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Beatrice Hamza graduated top of her class at the University of Maiduguri with a first class honours Degree in law in 1994 winning the Dean's Prize for the best final year all round academic performance.
Beatrice Hamza graduated top of her class at the University of Maiduguri with a first class honours Degree in law in 1994 winning the Dean's Prize for the best final year all round academic performance.
Whilst there, she was chairperson of the University's Students Union as well as president of the Law Students' Association. At the Nigerian Law School she finished in the top six out of a class of 3,000, sweeping away several prizes. She began her career at the Lagos law firm of Babalakin & Co. where she practised for two years before proceeding to Harvard Law School for an LL.M Degree which she obtained in 1998. With no plans to stay behind in the United States, fate however had different plans for this extremely bright lawyer with a razor-sharp mind. She was head-hunted by the firm she now practises at in New York, Hughes Hubbard & Reed which has three of the top ten litigators in the United States.
A pride to her gender, her profession and our nation and an inspiration to many, Beatrice Aisha Hamza who is a member of the New York Bar and one time president of the American-based Nigerian Lawyers' Association has received the Network Journal's 2003 Under Forty achievement award. Her area of core competence is Product Liability Litigation. The leading text and authority in the United States on Product Liability authored by two of her firm's partners is now updated twice a year by Ms. Hamza. She spent an afternoon talking about practice, memorable events and life to FUNKE ABOYADE at her New York offices, recently
Third out of a family of six children, Beatrice Hamza's goal growing up was to study law, get an LL.M, then a PH.D and practise law and also teach law at the Nigerian Law School. But God, she explained, charted a different course for her.
'The circumstances of my working here in New York is God's hand in my life' she declared with firm conviction as we walked the short distance between her office at the very beginning of Manhattan to the Thai restaurant where we were to have lunch. Wall Street was just a stone's throw away, as was ground zero. The firmness of her convictions and her unshakeable faith in God were, I was later to realise in the course of that afternoon, attributes which must have greatly contributed to the person she has turned out to be and her huge successes.
Unlike many of her colleagues, she had no plans and no interest of staying to get a job after her Masters Degree at Harvard. Her CV was not done up or tailored to any specific law firm she explained. At school, there was a lottery process by which the student was required to complete a lottery sheet and check off desired employers, whilst the employers did the same. She hadn't taken part in that lottery and in any event, didn't think U.S. firms were interested in hiring people like her. There was therefore no indication that Beatrice's life and career would take a different turn from what she had planned for herself.
However, Mackenzie & Co, one of the biggest consulting firms spotted her resum‚. She was surprised when she was told they wanted to see her when they came for on-campus general recruitment interviews, because recruitment for international students was much later in the year. She thought they just wanted to have a chat with the foreigners, so she went completely unprepared and it was in that state of mind she walked into her first interview! They were quite enthusiastic and subsequently she received several offers of employment, including one from Hughes Hubbard & Reed that was difficult to turn down. What swung it in the firm's favour, was the fact that they, quite unusually, made the offer without waiting for her first term results to come out. She interviewed with some members of the firm and by the time she returned to her dormitory at Harvard, had received a firm letter of offer. It was a very difficult moment for her because, as she recalled, she wasn't expecting an offer and secondly, hadn't really thought of about staying back in the United States. She asked for and was given time to consider the offer. She was really torn between staying in the States and going back home. When, early in the new year, Hughes Hubbard & Reed still had not heard from her, they called her for her decision.
'I weighed it and I thought, where in Nigeria will I ever be paid this type of money!' she laughed as she remembered.
She also thought about the amazing opportunities New York offered in terms of career advancement. 'For any lawyer who wants to play on the global scene, New York really is the place to start. I'd looked up this firm and knew they were very good. They have a strong litigation department. The founder of the firm is a former U.S. Supreme Court Judge, Evan Hughes. Many of the finest law firms, like Cravath Swaine and Moore sprang out of this firm. It has a lot of history and we have three of the top ten litigators in the U.S. and I said, why would I not want to stay on?'
