Julia Harrington, HLS ’95
Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa
I decided to go to law school after working for a year in Washington with a group of lobbyists who were working towards U.S. ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They were a diverse group—from the ABA, from Amnesty International, and various religious groups—and many were lawyers. I became convinced that I wanted to work in the legal/international side of human rights, and that it was in fact possible, as evidenced by my colleagues, to attend law school and emerge with principles intact.
I always had an interest in working in an international setting, and the Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program helped me finance my first internships at the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, the Gambia. The African Commission is part of Organization of African Unity. I chose to go to the Commission because I had heard that, since it was understaffed, an intern might get to do interesting work. It was an understatement—both the part about “understaffing” and “interesting work.”
Within a month, I found myself the only lawyer in the building (the Organization of African Unity simply had not provided any lawyers to the Secretariat) with nearly a hundred cases to sort out. I think this explains why I kept going back.
Not only did I work at the Commission for both summers during law school, but, after graduating from HLS, I got an Echoing Green fellowship to return for two years. The HLS Office of Public Interest Advising was instrumental in helping me to identify, and get, the fellowship. My work consisted of establishing the basic procedures for the processing of cases brought by individuals against states parties to the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights, under the Article 55 “communications procedure.” I also made several observational visits to the offices of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and got a lot of support and inspiration from the Inter-American system.
After two years, I left the Secretariat of the Commission and, with a Senegalese colleague, founded the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, also based in the Gambia. It was a natural (if not easy) transition: we clearly saw the need for more and better litigation at the African regional level, and we had the expertise to give advice, bring cases and design training. The biggest challenge when my colleague and I founded the Institute was the lack of money. We both worked without salary for the first year of operations. I went into debt to buy basic equipment, like a laptop and a fax machine. For the first six months, we ran the organization out of my house. A friend of mine who works with an established NGO gave me good advice: for the first six months, focus on fundraising before programming. It’s tough, because you want to get right into the programming (which is, after all, what you started the organization for), but if you put fundraising on the back burner, you won’t be able to make ends meet. When the money started coming in after six months from Echoing Green and other organizations I began to think this would actually work.
The Institute conducts several capacity-building workshops each year in the procedures of the African system—how to litigate cases and otherwise participate in the African Commission’s work—and works with other African human rights organizations to bring cases under the Article 55 procedure. We also launch cases ourselves, and represent people who approach us. We are now preparing impact litigation on provisions of the Charter previously believed to be non-justiciable, such as the right to education. We have also published the only volume of the Commission’s jurisprudence.
I travel frequently around Africa. My typical day in the office could be anything from interviewing clients to inspecting the solar panels to conducting staff meetings to writing funding proposals. The most challenging aspect is accepting the finite number of hours in the day, and that to be most effective I need to take time to sit under the fruit trees.
I think the most important quality for a social entrepreneur is a willingness to fail. I certainly wouldn’t have gone into this field if I was worried about screwing up. It’s especially scary because it’s hard to tell if failures are personal or structural. The other important quality is opportunism, which is generally a negative word, but here I think it refers to spotting an opportunity to fill in an existing gap. Maybe the better word is creativity and opportunism is the combination between creativity and risk-taking.
You need to have a good substantive knowledge of the subject in which you’re interested. I gained this knowledge through my summer internships during law school. Through learning the nitty-gritty of the African Commission, I was able to see what was missing: a legal department. Internships are a great opportunity to take risks without huge effects.
Although a law degree is an essential credential, learning by doing and informal contacts have been equally vital to my career. The anthropology and sociology that I studied as an undergraduate enabled me to set aside legalism and see everything at core as a social structure. It’s also helped me in interviewing clients: each case can be like ethnography, and no details can be assumed unimportant until the whole story is told.
Get practical experience as soon as possible; figure out what your interests are and develop an expertise that can’t be learned in a classroom. You can never be too multi-lingual or too humble. Summer 2001
Update: I now work at the Justice Initiative at the Open Society Institute in New York. It was a personal decision to go back to the States. It was hard to go from being my own boss to having supervisors; however, I was attracted to my current position because it’s brand-new so I really have had the opportunity to shape it. There’s also a lot of continuity between my last two jobs, since I still work on African issues and with the African Commission and the Institute for Human Rights and Development is a partner of the Open Society Institute. I’m also still on the board of directors at the Institute for Human Rights and Development. My advice for students interested in pursuing a career in international public interest law is to not blindly accept the framework people give you. Pursuing an international public interest career is less easy than the traditional path, but can be incredibly rewarding. You have more freedom than you realize. Do something you’re really committed to and the payoff will be great in terms of personal satisfaction. Summer 2005
Co-Founder and Co-Director, Ensaaf
During college, I did internships in public interest law, ranging from human rights work, to legal aid, to refugee rights and resettlement. Based on these experiences, I planned to eventually enter the field of civil rights law. During my first year of law school, however, I decided to take the opportunity to conduct fieldwork on disappearances of Sikhs in Punjab, India that had occurred in the context of a police counterinsurgency from 1984 to 1995. As a Sikh American, I had always been moved by the lack of justice for these abuses, but had not been able to envision a role I could play from the United States.
