On Mission for Justice

Nashville lawyer loads up his family and moves to Cambodia  

Mohandas Ghandi urged us to "be the change that you want to see in the world."

Although he's a follower of a faith other than Ghandi's, a Nashville attorney has heeded that call, leaving a blossoming and lucrative career at a well-established, mid-size Tennessee litigation firm to journey halfway across the globe to become deputy director for Cambodia for the International Justice Mission (IJM).

In October 2009, Shawn F. Kohl, a 2004 graduate of the Nashville School of Law and a partner at Spicer Rudstrom PLLC in Nashville, took a leave of absence from the firm. Accompanying him in Phnom Penh are his wife, Jenny Kohl; their four daughters, ages 10 months, 2, 5 and 6; and of course, the family dog.

The International Justice Mission made national news headlines a few months ago for its role in the arrests of three American "tourists" in Cambodia as part of an ongoing federal sex tourism investigation. The arrests were part of "Operation Twisted Traveler," an effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify and prosecute Americans in the flourishing, billion-dollar sex trade in Cambodia.

The three suspects are all convicted child sex offenders who had served time in U.S. prisons prior to traveling to the most destitute neighborhoods in Cambodia, where it is alleged they once again sexually assaulted young boys and girls. One of the suspects, for example, allegedly bought a 13-year-old Cambodian boy from his parents for $2 and a bag of rice, prior to raping him five times, according to a federal affidavit.

Now back in the U.S., the men face charges under the Protect Act, a 2003 law that provides life terms for child sex offenders with prior convictions, a much longer sentence than offenders would get abroad.

Kohl's new, multifaceted position puts him in frequent contact with Cambodian law enforcement, identifying the brothels and investigating other alleged perpetrators. Once arrests are made, he'll be helping with the pretrial litigation, such as preparing the witnesses for court and marshalling other evidence.

Meanwhile, other staff members assist the child victims however it may be needed, from ways as basic as food and shelter to counseling and teaching them a skill " the goal being to prevent any further victimization. Kohl may find himself assisting in this regard too, as needed.

Because the IJM is a Christian non-profit organization, among its routines in every office, worldwide, is a daily gathering for staff to come together for Scripture and prayer. Kohl anticipates he'll occasionally be taking the lead in planning such gatherings in the Cambodian office. He believes that time will be critical to his colleagues and himself as a source of strength and fellowship, to help them carry out such valuable yet emotionally challenging work.

He'll be earning about one-third of the salary he made as a successful civil litigator in the U.S.

'Everything Just Lined Up'

Kohl, a devout "cradle Catholic" and native Nashvillian, says the decision to apply to the IJM was serendipitous " he believes it was God's hand at work.

While practicing in Tennessee, he subscribed to the Tennessee Bar Association's daily TBA Today e-mail, looking primarily at the caselaw developments. Last year, however, another article on that communiqué caught his eye, about Chattanooga attorney Phillip Langford, who had taken his family to India to work for the IJM.(Read the story at www.tba2.org/tbatoday/2008/TBAtoday12-29-2008.htm.)

To say that Langford's story resonated with him is an understatement. Kohl immediately went to the IJM Web site and studied it closely before clicking on "Careers." Upon perusing the various openings, he was struck by the fact that among the job requirements was a willingness to make a statement of faith and subscribe to the Apostles' Creed.

He went home that evening and posed the idea to his wife, whom he'd met several years ago in Africa while both were in service to the Peace Corps. They discussed it at length; they prayed on it; and they soon knew their lives were going to take an unanticipated, dramatic turn.

After four lengthy telephone interviews, plus an in-person visit to the IJM headquarters in Washington, D.C., Kohl accepted the position.

"Everything just lined up," Kohl recalls. "It could not have been a coincidence. I'd been listening to a tape of Mother Teresa right before I got the e-mail. I might have deleted that e-mail, if that hadn't been the case. But once I started thinking about it [joining the IJM], weird things just kept on matching up. We'd been trying to sell our house, to move into a bigger house, and hadn't gotten a single offer. Once I got the [IJM] job, we literally found a renter two days later, who paid the first year's rent in advance. Things like that just kept on happening all throughout the process."

Kohl was given a few months to wrap up his practice and prepare the family for the move " an extremely busy time of work, packing, get-togethers and good-byes, doctors' visits and immunizations, and various other tasks to prepare themselves for the future.

The trip itself takes three calendar days, whether you board a plane heading east or west, Kohl notes.
He also bought Khmer language CDs for the car. He believes he'll learn the language proficiently at the very least, because in Senegal, both he and his wife became fluent in Wolof, that nation's most widely spoken language. He'll work with an interpreter/language tutor for the first few months.

In between it all, Kohl read Buddhism for Dummies, to better understand the basic beliefs and value systems of those with whom he'll be living and working. Buddhism is practiced by about 95 percent of the Cambodian population.

"I plan on focusing on the commonalities that we can all work with. The situation was similar when we were in the Peace Corps, in a country that was 95-percent Muslim. We had a number of conversations with the people there about what we have in common " our belief in one God, and in right and wrong, for example. The goal then, and now, wasn't and isn't to proselytize, but to do my job, within my own Christian framework.

"I learned in Senegal to pay my respects to the local religious leaders and their views, and to work with them rather than separate myself from them. I plan to collaborate with them as much as possible, unified by a common purpose."

Kohl says he isn't necessarily thinking he can affect great change " although that would be ideal " but he knows without a doubt that he'll be forever changed from attempting to do so.

"I hope we can help save as many children from slavery as possible. I hope we can change attitudes away from acceptance of the situation, now and down the line. And I hope to be part of a message to child sex offenders, both in Cambodia and the U.S., that they won't be allowed to prey on these children without consequences anymore," he says.

In America, we're given the most opportunities and we live with the fewest hardships of all the nations in the world, he says. To him, that means one thing " and it's the primary reason he opted for a career in law " to give back.

To put in terms of his spirituality, he hearkens to the Parable of the Faithful Servant, in Luke 12:48, which teaches: "For to whomsoever much is given, of him much shall much be required." Moreover, he recalls his wedding ceremony, where he and his wife recited the eight Beatitudes, or "Blessings," that mean so much to him personally and, them as a couple. Among them, in the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10, is: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: For they shall have their fill."

"Some people think we're crazy and we're going to be living in the jungle in a mud hut," Kohl says, "while others think we're doing a great thing. But we just feel very lucky and blessed to have the chance to help these children, and we're really excited about the opportunity."

The Kohls' journey began on Oct. 1, 2009. His initial commitment to the IJM is for 18 months. He hopes to stay longer, and is very appreciative that his law partners at Spicer Rudstrom similarly agree with his desire to effect change in the world, and have therefore worked with him to make such effort happen. They've also told him the door will be open for his return.

JANE PRIBEK JANE PRIBEK is the editor-at-large for Minneapolis-based Dolan Media. She writes frequently for Minnesota Lawyer and Wisconsin Law Journal. She is the former editor-in-chief of Wisconsin Law Journal, and a former family law practitioner in Milwaukee, Wis. She attended Marquette University Law School and lives in Nashville.