She accepted that offer, subsequently did the New York Bar exam and passed. I'd often heard that the New York and California Bar exams were amongst the country's toughest, so one tended to respect those who'd passed it, especially at first sitting. Beatrice confirmed, ' the New York Bar is the toughest exam you'll ever write in your life!' Nigerians though, tend to pass the exams because, in her view, they're used to the rigours of stress. I nodded in agreement. Coming from a country where getting a decent education was stressful enough and finding one's self in a country where everything worked and no cultists in sight...One would really have no choice but to excel abroad.
As we passed the old NASDAQ building, the afternoon's summer heat building up, I commented on the size of her firm, which looked to me to be quite large, occupying as it did some 20 or so floors with 325 lawyers in its New York offices.
'Before, we may have been big, but now, we're considered mid-sized' she explained. 'A new world order began when Clifford Chance merged with some other firms'. That firm now has well over 3,000 lawyers.
As a 7th year Associate, how has the journey been so far?
'You start off by sharing an office, then you get your own office and by the time you're in your 6th or 7th year, you're mid-level'. Partnership could follow any time between the 7th and 15th year.
And the working hours, of which one had heard so much?
She confirmed that the working hours were all I'd heard and more. 'It's tough to have a personal life'.
A normal work day starts at 9.00 a.m and ends officially at 6.00 p.m, but hardly does anyone go home till very late
'Lately, I've been going home at 3.00 a.m.' she explained as I made a mental note to re-define my concept of a long working day. 'That has been my schedule since January. First, I was working on two trials, which came and went, now, I'm preparing a production for a summer trial in a multi-billion dollar product liability case'
'Just because I go home at 3.00 or 4.00 a.m. doesn't give me the liberty to come to work whenever I want' Beatrice continued. 'Sometimes, I work through the night. The worst was when I had to work 36 hours at a stretch! I would work round the clock, run home and change at 7.00 a.m., then get back to work!' Indeed, I later learnt that Beatrice had stayed behind in the office working till 6.00 a.m. after our afternoon together.
She, like many other Associates, works seven days a week.
'In my second year, I had only three free weekends in the entire year!' she recalled.
'Makes it sound like a picnic back home!' I couldn't help commenting. Working through the night was not new to me, I'd routinely worked all through the night whilst at THISDAY, but at least I'd had the privilege of breezing in to work whatever time I pleased. And back in practice one had the occasional late night or working through the night, but this, well...this was different!
'When I came here' said Beatrice, 'the first time I pulled an all-nighter, I got home, got a call from the office and had to go back to the office.'
That memorable event took place on a Friday night, and the next time Beatrice saw her home was the following Monday!
'I called my mum and told her I was quitting!' she laughed as she recalled those early days. 'She reminded me that hard work never killed anybody and talked me out of it. That's when I got my reality check! At Harvard, I used to think that people were exaggerating!'
We arrived the restaurant where Beatrice was evidently a regular, and were quickly ushered to our seats. The waitress brought us the menu and I asked what Beatrice would recommend. Panang shrimp or chicken curry was tasty she said, so I went for the shrimp dish, whilst she had the chicken. I commented that the curry was indeed very tasty.
'It's not as good as it usually is, the curry could do with more zest' was Beatrice's verdict. I was very hungry however and downed the food happily, sans zest. Every last one of those tasty shrimps disappeared into the inner recesses of my rumbling stomach.
As we ate, I asked her where she had been on 9. 11. Earlier, she had pointed through her office window at the direction the twin towers of the World Trade Centre used to be. She'd had a good view from her office.
'I was stuck on the subway' she recalled, in subdued tones.
Beatrice had been at home and watched on television as she dressed for work as the first plane hit. So what had she been doing subsequently on the subway?
'It tells you how work can kill you!' she said with a serious mien.
She'd left the office about 4.00 a.m the night before, so she woke up late, which is what she believes helped her. She would otherwise have been in the office when it happened. She had seen the first tower burning on television. She knew something awful had happened, even when there was initial speculation that it was a small plane that had hit.
'I knew, having worked here, at that time, for about four years that planes were not allowed to fly all over Manhattan. I thought, how could a plane have gone over there, there's just something off, maybe the control towers had malfunctioned'.
Then she saw the second plane hit and she knew that it was no accident. She phoned a few friends and colleagues asking them to switch on their TVs.
In a move which she later realized made absolutely no sense, she still proceeded to work. 'It was a Tuesday and I had an appellate brief on Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law to submit that Friday. I kept thinking, "if I don't do it today, there's no way I will meet my deadline", so I decided to go to the office, grab my stuff and come back home.
