Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2011
Profiles in the Law
A Sense of Service:
Antonia De Meo Finds Her Niche Overseas
By Cliff Collins

Antonia De Meo and Daisy

When Antonia De Meo talks to her Jack Russell terrier, Daisy, or goes to a grocery store, she speaks Russian. The dog understands the language, and city residents react more favorably to De Meo than if she used English.

Jerusalem, where she lives, is composed of a large number of Russian immigrants, and townspeople are more likely to react negatively to English-speakers, whereas they’re more positive toward those speaking even “bad Russian,” she jokes.

De Meo, a former Portland lawyer, has been working in one of the world’s warmest hot spots, as director of the United Nations Office for Project Services’ Jerusalem Operations Centre. There she has been in charge of projects supporting the security sector of the Palestinian Authority, working toward the U.N.’s goal of a two-state solution by building a state of Palestine.

In August or September, De Meo will be assuming a new position in a different country and on a different continent, joining UNICEF senior management in Khartoum, Sudan. That job will allow her to return to her main areas of expertise and interest: human rights, rule of law and gender equality. She has been working overseas in the international development field since 1999, in troubled areas such as Bosnia, Iraq, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

A native of Palo Alto, Calif., she spent every summer while growing up living and working in a farm community in Ohio. This unusual arrangement was a result of her mother’s promise to her mother that De Meo’s family would share part of each year in Pandora, Ohio, after De Meo’s grandfather died when she was born. As a result, she was exposed to different values, cultures and activities in each location. “I got, at a very young age, used to packing a suitcase and living in different places.”

That upbringing accounts for the peripatetic nature of her career so far. But finding what that career would be was not as automatic, she says. “I was not dreaming about practicing law. It came about in an analytical way.” She bought the book What Color is Your Parachute? It helps one focus on identifying skills and talents. “I finished this book, and everything was pointed toward the practice of law.” To test that direction, she worked for a time as a legal assistant before applying to law schools. “I found I did have those skills,” De Meo says. She had wanted to make a difference by helping people, but before that point had not realized that she could accomplish that objective by going into law.

De Meo has no trouble tagging where her social conscience originated: Her mother’s side of the family were Mennonites, who have a strong “service orientation.” De Meo graduated with honors from highly regarded Palo Alto High School and then obtained a bachelor of arts degree from Wellesley College, with a double major in art history and American studies. She then entered law school at Lewis & Clark, without ever having visited Oregon.

There she was associate editor of Environmental Law review and earned her law degree and a certificate in environmental law.

Her first legal job was working 18 months with Harrang Long Gary Rudnick in Eugene, before joining Markowitz, Herbold, Glade & Mehlhaf in Portland, where she was a commercial litigation associate for three years and with whom she has retained close ties.

The Foreign Bug Bites
One day she had lunch with Kris Olsen, former U.S. attorney for Oregon and who, during De Meo’s time at Lewis & Clark, was associate dean and a professor who had become her mentor from the beginning of De Meo’s stint in law school. Olsen asked De Meo how things were going. Her response was, she enjoyed the people and the work but did not feel fulfilled.

Olsen was waiting for that cue: She pulled out an application for the American Bar Association’s rule of law initiative, the Europe and Eurasia Program, also known as CEELI, a nonprofit, volunteer technical legal assistance program.

“She knew me better than I knew myself,” says De Meo. “She waited until the perfect time,” because it’s a competitive program that requires a minimum of five years of experience. “Think about this,” Olsen counseled.

Four months later, De Meo was encamped in Moldova, a tiny country in the former Soviet Union between Romania and Ukraine. Then (1999) and now, it is considered the poorest country in Europe, she says. De Meo received a monthly stipend and travel expenses to get there. She worked as a consultant responsible for legal education reform, gender issues reform and institution building. She facilitated the formation of a Moldovan female judges’ association.

That initial experience sealed for her that working around the globe was her niche. The only decision left was which of two tracks she would follow: working in tribunals, or legal reform work that was more broad.

