The Ethiopian-born son of an economist and an educator, Aman Gebru LL.M. ’12 seemed destined for a career in legal academia.

So, when forces seemed to call to him from across the globe, the young educator took a prescient step that would find him working to solve Ethiopia’s most important land use issues while ascending to an influential role as a full-time professor.

“Studying international law gave me a window into what was happening in the world,” Gebru says. “And as I went to law school and developed strong relationships with professors, I built an understanding that teachers play a really key role that no one else can fill as neutral investigators in the research we do and in shaping the mindset of future generations.”

Gebru is a full-time assistant professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. To date, his career has taken him across the globe into myriad roles at the University of Toronto, New York University Law School and the Cardozo School of Law — all of which happened after he came to the United States to study intellectual property at the University of Washington School of Law.

In 2008, Gebru earned his LL.B. from the Haramaya University College of Law in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. As an honors student focusing on international studies and IP, he secured an internship at the United Nations following an international criminal law competition. His team placed second in the African rounds.

Following the internship, he accepted a teaching job at Haramaya University, which is where he began making connections that would lead him to UW Law.

“A couple of professors came from the UW to do research, and when they did, I was encouraged to show them around and talk about my work,” Gebru says. “All of that experience just encouraged me as I developed personal relationships with the professors — Jon Eddy, Pat Kuszler, Sallie Sanford — as well as U.S. J.D. graduates who were teaching at Haramaya Law School.

“When I heard about UW Law and about the robust IP program, that’s when I decided to apply.”

Land Rights and Law

Land use rights in Ethiopia — and in much of Africa — are vastly different from the United States, Gebru explains.

Before the early ‘70s, the country’s land tenure system was a mixture of private and public ownership. While restrictive in many respects, individual sales and mortgages were permitted.

After 1974, however, all lands were declared public, meaning the government now manages the land on behalf of the people writ large. Individuals instead lease land from the government, creating a situation where citizens lack the ability to make permanent investments.

This is one the biggest issues facing Ethiopians today, Gebru says, “because one’s ownership of the land you live in is so tied to your identity and your ability to excel in the future.”

Gebru, in fact, was already involved through Haramaya’s law school in researching land rights reforms in Ethiopia with Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa.

Founded by UW Law Professor Emeritus of Law Roy Prosterman, Landesa works to advance durable land rights to bring broad, transformational changes that lay the foundation for sustainable development work around the globe.

As it turns out, around the time Gebru was applying to UW Law, Landesa was focusing on a project in Ethiopia, working with the government to find a middle ground to provide opportunities for private land ownership.

Gebru secured an internship as a research assistant with the nonprofit, and when he made the move to Seattle, his work melded into his studies as he dove back into student life.

I balanced my passion for IP with the feeling of giving back to my community and giving back to others. And working on land rights is what did it for me.

“UW Law had such a robust IP course offering with programs, events, and I was welcomed and encouraged to explore different things,” Gebru says. “I balanced my passion for IP with the feeling of giving back to my community and giving back to others. And working on land rights is what did it for me.”

International Insights

In August 2019, Gebru joined Duquesne University as a full-time assistant professor of law — one of the biggest leaps forward in his career as an educator.

His current role adds to an extensive resume: After graduating from UW Law with an LL.M. in intellectual property, he earned a Doctor of Juridical Sciences from the University of Toronto, where he also served as a global justice fellow. He was a Hauser Global Post-Doctoral Fellow at the New York University School of Law. Most recently, he was a visiting assistant professor at the Cardozo School of Law.

Throughout his global journey, Gebru has a wealth of experience as a scholar and educator, and in working with international students like himself.

While there are distinct challenges unique to international students, including cultural and language barriers, he sees distinct benefits as well.

“Yes, you are coming from a different country, but really when you ask yourself in terms of substance, there’s not a lot of difference: The way law balances conflicting interests and values is very similar across jurisdictions,” Gebru says.

“There are lots of transferrable skills and knowledge, which is not to understate the challenge. But that’s where the exploration and passion for learning new things come in. If you’re excited about learning new systems, then the background you have becomes a huge advantage.”

Learn more about the Intellectual Property LL.M. program at UW Law