' Many of the people in the subway on her line were from higher up in Manhattan and would have been in the train about 20 minutes earlier and therefore had no idea of what had happened. 'Only those who got in at my stop, people like me, would have seen it. I just assumed at that time everybody knew. I was sitting, thinking and worrying and when we got to the World Trade Centre stop, the train suddenly just shook and stopped. The P.A. system started malfunctioning, someone was trying to make an announcement and we couldn't hear what they were saying. All of a sudden, we started smelling smoke. Someone was saying, "I smell smoke, what is going on here, why won't someone talk to us?" And then the lights just went off. Another person then said, "it must be because of the planes that hit the towers" and someone else asked, "what plane? When? How?" And everyone started screaming. There was a guy crying, "oh my God, I should have listened to my wife, she told me she had a bad feeling about today!" All sorts of drama going on!'
At that moment, she realized that with the exception of herself and another man, nobody else knew what was going on. 'He must have, also like me, foolishly walked into the train! Obviously, he also probably thought his work was more important than his life, like I did!' She took heart and concluded maybe that was the way she was meant to go. They sat in the dark for a while, with a palpable smell of smoke everywhere. Then the P.A. system managed to start working and an evacuation was announced, with everyone asked to face the back of the train, one car at a time to be evacuated. 'At that time, I said to myself, there's just no way I'm going to do that, because if you're familiar with the New York subway, there are live wires everywhere.
I said to myself, if the stampede doesn't kill me, I'll be electrocuted!' She decided that whether or not she stayed in the carriage, whatever was going to happen would happen. 'Death would meet me on the train, live wires, whatever! People were scared and agitated. They had locked us in, and I knew as soon as they opened the doors, people would start rushing out and there would be pandemonium. So I think someone came to their senses and decided, oh not a good idea to evacuate'. She sat down there, thought about her mum, her family and said her prayers. 'I thought about how my mother would react when she was told what had happened to me, it was really a very traumatic moment for me I tell you! But I did not panic, I was very calm. People were yelling, choking, there was a woman who shouted, "oh, shaddap! The more you yell, the more oxygen you'll use up!" Finally, another train was found to pull them back to the stop prior to the World Trade Center stop and they came out just in time to see the second tower come down. They had a perfect view.
'It was then that it finally hit me and I started crying. It was just a shock, seeing people everywhere, you couldn't tell if they were black or white because they were all covered in ashes! It was like Armageddon, the end of the world, it was just a very surreal moment! I walked all the way back home and it was a bit of a walk. Many people were crying, fighting to get on the buses, but there were many injured people, and I didn't think I should struggle for space with people who were injured, all I had was ashes on me'. Their office, being so near the towers, was cordoned off for a week while the clean up effort went on. I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to the appellate brief? 'Oh, very interesting! When they finally opened up, the first thing I did was call the court to say, "oh, we missed our Friday deadline". And they said, "oh, forget deadlines!
We'll get back to you with a new deadline!" OK, point taken, but I mean, we didn't want to be slammed with a default! They never got back for another two months because everything was in complete disarray since the courts were located near the World Trade Centre, so they too were affected.' For days, the entire mid-town to lower Manhattan was covered with smoke she recalled. 'When we were finally allowed to come back to our offices, there was a palpable smell of death. We had to wear masks for weeks. There's just no way you could have come back here and not have been affected. That was the first time I was hit by the carnage that had occurred. I'd been to the towers to some shops to buy some clothes the Sunday before. Since I never try them on at the stores because I really don't have the time, I had a few things I wanted to return and I brought them with me thinking I'd return them during the week. I could have been there on the Tuesday it happened!' It was a place she'd enjoyed taking friends who were visiting to. They would go to the topmost floor and it was always a wonderful experience.
'I must have been there about seven or eight times in the last year, with all my Nigerian friends who came visiting, we'd have lunch at the restaurants there'. 'When I came back and I saw just a few floors and metal, I broke down and cried uncontrollably! If there was ever a time that I felt a lot of anger, it was at that moment when I actually was faced with the remains of the towers and I remembered people who had worked there, the chef at the restaurant, none of them made it. It was a terrible, terrible moment. Many in my office lost their loved ones, there were law firms in there, people had friends there. It was definitely a dark moment and many people went into depression'. After 9.11, several companies and firms moved out of that area to Times Square, she informed me.
