March 10, 2016
Jason Gelbort (HLS, 2013) had an eye towards international work when entering HLS, but didn’t quite know how he was going to use a law degree to move that focus forward. After a few years of exploring HLS and the opportunities available to him through clinics, student groups and summer internships, he began to see how he would harness his experiences at HLS and direct it towards the work he wanted to be doing abroad. Jason emphasizes that it’s important to keep an open mind when exploring your legal education, and use all the resources available to you to foster that learning.
With destinations such as Sierra Leone and Turkey under his belt, Jason Gelbort’s transnational career took a turn to Thailand and Burma in 2013. Now there for almost two years, he has been working as an independent legal consultant, advising and supporting ethnic opposition coalitions and leaders on the ongoing ceasefire negotiations with the government.
In many ways his current job is starkly different from his life before law school, when he worked at a business strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, but it is the culmination of many years of wanting to have an international career.
When Jason entered law school, he was not entirely convinced that he wanted to be a lawyer, but saw legal education as useful. He had an academic bend towards development, governance and intra-state conflict, and traveled and worked internationally, so he knew international work attracted him, but he had little idea about what organizations would fit his interests. He thus started his legal education with an open mind and explored many different types of activities and internships: he spent summers at a variety of different institutions, including the Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section at the Department of Justice, a law reform commission in Sierra Leone, and at the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), a global pro bono law firm that works on peace agreements. He also participated in the Human Rights Clinic that allowed him to travel to the Thai-Burmese border on a fact-finding mission. A memorable part of his law school career was working with the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS) which, he says, was a crucial practical addition to his academic education. “[In LIDS], we did hands-on work that was supporting organizations around the world and getting exposure to different types of work,” Jason says, “Coming from doing consulting work previously and into an academic setting, it felt healthy to be doing things that were practical in addition to academic.”
Jason recalls his willingness to experiment as a critical element in figuring out his current career path. For instance, his travel to the Thai-Burmese border not only solidified his interest in Burma and led him to pursue his current job, but his first summer at PILPG helped him see that he enjoyed legal research and writing, and was something he was good at. He ultimately returned to work at PILPG after graduation with a Helton Fellowship. “One thing that is useful to strategize about in law school is to think about what type of organization would be a good fit for you” Jason advises, “Students might find they fit better in different organizational structures: international NGOs, local community based organization, federal government or others. And although these types of organizations may be different, within each category there can be much larger differences in organizational culture, entrepreneurship and hierarchy. So I did things that were different but all of them touched on things I thought I might be interested in pursuing.”
Moreover, it made sense for him to not be a regional specialist, although he does not discourage those with strong regional or language interests to pursue them. He decided to focus his legal education more broadly on substantive skills rather than regional expertise; Jason never regretted the choice. “Both regional and issue specialists have important roles to play,” Jason says, “Like many things, it might depend on one’s passion.” Moreover, in a conflict or transitional society there are many different and intersecting issues that a professional has to work navigate through and stay on top of. Jason thus says that it is important to attend different talks, try out courses in different issue areas, and be open-minded about learning to further develop your knowledge base.
His dual degree from HLS and Tuft’s Fletcher School also provided an environment conducive to gaining a variety of skills and knowledge. At Harvard and Fletcher, Jason was able to pursue different but complementary things, including negotiation workshops, international law courses, and conflict resolution. “Harvard taught me critical thinking, fact-finding and research skills,” Jason says, “Whereas Fletcher helped me put my legal learning into a broader international context, particularly looking at policy.” He also gained exposure to a wider community of professionals at these schools: he found Harvard’s network to be expansive and varied whereas Fletcher’s was small but more close-knit and internationally-focused.
At his current job, Jason researches and writes memos to go to ethnic leaders, meets with the international community to advocate for different issues, and travels frequently. Although exciting, his job entails difficult situations in a context of intractable conflict. “It is very challenging that I am frequently confronted with really bad news,” Jason comments. In addition, being internationally stationed on-the-ground also entails substantial adjustments like speaking with family and friends less frequently, and having to put in extra effort to make friends. Yet, Jason’s sense of attachment to his job and to Burmese issues is ever-growing, and his zest for learning has not died down. “I am always learning¬ every day because I am exposed to complicated circumstances,” he says, “These issues will be things I will always care about.”