Interview with Gunduz Karimov

MUSKIE Program alumnus, Partner, Baker & McKenzie – CIS, Limited

How would you introduce yourself to the alumni community?

I am Gunduz Karimov, managing partner of the Baku office of Baker & McKenzie, a global law firm. I’ve also been teaching Law for more than 13 years and am now the Vice-Dean of the School of Law at Baku State University.

Did you ever imagine before going to the U.S. that you would one day study there? How did it happen?

No. I came from the Khanlar region, which is now called Göy-göl. The dream for every student in my region was to study at University. I came to Baku and enrolled in the famous School of International Law and International Relations, which was one of the leading and most popular institutions in Azerbaijan at that time. After graduation, I started working for the international committee of the Red Cross, which is when people started asking me, “Why not study for an LLM in the United States”, to which I responded, “What’s an LLM?” They explained to me than an LLM is a Master of Laws, and they said I could go to the United States and study there. Many people were applying to the MUSKIE program. At first I didn’t want to apply, but then I changed my mind. I was put on the wait list as there were many strong candidates, but one girl refused admission and, as a result, they picked me and I went to the U.S. to study for my LLM.

What did you think about the United States before going there? And how was the U.S. in reality? Was life difficult there?

I knew it was a global leader in so many areas and I was interested in going there to see how it all worked. I thought to myself that life seemed so easy there, but then I read a book by Einstein in which he said, “Everything in America is made to save human labor.” He said that in the 1930s, but so many years later it was still true. For me, the most important and difficult thing was to adapt to the curriculum, i.e. reading everything in English. But adapting to life was simpler. I settled into an apartment, bought some things and filled my refrigerator. Everything was so easy.

How did studying in the US change in your life? Did it have any impact?

Yes, absolutely. It had a major impact. One year of studying in the States was rigorous compared to four years of study at Baku State University. The curriculum was more difficult, and if that weren’t enough, it was also in English.

It was interesting to see how things worked in the U.S. compared to Azerbaijan. Getting the proper documents in the U.S. was such a breeze. It’s easier now in Azerbaijan, but still not as easy as in the U.S. Employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles would ask, “What’s your address?”, you would say, “My address is 123 Lincoln Street, 47401, Bloomington, Indiana”, to which they simply respond, “Okay.” Nobody checks your information any further than that. It’s that simple. They take your picture, you pay 10 dollars and you receive your ID. When you come to Azerbaijan, you go to ‘JEK’. You go here, you go there, etc. It can be an arduous process. In my opinion, “freedom is not what you state in your Constitution, freedom is when you get your ID in five minutes.”

Have you been back to the U.S.? What kind of feelings did you have? Do you want to go back to live there?

I took my son to visit his mother 4 years ago while she was studying at MUSKIE in Kent, Ohio. We were there for two weeks and it felt much different from when I was there as a student. Now I was visiting as an established lawyer. I had maturity and more resources which made the whole experience more comfortable and less scary. I was also surprised by how little it had changed since I had been there last.

It was on the plane when I was asked what I would like to drink that I first started thinking about the U.S. I asked whether they had ginger ale, and they said “Yes”. That’s what I miss about the U.S. When I heard the flight attendant’s response I knew I was on my way to America.

Yes. I remember the first three years after I had returned, I wanted to go back to the U.S. to stay and work there. But now – probably not.

You have said that there are many changes in modern Azerbaijan. Can our country now offer the same opportunities to young people that you had in the US?

In terms of quality of life and fun, probably not. But, if we talk about education, I think ADA is now close to offering the same opportunities as the American system. This is my understanding anyway. I’ve visited ADA twice. I met there with Fariz Ismailzade, who showed me everything. It seems ADA can offer a similar leaning environment, comprehensive teaching methods, seminars, conferences, etc. But, if you leave ADA, you will soon discover that students in the rest of Azerbaijan do not have the same access as their American or ADA counterparts.

And as a deputy dean of the School of Law, what are you doing to make some changes there?

Our main focus is to improve the educational experience. Currently, we have three active programs in English. We started the Commercial Law LLM in English in 2007-2008. Now the graduates work in different companies and we are thrilled with its success. Graduates have gone on to work at prestigious companies like SOCAR, an accomplishment that without the help or the LLM program, may have gone unrealized. Due to the success of our first LLM program, we launched the Human Rights LLM program, followed by the European Law LLM. Now we’re starting a Maritime and Energy LLM, and recently we got approval for a Transnational Criminal Law LLM, which will include coursework on corruption, human trafficking, drugs, etc. All programs are formatted so that after students complete a 4-year Bachelors Degree they will go on to study in one of our LLM programs in preparation for working in a specific area of law.

How do you manage to run such a big company and teach at the same time?

It’s all about time management and having an efficient system in place. The more efficient the system, the less time you need to devote to simple, but time consuming tasks. That isn’t to say it’s not difficult at times. I work 12-13 hours a day and 4 on Saturday and Sunday. I communicate with students using social media, which I think helps to cultivate a more connected modern experience for students. It also allows me to see what students are working on, what they are struggling with, and if they are prepared.

What is your formula of success?

Don’t hurry. Take your time. If you want to make millions, you need to understand that it won’t happen overnight. You have to be patient and work hard. Don’t try to reach every goal in 30 years. What’s the hurry? That, for me anyway, is the most important piece of advice a student can get – slow but sure.

It would be interesting to know your future career aspirations. What are your career plans? What are your plans for the future?

Honestly, now, I don’t know. Well, I know where I want to be when I’m 50. I want to be in education. I want to be in University. Perhaps a dean. I would prefer to teach youngsters and help education to grow in Azerbaijan. So, after a certain period of time spent in law, I would prefer to make the full-time switch to education. Working in the public service in the next 3-4 years is also something I have considered. You never know.

What advice would you give to young people in Azerbaijan?

My advice to everyone is to pursue educational excellence. Education is what makes us different. Education is what makes us human. Education will help us to compete in this world. Only education. Nothing else. Just education. We need to study as much as we can, languages in particular. We need to know as many languages as possible. They say, “The more languages you know, the more times you are human.” So, education means a lot. Education gives you the opportunity to grow as a person and as a professional.

If there is a murder, it is a lack of education because an educated person would, in most cases, think twice before murdering someone. There are villages in Baku with a high level of crime. It is because they do not go to school. Had they gone to school, the situation would have been different.

International experience is also important. It is about comparison. When you are able to compare with your life experience. For example, if you do not have your local experience (life, work, cultural), you just go there, you grab what they give to you. I mean, you lose your identity. You should not lose your identity by obtaining your international experience.

AAA has been around for 10 years. We have made certain changes in Azerbaijan and the results are starting to show. In the next 3-5 years how would you like to see AAA and the Alumni Community develop?

Ten years ago I was not a big fan of AAA. But now I see a big difference. Because AAA is becoming more organized, structured, and focused on the things they are doing. In the beginning the focus was PR. There have been many projects implemented by AAA, and if you can build upon them, education, regional development, community development, etc., you’ll be successful. I would like to see AAA become community organization. When you have an Alumni community, every alum feels like they belong to AAA. Being a member of an organization is similar to being a member of a political party. It is not only alumni of MUSKIE or UGRAD or other programs, but current member of something else. Members of a strong organization. So, I would advise AAA to have a more organized membership structure. For example, if you consider me a member I should not just be another name in the database. I should be given a reason to belong. The AAA should engage with its alumni so as to create a more well rounded and active organization. I think if it does this, the AAA has a bright future.