Laws are made by necessity like paths are made by walking

An interview with


As a lecturer in Law as well as being a law clerk to a judge in the Czech Supreme Administrative Court, Martin Kopa strongly feels that legal education at university level should combine the theory and the practice of law, emphasising the importance of real life interactions with clients. In this fascinating interview he explores the complexity of Czech Republic's constitutional laws, the importance of teaching professional ethics as well as shedding light on his time working for the European Court of Human Rights.

TheLawMap: What makes you so passionate about teaching future lawyers?

Frankly, I didn’t get goose bumps or adrenaline rushes in any of my previous jobs. For that, I still think that teaching law is the best legal job in the world. On the other hand, I think if you only teach law without any practical experience, it may get tricky, which is why I have always tried to combine the two. I believe that being in touch with the practice of law helps me to be better at teaching law and vice versa. It allows me to show the students that some of the abstract concepts of law have a real meaning in everyday life. The opportunity to do so and to help the students understand what happens out there in the ‘real world’ is something that I am immensely grateful for.

TheLawMap: Has the legal system in the Czech Republic changed significantly since you have been involved with law?

Brutally! As a matter of fact, many of the laws that I studied during my time at law school do not exist anymore or they have been amended significantly. We have a new Civil Code which is just huge. It led to the annulment of more than 200  statutes and other legal regulations, and it is different from the old civil law that I had studied. Then there is a pretty new Criminal Code. Procedural codes for these two substantive areas of law get constantly amended and supplemented. There were several changes to our Constitution. Certain areas of administrative law had to undergo major changes (i.e. construction law). If you can believe it, the law on income tax has undergone thirty amendments since 2010. All of this had taken place in the last couple of years. Add to that the impact of EU law. It is clear that it is no longer easy to keep track of what the law actually is.

One of my colleagues once said that nothing would happen if the Parliament adopted no laws in the next ten years. Leaving out the fact that a large mass of the law has to be adopted in order to implement EU directives, I tend to agree with him because Czech law is everything but stable. Besides, the quality of law is not very high. Especially, the procedural side have became a labyrinth of blind alleys. However, I try to remain optimistic and hope that many of the changes are for the good.

TheLawMap: The Student Legal Aid Office at your university provides pro bono legal support and advice to socially, economically or otherwise disadvantaged individuals. The legal aid clinics run by the university seem to cover wide areas of law. In our conversations, you expressed how you enjoyed these clinics. What makes them so interesting?

They are unique in our country. So far, we are still the only Czech law school, which has a long tradition of allowing the students to undergo a live lawyer-client experience. In Poland, on the contrary, every law school has its own legal clinic. I’m afraid that the potential of legal clinics is still vastly underestimated here in the Czech Republic. I do believe that undergoing a semester or two of clinical experience teaches the students more than a hundred seminars. Richard Grimes of York Law School once said at a certain conference on legal education that we, as teachers and lawyers, have a responsibility to send our students out into the world equipped to understand the role of law. By lecturing and teaching what the law is, in a technical sense is no longer sufficient. The students deserve to understand how the law is applied, as well as what the law is. The only one way of implementing this would be to offer the students an opportunity to apply principles in practice. There is no better way of understanding principles than having to put them into practice and making mistakes that can be corrected, and reflected upon. I am in total agreement with Richard Grimes on this matter and am proud that our law school’s clinic achieve just that. I just wish that all Czech law schools had similar live-client clinics. They’ll be there. We’re just going to have to wait for a while, yet.

TheLawMap: Please tell us about your work with the Constitutional Court & ECHR where you have worked before.

I’ll go chronologically and therefore I’ll start with the European Court of Human Rights. Working there was really a dream come true for me. When I got the offer to work there I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I was there as a trainee in 2011, first, and then in 2012, I got the offer to work there as a temporary registry lawyer. The word temporary meant that I could stay for a maximum of six months/calendar year because I didn’t go through a competition. From September 2012 until June 2013, I lived that dream. It was awesome because the Strasbourg court is a very open institution. I loved the atmosphere and the opportunity to meet so many people one could learn so much from. You could easily find yourself standing in a queue for a cup of coffee just behind Sir Nicolas Bratza, Dean Spielmann, Mark Villiger, Andras Saj√≥ and all the other great personas of the Court, and even talk to them. It was hugely inspirational. Besides, the Czech Registry team is probably the best work team I was a part of. My work consisted of processing applications lodged with the ECHR mainly against the Czech Republic. In June 2013, I had to return home.