Many people at her law firm quit and left as they just couldn't deal with being downtown anymore. Hughes Hubbard & Reed however, she said, remained true to the downtown district. They got counsellors who came in for months. 'I never to the counseling sessions, but maybe I should have. Because I certainly, in my own way, went into depression without realizing it. But I waded through. There was just that stench, a putrid smell of death and I'd never smelt death before.
They shut off the vents in the office, but it was just in there'. On that fateful morning, Beatrice's next door neighbour at the office, who relocated to Detroit within weeks as a result of the trauma, had noticed from her office window, the first plane flying right past, quite low. She heard a loud noise and she saw that the first tower was burning. Initially, it didn't register that the plane had gone in there and whilst she was still wondering what was going on, the second plane crashed into the second tower. 'She ran out to alert other colleagues, urging them to get out of the building, but nobody was listening to her because everybody was trying to watch from the windows!' Almost three years on, would she say people have recovered? 'I wouldn't say they've completely recovered. I certainly think about that day with a lot of sorrow. My colleagues here could see people jumping to their deaths.
I thank God He protected me from seeing that, because I'm sure, I might have been one of those who quit too!' We finished our meal and headed back for the office. Pointing in the direction where the towers formally stood, she said new construction was currently going on at the sites. I wondered aloud if anyone would possibly ever want to rent office space there. One effect of the tragedy, for her, was that she had been planning to buy an apartment before, on the 35th floor of a building but changed it, in the aftermath, to the 8th floor.
'I can run down eight floors more easily!' she declared as we both burst out laughing. 'Last year's blackout was a true test!' she added. Again, she laughed as she recalled how, when the blackout occurred, she had immediately fetched some water, knowing from true Nigerian experience that water supply would soon stop. Her friends had marvelled when they realized she'd been able to have her bath when many of them hardly had any water to even so much as brush their teeth with! As we walked, Beatrice pointed out the historic Battery Park to me, explaining that it used to be the focal point of immigrants.
'It overlooks Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty' she informed me. We ran into two of her colleagues from work who were dressed smart casual. A third joined us as we spoke. It took me a while to realize he was also a lawyer and I only figured it out because of the content of his participation. I assumed though, that he must be on leave, judging from the very casual way he was dressed. In fact, I was sure of it. That would also account for the five o'clock shadow.
'Gillette on strike Darren?' teased one of the group as they all laughed. As it turned out, all my assumptions were shattered, for he was not only not on leave, but fully at work! Talk about culture shock! As we left Beatrice's colleagues, I could contain myself no further. I was still in shock. Smart casual I knew, but that casual? 'Four years ago, there was a boom in the computer industry, in Silicon Valley' she offered by way of explanation,
'Those young companies were owned by whiz kids, not your typical suit-clad clients. Lawyers in firms did not want to intimidate them so they instituted a business casual dress code, first on Fridays, then during the summers and eventually, long haul'.
Not surprisingly however, because of the extremes to which it had been taken there was now a buzz to revert to the old dress code. 'People were practically coming to work dressed in their lingerie if you ask me!' exclaimed Beatrice, who was fast turning out to have a great sense of humour. 'Besides' she added, the internet bubble burst, so the client catered to does not exist anymore'. As we continued back to the office, I asked if practice in the States was not a far cry from that in Nigeria. She had earlier declared that her two years of practice in Nigeria were 'one of the best years of my life'.
'In principle, the law is the law' was the way she saw it 'but in practice it is different'. She spoke about being asked to head a team of 54 lawyers on a project, a responsibility and honour she found' very daunting and at the same time, humbling'. 'If that doesn't keep me up at nights, the work definitely will!' she remarked with that spark of humour I'd by now realised was intrinsic to her. Back at the office, I asked whether she intends to come back home.
'I've always left open that possibility because I never came with the intention of staying. I'm very glad I stayed, because I would never have got the experience I have otherwise. I thought it was a brief stint, but I'm here seven years later, who knows how much longer I'll be here for! She says she definitely wants to return home and has kept her ties with Nigeria, making sure she visits every year. She acknowledges though, that it gets tougher and tougher to keep in touch the longer one stays abroad. If she did come back home, she would love to practise, as well as teach. And also would like to get involved in public policy advocacy. She might, she says, float a non-profit organization.