“They are very different tracks,” she explains. “Once you’re on one track, it’s hard to turn back.” She applied for both tracks. “The internal job hunt for jobs that pay is grueling. It takes a minimum of six months every day sending out applications. The process is time-consuming.” It requires preparing a long, detailed resume, a cover letter emphasizing competencies, and networking in a foreign country. Even once you get an offer, the process of gaining a signed contract can take an additional three months, she notes.

She was able to land a job with the Human Rights Chamber in Bosnia, which was established as part of the Dayton Peace Accords. “We decided all the human rights cases. It was fabulous. Of all my work overseas, that was the most directly legal.” She was the most senior lawyer there, serving as an advocate for her cases before judges.

After about four years in the Balkans, De Meo went to work in 2005 for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, returning to Chisinau, Moldova.

Moldova is one of the countries with the highest prevalence of human trafficking, she says, where “young, vulnerable women” are routinely lured and then kidnapped into serving as sex slaves. She worked on legislation, police and law student training, and systemic protection in the court system. “It was a fascinating project.”

Heavy Security
In that situation, and in all her other stops so far, English has been the language used in the workplace, though lawyers must learn to work with translators and to read translated material. The latter takes practice. In American law, a comma can make a big difference, but in the foreign places she works, “You can’t get in that nitty-gritty. You have to work in broad-brush strokes.” She has studied Russian for two years, and she has had training in German and French.

Two personal modifications also have helped her work overseas. First, she obtained dual American and Italian citizenship. “As an American, it’s a good idea if you want to work internationally,” she explains. Her father’s parents had immigrated to the United States from Italy. “Before my grandfather became a naturalized (U.S.) citizen, my father was born. My father got U.S. citizenship, but also inherited Italian citizenship. Since my father had it, it passed to me.”

Second, in 2008, she obtained a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her goal in earning the degree was to work with the United Nations: She wanted to find a long-term situation that had some stability, and that would get her off the rugged job-hunt trail every two or three years. “I was looking at the U.N. or the State Department. I really wanted to join the U.N. It matches my personal values,” such as promoting human rights and peace. “I wanted to be in a competitive position. It went extremely well after I got that.”

Extremely well, with some qualifications. Her first U.N. job was in Iraq, which was the riskiest situation she’s been in so far. She was stationed in Amman, Jordan in a senior management position with the U.N. Office for Project Services, but had to travel into Iraq. “The U.N. is very careful about security,” but to get to the Green Zone, she had to be transported in an armored bus through what is called the Red Zone. She first had to undergo four days of military security exercises wearing heavy military clothing, including a 28-pound vest. Getting work done was slow going because of the security involved.

After a year, the U.N. gave her 10 days’ notice to transfer to Jerusalem, initially to serve as temporary director of the U.N. Office for Project Services’ Jerusalem Operations Centre. “I definitely was not looking to leave Amman,” she says. “I felt I was making a difference.” But once in Jerusalem, she applied for the permanent director’s post and was hired. She had to learn new skills, concentrating on infrastructure development and procurement.

Sarah J. Crooks, a friend since the two worked together at Harrang Long and now a partner with Perkins Coie, says De Meo is meticulous, thoughtful and a careful writer who was well regarded for the quality of her legal work, which involved complex business litigation.

“She’s brought a lot of those same skills figuring out complex problems,” and tackling big-picture issues such as democracy and human rights, says Crooks. “She’s involved in making policy and changing the world in bigger ways than she could here. She wants to make the world a better place, and now she has the qualifications to do that. It suits her personality, and she seems to have the stamina dealing with government bureaucracies.”

Her new position just begun in Sudan allows De Meo to go “back to my roots, to be able to protect vulnerable people,” she says. “I’m looking forward to a new challenge.”

Meanwhile, she still has ties to, and warm feelings for, Oregon, and maintains her active membership in the Oregon State Bar. “I say I’m from Oregon. I made my professional life there, and I do my CLE there.” She is proud of the state’s “sense of service” overseas, as exemplified by Oregon lawyers such as Terry Rogers and Judith Armatta, and she says she has encountered many Oregonians working in foreign countries.

“There’s a mission of service that spreads beyond (the state’s) borders.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2011 Cliff Collins

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