I was offered to join the Analytical Department of the Czech Constitutional Court and to become a member of the Department of Constitutional Law of Palacky University Law School where I was a PhD student. As a result of the kindness of the two institutions, I found a way to combine the two roles. I think it was a great combination because these two roles were inter-related. In the analytical department, we prepared analysis on all kinds of subjects, which the judges could use in their decision making on constitutional appeals. They mostly concerned comparative law material or analysis of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. The Analytical Department was also in touch with the Government Agent representing the Czech Republic before the ECHR. I had the opportunity to experience the real life implications of the constitutional law upon human rights, which was simply terrific because it allowed me to prove to my students later that constitutional law is a living part of the law, and not just an abstract theory, as the students would usually assume.

TheLawMap: Does 'the legal process as a means to resolving conflict' have exactly the same meaning everywhere in the world?

That is an intriguing question. I personally think that a legal process does not necessarily require existence of a conflict. To the contrary, the best lawyers should do everything they can to prevent a conflict (especially in civil law). The less they end up in court the better. My understanding of legal processes is more general. It covers everyday lawyer’s work which may or may not involve resolution of a conflict depending on the role one performs. So, in my opinion it seems that the answer is a no.

TheLawMap: If you could change something within the legal profession, what would it be?

I would want to change the level of respect for professional ethics. That is what I admire so much about Anglo-American lawyers. Legal ethics seems to be the most important set of rules and values for a lawyer to follow, no matter what. In the US, it is the only course which every future lawyer has to pass. After Watergate scandal, where lawyers were involved, the American legal profession said enough is enough, which is why
every law school student is taught legal ethics. We have an optional course for our students, which we have developed with the help from our friends from the US and UK, in particular, I would like to mention Jim Moliterno of Washington & Lee University, Philip Genty of Columbia University, Leah Wortham of Catholic University of America, Nigel Duncan of City Law School in London as well as others.

Students have at least a little opportunity to give some thoughts to the issues of attorney-client relationship, confidentiality, conflict of interest, impartiality and independence of judges and so on. Once again, it is important for them to realize that when you say legal ethics, it’s not about Aristotle, Plato and the philosophers of ancient Rome, as many lawyers seem to think. They are values that every lawyer will face one day in their professional lives. Yet, when we had our students interview practising lawyers on
professional ethics, the majority of them responded that they never faced an ethical issue in their practice. For Pete’s sake, whenever a client opens the door and makes a phone call, that is where the ethics come in, too! 

Not so long ago, there was a huge controversy in the Czech Republic concerning a lawyer, who had raised an unfounded racist objection towards an expert in a criminal case against his extreme right-wing client, charged with promoting Nazism, just because the expert had a name which sounded Jewish (Mazel). Surprisingly, quite a lot of lawyers in the Czech Republic still think that behaviour as such is perfectly acceptable because a lawyer has a duty to do everything he or she can to defend a client. I totally disagree. On the contrary, lawyers have a duty to tell their clients in certain cases: “I’m not going to be forced into doing such a thing.”

TheLawMap: What are you passionate about outside of law?

Good question! Law consumes a big part of my life, certainly more than it should. For that reason, I enjoy the little moments spent at home with my girlfriend just relaxing and talking about every other subject but law. Apart from that, I’m a huge ice-hockey fan. I actually used to play ice-hockey to a high level for 11 years. I was a goalie. Therefore, I follow closely the US-Canadian National Hockey League and Czech Extraleague. Additionally, I must confess to being a huge football fan, especially of the English Premier League. Since 1996, I support Manchester United despite the fact that players now leave it to play Champions League (what a loss with Danny Welbeck leaving to join Arsenal!). 

But passionate? I must add English language and everything connected to it. When I was younger I even enjoyed studying different English accents of English and attempted to speak in these accents! Even now, whenever I speak to a native English speaker, I try to speak in the same accent that he or she does. But, I must admit that I had to give up in Newcastle because Geordie English is just inimitable!

Last but not least, I must add movies. I don’t watch as many of them as I used to when I was younger, though. When I was in secondary school, I was a movie freak and I watched movies all the time. Sadly, I don’t watch them that much anymore. I read law books and case-law instead. The stories in them are equally thrilling. 

Martin Kopa is a law lecturer at the Department of Constitutional Law of Palacky University, Faculty of Law in the Czech Republic. In addition, he works as a law clerk of a judge of the Czech Supreme Administrative Court. He has also worked at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, and the Czech Constitutional Court before that. In his academic work, he focuses mainly on public law issues and legal education.

With special thanks to Martin Kopa for his valuable time. He maintains an active social media presence through Twitter

The second part of the title for this interview, '..Paths are made by walking' is a quote from Franz Kafka, a trained Czech lawyer, but better known as perhaps the most influential writer of the 20th century.