“Alumni Conversations” is an interview series initiated by Xiaoli Jin and Alice Chen, both of whom were admitted to Harvard Law School through the Junior Deferral Program. Xiaoli is currently working at a strategy and economics consulting firm and Alice is working at a financial sciences company. They are starting this series of blog posts to share advice and insight from HLS alumni.
Amaka is the head of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice, where she helps clients understand the interaction of politics, policy, and markets across sub-Saharan Africa. Amaka had a joyful conversation with Xiaoli and Alice via Google Hangout on a Thursday afternoon. They talked about everything from HLS, to geopolitical consulting, to Amaka’s beloved homeland, Nigeria.
Thank you for agreeing to chat with us today. Let’s start from the very beginning—why did you decide to go to Harvard Law?
I grew up in Nigeria where people didn’t have as much faith in the legal system, so I had always been curious to learn how America was able to build a functioning judicial system that depends on the shadow of the law, which impacts every aspect of people’s lives. I got an undergrad policy degree from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and took graduate level courses in public policy, so when I thought about going to graduate school, I knew I didn’t want to get another policy degree. Law school seemed to be a natural choice for me.
I always knew I wanted to work on development broadly defined in Africa. After spending many summers working with public organizations and NGOs in Africa, I gradually realized that a big problem with many of those organizations is that the work was not organic. They often create parallel structures to do what the government should be doing, and when they leave after decades of hard work, it often appears that nothing ever happened. I wanted to be part of the force that drives actual systematic, societal change. I didn’t know exactly how I would achieve that end goal, but I thought that going to law school would help because it would allow me to work more directly with governments as well as in the private sector.
What is your most memorable experience at HLS?
I have lots of memorable experience. I would say the ones that I value the most were the clinical experiences that I had with the Criminal Justice Institute. As part of the program, we had to take a class in which we did mock trials and the clinical instructors helped make sure our arguments were good. It was one of the best things I’d ever done. I actually had to put on an opening statement and do a cross examination the way it would go in a real courtroom. It was not scripted; I just had to do it. Eventually, we had real clients and defended our clients at open courts like real lawyers.
Many law students interested in international relations find international arbitration a particularly interesting career path to explore. Why did you choose international arbitration as the starting point of your legal career?
My interest has always been more international. When I graduated from HLS, there were mainly two options for law students who wanted to pursue jobs with BigLaw. The first one was to be a transactional attorney, and the second was to be a litigator. I knew that I did not want to be a traditional litigator, since litigators in the US mainly have to focus on domestic affairs and I have always wanted to work on African affairs.
I was not sure if transactional law was a right fit for me, either. Although working in the transactional field would give me transferable skills, I really enjoyed writing and constructing arguments, and I felt that piece was missing in most transactional works. Therefore, I explored a relatively unconventional path—international arbitration—because it combines intelligent writing with an international angle, which allows me to pursue both of my main interests.
That makes total sense. What made you decide to leave international arbitration after working in the field for four years then?
I really enjoyed the writing aspect of my work, but after a while, I was a bit bored. I remember looking around the firm and thinking: I have colleagues who are so passionate about this line of work that they would even entertain the idea of writing a long book on international arbitration. Yet my passion has always been about advancing systemic change in Africa. I believe that people cannot reach their potential if they are not passionate about the work they are doing.
I wanted to work on something that would allow me to think about politics in the real world, especially in the context of African development. As you know, law is often very factual. I wanted to be able to grapple with difficult contextual issues that ultimately influence (or even determine) outcomes. But my experience with international arbitration was mostly on the commercial side. It also quickly became dominated by construction cases, especially in the US context. For example, one party delayed their construction work, which caused damage to another party, and that damage triggered a need for arbitration. The facts about those construction cases could be a bit arcane and nontransferable to other fields of work.
If I’d had more investor arbitration cases, which often involves defending countries from investors’ claims, I may have stayed in the field longer. This is because an understanding of politics matters a lot more in this line of work, as one has to be familiar with a country’s political climates to justify why it expropriated investors’ properties and make claims in its favor.
A lot of law students will find this information helpful when they start to plan their careers. I am sure they would also like to know how you got into Eurasia Group after leaving international arbitration.
I actually did not go straight to Eurasia Group. If you have stayed in the legal industry for a while and suddenly want to do something different, your transition is not always going to be smooth. First of all, you will probably have to take a steep pay cut, as not many employers can match big law firms’ salaries. An additional challenge for me was that most jobs in African development only offer senior positions to people with relevant experience. I did not want to apply for junior positions, but I also did not have the experience to qualify for senior roles.
So, I started my own research company instead. I was lucky to have two clients in my first year, both of whom were based in Nigeria. I actually met one of my clients at Harvard, although he was at the Kennedy School while I was at the Law School. I pitched my ideas to him, and he really liked them. That’s how I managed to create a job for myself, a job I really enjoyed. So my advice for students is to leverage your network at Harvard and expand your connections beyond the Law School. Take advantage of your time at Harvard, as you never know who you will meet there.
This experience helped me to build my profile in political consulting. I started to publish articles and appear in interviews and consequently got attention on Twitter and other social media. When the opportunity at Eurasia Group came up, I had the right background to qualify for the position. If I had not taken that year starting my own research business, I probably would have had a hard time convincing Eurasia Group to hire a former lawyer to do their political consulting work.