In her native Brazil, Federal Labor Judge Milena Barreto Pontes Sodré presides for eight to 10 hours each day over disputes that are destined to move slowly through a clogged appeals court system in a country lacking a culture of negotiation. This semester at Fordham Law, Judge Sodré, an LL.M. candidate, is not only absorbing knowledge in common law jurisprudence but also learning how and why so few civil labor cases reach American courts.
“In Brazil, you can’t take labor matters to alternative dispute resolution or to mediation or arbitration,” Judge Sodré said. “Everything is subject to lawsuit. In our universities, we’re not taught how to negotiate deals, we’re taught how to litigate. We’re making an effort to change this.”
Sodré has served as a federal labor judge in the 2nd Federal Region in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city and financial center, since December 2010. She is the second member of the 2nd Federal Region to attend Fordham Law this decade, following in the footsteps of her friend and colleague Glenda Regine Machado LL.M. ’13.
São Paulo (pop: 12 million) is home to two of Brazil’s 24 regional labor courts—appellate courts of the federal specialized court system. The 2nd Federal Region features more than 500 judges. Prior to attending Fordham, Sodré was responsible for one of São Paulo’s 124 labor divisions, and decided on more than 1,500 cases each year. She previously served as a federal labor judge in the state of Paraná and as a public attorney in São Paulo.
The labor issues that came before Sodré’s court raised questions about everything from sexual harassment, discrimination, and pregnancy issues to modern-day slavery, immigration, and punitive damages. The extraordinary breadth of issues Sodré weighed in on, and the real impact her judgments made on society, fueled her passion for labor law. It’s also an exciting time in Brazilian labor law, she noted, as the country continues to chart a course somewhere between a protectionist system and a more flexible approach.
Brazil’s federal labor judges are provided sabbatical time to pursue advanced legal degrees in their field of expertise before returning to the bench. Sodré received a glowing report about Fordham Law from Judge Machado. Sodré also had ample time to familiarize herself with New York during frequent visits to see her attorney husband as he obtained his LL.M. earlier this decade.
“I chose Fordham because here you’re not just comparing one system with the American system,” Sodré said. “You’re comparing it with 40 different systems, because of all the representatives of other countries studying at the Law School.”
Sodré praised the democratic nature of Fordham’s classes and the willingness of professors, such as James Brudney, to learn from students’ experiences. In these courses, J.D. students have an advantage because they are starting their legal education from scratch, but LL.M. candidates, hailing from civil law countries, possess experience their younger peers are lacking, Sodré observed. This multiplicity of experiences and viewpoints equals a perfect combination, the judge added.
“There are no limits to how far we can go in our discussions,” Sodré said.