'I have a lot of passion for children's issues, women's issues, human rights generally and I could see myself involved in those arenas'. She's also thought about straddling her time between the States and Nigeria, to teach at home to begin with. She almost did come back home about two years ago, but friends and relatives at home talked her out of it, saying it was not the right time. 'When I pointed out that they were still there, they said, "well we have no choice!" Torn between two worlds, Beatrice's dilemma is not unusual amongst Nigerian professionals abroad.
True, the present Government has encouraged a few to come back home, but they all can't be in government, what about the rest? Statistics of our professionals abroad who are mostly there so they can have economic and career fulfillment they would otherwise not have at home would no doubt reveal their alarming numbers. The nation's loss, those countries' gain. She misses home and sometimes just shuts down when nostalgia threatens to overwhelm her, she confesses.
'I refuse to think about home, I refuse to think about friends, I refuse to think about my family, because if I do that I'll go crazy!' she declares. She's quick to point out that she's made some wonderful friends in the States who have really become like her family. Her work also keeps her busy, leaving her, mercifully, with little time to think about what she's left behind. If and when she does return, how tough would it be for her to get into the swing of things, in terms of the way things work at home? 'You know, every time I go back home, I realise how much tougher it would be for me. I realise how much I've taken for granted towards the basic amenities and infrastructure that I've become so used to here' she conceded.
"It can be very frustrating at home, when I go to the bank and I cannot conclude my transaction in less than 30 minutes. I'm there, still in line four hours later, waiting for this and that. Or, everything depends on whom you know, and that's something that I had completely forgotten about! Predominantly, things are not on merit anymore, it's more on your network of people'. Sad, but true. That's the sorry morass we, as a nation have got ourselves into, I reflected sadly. A factor why many of our bright talents abroad are extremely reluctant to come home, preferring to stay back abroad, contributing to those countries' economies. Teaching, however, as I felt obliged to point out might not be all she thinks, given the extent to which student cultists have permeated the educational sector, mostly unchecked. "That phenomenon is something that is very bothersome to me' she responded pensively, 'when did our institutions become that bad? It scares me!'
'What about the private universities though?' she wondered. We reminisced about the not-so-distant past when we all took our first degrees in Nigeria, so highly rated were our universities. Those who went abroad at that time to take their first degrees were seen as those who could not make the grade here and were actually pitied by the rest of us! How time changes things! Sad commentary again, on the various ills which bedevil us as a nation. She allows that she probably has a very romanticized view of teaching but she often thinks about all the different things that can be worked into the school curriculum. She was president of the Nigerian Lawyers' Association from 2001 till 2002.
How was the Association started and what were its objectives?
'It was formed in 1999 as a community of Nigerians with similar interests, coming together to advance their interests and to help out new and upcoming lawyers of Nigerian descent or affiliation of some sort, who either schooled here or schooled in Nigeria and came to do the Bar exam here. The first president was John Edozie. I was elected the next president and Shamsey Oloko, one of the founders is also a past president'. I later met with Shamsey, a young and bright Nigerian (proudly Lagosian) lawyer, at his well appointed offices, The Thorgood Law Firm which he set up and runs right on Park Avenue, New York. Beatrice's mission, as president, was to put the organisation on the map. They met with the late Justice Minister and Attorney-General, Chief Bola Ige, SAN. She also instituted an annual dinner, which has continued. She was able to get a high calibre of people, not only to give them the needed publicity, but also to really set a standard for the kind of organisation she had in mind. It was not all smooth sailing, for some of the members wanted to 'make it an extension of Nigeria, their village organizations! And I really saw it as an organisation of professionals. With the relationship I had here in my firm and the sort of people I'd been exposed to, I knew that we could go as high as we wanted it to go, we were only limited by our imaginations'.
For the first dinner, she approached Bayo Ogunlesi of Credit Suisse First Boston, the Nigerian-born lawyer turned investment banker currently making waves in the United States and very well respected, to be the first recipient of their annual merit award. 'His resume is just amazing, he has a stellar record! He graduated at Harvard and also taught there. he was a law clerk to former Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall. He was first a lawyer, then joined Credit Suisse First Boston and rose through the ranks. Now, only people who really are very familiar with Wall Street can understand what kind of achievement that is for a black person and for a Nigerian. So we felt having him as a first recipient would set the bar for the kind of people I had in mind.'
