Thursday, October 6, 2011

on working in human rights law

Aren't you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or somethin'?
Or somebody important or somethin'?


if you'll forgive me for taking a break from my usual travel stories...

one of my brilliant girl friends informed me yesterday that she is thinking of applying to law school to work in human rights, and she asked if i had any advice. i think she meant advice like "don't barf on your LSAT" and "law schools really want to see applicants who already don't have a soul", but instead i wrote her a very long-winded e-mail on my opinions about going to law school to work in human rights. despite the fact that it was the length of a full essay, she said it was helpful and suggested i share it with other people, so i am posting an edited version here:


it's exciting to hear that you're interested in law school!

You know, when I first started telling people that I wanted to go to law school to work in human rights, a lot of people said things to me along the lines of "Law school is not for everyone" and "Human rights is nice and all but eventually you need to be a real adult and make money" and "Gloria, you know law school is hard, right?". And to a certain extent I do understand the cynicism because it seems like a lot of people go into law school so they could save the world, and then end up going into, like, estate litigation. (For the record, there’s nothing wrong at all with going into private law if that’s where your passion lies, and I totally respect and admire my friends who do amazing exciting work in corporate law – they also occasionally buy me lunch :) )

I think law school is probably not a good choice for people who aren’t sure what to do with themselves or their future, or for people who want to make a big ton of money right away. The reality is, there are a lot of law school graduates out there with an astonishing amount of student debt, no jobs, no direction, and they are not in a good position. With the current economy, there seems to be more lawyers than law jobs out there right now, so now is not a good time to go to law school as a get-rich-quick scheme.

But there are definitely not enough human rights lawyers out there. There also seems to be a huge shortage of lawyers in northern rural communities, and legal aid lawyers are very overburdened/overworked. So if you’re genuinely interested in working in human rights law, and you’re okay with the fact that it’s a long, hard, discouraging process, and you are okay with that fact that you’ll probably not end up being one of those rich lawyers that complain about having to pay too much taxes, then I think you should go for it and go to law school for human rights.

So how do you make sure that you don’t become one of those statistics of people that go into law school to do human rights and end up doing something else completely unrelated that they didn't want to do? I can’t say I know all the tricks, because I’m less than two years out of law school so who knows where I’ll end up in the future, but for now I am doing human rights work that I absolutely love, and even though I make less than minimum wage in Canada, to be honest I’m still living (relatively) quite well in Windhoek. So from looking at the people I know, and learning from my own experience, here are tips that I wish somebody had told me:

1. Make a firm decision that you want to work in human rights law. If you’re wishy-washy about this choice, then you’ll probably not follow it, because it’s very very easy and tempting to give up. Keep in mind that public interest law can cover a large number of areas, including refugee, criminal defense, family, union-side labour/employment...I know of one feminist law firm that specializes in personal injury law, specifically representing rape victims in civil lawsuits against their rapists. Also keep in mind that you can work in human rights without being a practicing lawyer, but your law school education will still be helpful for it.

2. Be educated and informed about the world you want to save. The last thing that the world needs is one more ignorant privileged know-it-all person that thinks they know how to solve everything and tells "poor people" what to do, even though they have no idea (hint: it's called colonialism?)

3. Choose your law school wisely. basically, look for schools that aren’t expensive, aren’t too corporate (what's the point in going to the number one Bay Street recruiting law school if you don't want to work on Bay Street?), and maybe are internationally renowned for their human rights program, if you're into that.

4. Minimize your student debt as much as you can. Some of my friends wanted to do public interest work but were forced to go into something else because they had to make money to pay off their enormous debts. I’m hoping that won’t happen to me myself, but it’s a real worry, because I went to an expensive school and now I have a lot of debt. It’s a lot easier to take on a low-paying public interest job if you don’t have the banks knocking on your door. If you plan to get a well-paying respectable Bay Street job, then you can afford to take your summers off. Unfortunately, human rights work is not the most financially profitable field. So I’d highly suggest saving up money before law school, working during all your law school summers (as a bonus you gain legal experience), apply for scholarships and bursaries aggressively (although they aren’t very common for law schools) – and, as I mentioned, go to a school that isn’t too expensive.

5. Get as much public interest experience as you can. While in law school. I did a lot of volunteering, clinical programs, and internships during law school, and being able to add those skills and experiences on my resume opened doors for me after law school. I know, this kind of goes against #4 - what do you do if you have a choice of volunteering at an AIDS clinic in India or making money working for the government during the summer? (the answer is: win the lottery) But yeah, getting real experiences is important, and it's good to do it during law school, if you can, because there are a lot of great opportunities for law students.

6. Network like crazy. I’m naturally introverted and I hate small talk so this is hard for me but it’s very important. Get in contact with a lot of similarly-driven folks who work in fields that interest you. They’ll support you when you’re discouraged. But also, make friends with people in all sorts of other areas of law that you might never practice in, including tax, real estate, commercial, intellectual property... Because hanging out only with people that are exactly the same as you is boring. And it’s important to understand the perspectives of people that are different from you – it makes for exciting dinnertime debates. And if your real estate lawyer friend knows an abused woman that needs help, he can refer her to you.