, and I continued to teach there for 20 years.

Now, turning to your question, what brings me the most joy nowadays is giving back to the younger generation by sharing my knowledge and experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be confined to the realm of law. Whether it's guidance on studying a specific domain or approaching a problem, I find fulfillment in passing on my insights. When I can successfully convey these lessons to someone younger who is embarking on a career or pursuing studies, I feel that I'm still useful in my old age.

This interview was conducted by: 

Alvyda Ušinskaitė LL.M. '13
Senior Legal Counsel

European Investment Fund,

Alvyda Usinskaite