Ogunlesi accepted, and Beatrice was able to get the then Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Professor Jubril Aminu whom she'd known since childhood to attend. His presence also gave them a boost. 'Stars, as they say, beget stars, so many people also came, we had the cr?me de la cr?me of the Nigerian community there. Many people then started taking us seriously. Bayo Ogunlesi doesn't grant interviews and I was only able to get him on the basis of a personal relationship. At that time, Time magazine profiled him and they called me up and asked me questions about him, so people started taking us seriously.' Currently they have roughly 200 lawyers as members, though she reckons there are well over 1,000 others, not necessarily all practising.
Some are there to do the Bar exam and they try to assist them with materials. The Bar course is $2,500 and not everybody comes from home prepared for that she explained. 'The Bar exam entails you doing a multi-state exam, since each of the states has its own unique laws, which tests you on the knowledge of the different states' Bar. The New York Bar has a written essay portion which tests your knowledge of procedure and black letter law - the principles of law. There's also an objective test. You're given a scenario and multiple number of answers, only one of which is correct.
Typically, two are very close, but one is wrong, and that's what gets people off! You have to really, really analyse the questions very well. Even when you get the answer, you want to go back and change it, but my advice is to go with your instincts and move on!' How confident was she when she wrote the exam? 'I'm someone who always hopes for the best. I never walk out of an exam saying, oh I know I've just nailed that. I certainly wrote a very difficult exam that day, I was very, very sick. I wrote it with a hot water bottle against my ribs, so I definitely had a lower confidence level than I usually do for an exam, but if I'm going to be really honest with myself, I didn't come out thinking I've failed. But I certainly didn't come out thinking, oh, I've nailed that exam. I just said, you know what, I've written it and I'm not even going to think about it.' She had spent just six weeks preparing and studying for the exam. By the time the results came out, she had already started working at Hughes Hubbard & Reed and had been there for two months. Overcoming the odds of not being what Americans term a cookie cutter, that is, not having been through the system from scratch, she, to her delight, passed the Bar.
Back at the firm, she recalls laughingly, that people were putting bets on would pass and who would not. 'One of them later admitted to me that he'd had his money against me. I said to him, "sorry, but you should have asked me, I would have told you to put your money on me!" In any event, the firm gives its new intakes the chance to re-write the exams if they don't make it the first time around.
'Obviously, you don't want to write it too many times, because it would lower the confidence level in you and your work, and you on your own, would probably want to leave' she pointed out. Is it true that U.S. law firms have a problem hiring foreign lawyers because it is thought that their accents would not be understood by clients and judges, and did she initially have a problem not having an American accent? Generally, it is a concern for some law firms she explained, but was quick to point out that this would only be in cases where the individual has a particularly strong foreign accent that would make it difficult for him to be understood.
Her problem, she explained, had been that people thought she had a British accent and she'd had to adjust to the American accent of speech. She'd also had to change her use of certain terms like trashcan instead of dustbin and car trunk in place of boot. 'In my case, coming from a Common Wealth background means I can articulate myself clearly and no one has problems understanding me. I've done close to 100 depositions and witness don't go, "hah, what's she saying!" When I speak though, I can tell they're wondering where I'm from. I'm not trying to deceive anyone that I'm an American and I haven't consciously changed my intonation, I'm very proud to be a Nigerian!' she added for good measure.
I should add, from an outsider's perspective, that apart from being extremely articulate, Beatrice speech blends admirably with her environment - no heavy American accent, just a slight one nicely there, that she's obviously not conscious of. Does she practise at the appellate courts and if so, how often? 'First, cases don't always go to trial, especially huge cases with a lot of money at stake, because parties find it too much of a risk to leave the decision to a Judge.
These are business people after all. For, instance, I was working on a $4 billion case and the parties settled it a week before trial was to begin.' She has however argued some appeals at the State Court of Appeal and has written briefs for argument at the Federal Court of Appeal which have been argued by the lead partner handling the appeal whilst she appears with the partner. How did she find the transition between the two different legal jurisdictions? 'The principles are basically the same.
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