International Lawyer Pedro J. Martínez-Fraga (A84) on His Transformative St. John’s Education

March 30, 2023 | By Eve Tolpa

Pedro J. Martínez-Fraga (A84)

International lawyer Pedro J. Martínez-Fraga (A84) is a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, where he co-leads the firm’s international arbitration team, and a World Bank arbitrator, as appointed by President Obama in 2016. He received a JD from Columbia University (Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar) and a PhD in private and public international law from the University of Madrid (cum laude). He served as lead U.S. counsel on behalf of the Republic of Chile in the case against former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet and worked on the prosecutions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His writings on private and public international law, including nine books and more than 55 academically or peer-reviewed articles, have been published in 15 countries and five languages. Martínez-Fraga has lectured at more than 30 universities worldwide and is an Honorary Professor of Law at the Universidad de San Ignacio de Loyola and the Universidad del Pacífico, both in Lima, Perú. He was appointed Distinguished Visiting Practitioner of International Law at New York University School of Law, where he has been an adjunct faculty member since 2012.

Why did you choose St. John’s as an undergraduate?

I was interested in doing pure mathematics and classics in some sort of historical way, and I was told that there were very, very important programs at Stanford and the University of Chicago. I applied to those schools and got in, but I learned in the process that the origin of those programs was St. John’s College, which appeared to be everything that I was dreaming of. The task became convincing my parents that this small college, which no one had heard of, was better suited for me than the University of Chicago or Stanford. With due diligence, my parents acquiesced, and the rest is history.

What Program texts spoke to you most memorably as a student?

There are two that were particularly influential: Plato’s Republic and Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In some way they are deeply connected, in that both point to an eternal consciousness that people somehow have, and both point to a transcending source of goodness and order that is not necessarily empirically available in its purest form.

Are there texts that continue to influence your life?

Yes, most notably Plato’s Gorgias. I teach international arbitration and commercial and investor-state arbitration at New York University School of Law, and I think that it is probably one of the most important texts on persuasion and oratory.

But beyond that, it raises two arguments that are fascinating to me. The first is whether it’s better to suffer from than to actually commit wrongdoing, and the second is whether it’s better to suffer the consequences rather than getting away with the spoils of your wrongdoing. Plato, through Socrates, argues that it’s better to suffer the pain and the anguish of wrongdoing rather than to be the perpetrator of wrongdoing. He also argues that it’s better to be punished than to unduly escape punishment.

The way in which he develops those two arguments brings into sharp relief very serious moral issues about how to live life, irrespective of religion, ethics, or any other consideration.

What skills that you learned at St. John’s do you employ most in your career?

First, and most essential, is the close analysis of texts. I went to a great law school, Columbia University, but I learned how to really analyze texts and language—and how to identify and challenge untested assumptions—at St. John’s College.

I also learned at St. John’s not to take for granted other people’s or other institutions’ interpretations of actual written material. So even though I read what a case or particular doctrine says, I also think about what people say that doctrine stands for, or actually conveys, and I challenge it. I look at the text with fresh eyes, without just engaging in a habitual recitation or regurgitation of doctrine.

What I learned at St. John’s applies to everything that I do in the profession, practically but also theoretically. When I write books, I rely on on the classics, if not expressly and directly then certainly in terms of the conceptual framework.

What about as a law instructor? How does your St. John’s education influence the way you interact with students?

In law school, they claim to use the Socratic method. You may have seen it in movies, where the professor gets up and starts asking questions. The difference is that, no matter how well-educated and extremely well-credential that law professor may be, chances are that they never actually read Plato and were never exposed to the true Socratic method and its different layers.

A law school professor can ask questions to which they know the answer for a very limited type of goal, but the law school professor is incapable of explaining why that’s the preferred methodology. The law professor is also incapable of understanding how that methodology can help him or her, together with the students.

It’s not just an exercise causing someone to recite a legal reasoning and the conclusion that purportedly flows from it. It’s much deeper than that, and it has to be handled with the same humility that Socrates had, and not with the hubris of the instructor-student relationship, where there’s a lack of symmetry because one person supposedly is so wise and knowledgeable and the other is but a work in progress. That’s not the truth. Socratic method has absolutely nothing to do with that.

The Socratic method helps me a lot in terms of teaching, but also in terms of learning. And the students appreciate it a great deal.

What do you view as the most valuable aspect of a liberal arts education?

There are two. One is the ability to learn how to learn, and very closely intertwined is the imperative of living an examined life. We’re human beings, and we can almost be better defined by our flaws than by our virtues. Living an examined life means viewing yourself and viewing what you do and how you do it: how you treat yourself and others, how you interact, how much of yourself that you really give to others. How are you being fair to yourself and to others? How do you maximize your potential to be good in this short life that we live?

You were given the St. John’s Alumni Association Award of Merit in 2022. What does that accolade mean to you?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have garnered a few recognitions over the years from my professional undertakings, but nothing is more meaningful to me then than having that recognition from the college. It really is the single institution that has been most effective and influential in forming and transforming my life, so having that recognition is more important to me than the presidential appointment that I got from President Obama. To be perfectly honest, it’s much more important than anything else.

How did you view your St. John’s education as a student, and how do you see it now? Has your perspective changed?

When I was a student, I was so close to the process of learning that I had no perspective on how these things would play out in my life or how they would relate to subsequent instructions, training, and practical application. None whatsoever. I was just caught up in the life of studying and discussing and writing. Of course, I appreciated it at the time—that’s why I went there—but I didn’t have any perspective on it.

Now I’ve learned, contrary to people’s first reaction about the Program, that St. John’s is probably the most practically oriented college in the country, because St. John’s is relevant to all of the practical professions, whether it’s medicine, law, engineering, architecture, you name it. What St. John’s gives you is the ability to embrace that further training and to apply it much more deeply, and much more creatively and thoughtfully, than someone who has just been amassing rules and facts.

What advice would you give St. John’s students and recent graduates?

To follow whatever it is that they want to do, secure in the conviction that they are more than qualified to do it. I don’t think Johnnies lack for self-confidence, but I think it’s extremely important for them to understand that the education they received has great practical utility and will enhance any career choice that they undertake. So follow your dreams.