During my 1L summer, I went to Punjab on a Harvard Human Rights Fellowship, administered by the Human Rights Program (HRP). I studied 100 habeas corpus cases filed after the police disappeared Sikhs, and interviewed 30 families and 30 High Court judges and lawyers. This study allowed me to meet activists working on these human rights issues, and speak to people with a variety of perspectives. I later published this research in a journal article.
HRP helped me define a role for human rights advocacy outside of Punjab and develop a network of international activists and advisors. After the summer, I continued to work with the activists and lawyers I had met during my internships, who also clearly saw a role for international advocacy and legal work. I pursued independent study and clinical work at HLS that further developed my knowledge about the field. I engaged in clinical work (ACLU) and internships (Center for Constitutional Rights) that gave me litigation exposure, since my human rights experience had not involved direct litigation. During my 3L year, I served as a contributing author to the first exhaustive human rights report on the disappearances in Punjab in ten years, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab.
The publication of this report generated the interest of international activists in impunity for the abuses in Punjab. My colleagues and I began to develop further opportunities for documentation and legal work relating to the abuses in Punjab, connecting local activists with international partners. In my last year of law school, I prepared to form a nonprofit organization that could provide a framework to continued coordination of documentation, legal work and advocacy on the issues of human rights abuses in Punjab, India. I even took accounting. OPIA helped me put my plan into action by finding fellowships after graduation.
I co-founded Ensaaf within a year of graduating from HLS; it has been in operation for four years. During the first few years, I had to take on a large amount of non-legal work, from administrative work, to fundraising, to accounting. There was no typical day. Work ranged from defining programs and projects, organizing documentation studies, writing reports and articles, interviewing survivors, managing volunteers, balancing our checkbook, doing state and federal paperwork, to writing thank you letters to funders. Since then, we have managed to secure a more stable funding base that has allowed us to hire an external bookkeeper, a CPA, as well as a program associate who also graduated from HLS. Whereas some of the non-legal work was draining at times, the work was mostly engaging and demanding and taught me to stretch my skills. I have also enjoyed the diversity of work.
Fellowships were key to starting Ensaaf. Both myself and the co-founder received fellowships that allowed us to work without a salary from Ensaaf. After our fellowships ended, we continued to work without a salary for an average of one year, until we received an Echoing Green fellowship for social entrepreneurs. Our program associate also started at Ensaaf with fellowship support.
The experience has been incredibly fulfilling and enriching. Not only do I get to work on issues that I care about deeply, but at every step of the way, we have received incredible guidance and encouragement from local and international partners. We continue to build on the network of scholars, activists, and lawyers that we created during law school. I have particularly enjoyed the strategic planning, institution-building and project planning aspects of my work. We have found that it is necessary to build a team that can combine long-term strategic development with meticulous implementation. We have also been able to create a work culture that values and promotes work-life balance. Summer 2008
There is no path that leads directly from law school to international public interest work. Taking international classes, gaining practical experience through clinical courses and organizations, and choosing summer internships abroad certainly are important. What I believe is absolutely critical, however, is to live in a foreign country and immerse yourself in a culture totally different from your own. You really can’t learn intercultural understanding, communication skills, and sensitivity in school. This openness to new traditions and different perspectives is a significant component of providing legal services. Likewise, the unforgettable life experience and connection to the people and places you serve inspires a lifelong passion and commitment that is critical to long-term success in any public interest career.
As a director of an NGO, these are experiences and qualities I seek in applicants. Of course, we look for excellent writing skills, legal skills and language abilities – but we also look for extensive international experience, humility, and an ability to listen to other viewpoints. Why? As a lawyer, you need to be client driven.
You aren’t representing your own vision and your own views but those of your clients. Despite the best intentions, if you’ve never been to another country or experienced another culture, you may advocate for a solution that could actually hinder your clients.
After college I spent two years living in Thailand as a volunteer with WorldTeach. This experience changed my life. It opened my eyes to the different ways in which people view the world. I taught English in a Thai high school near the Burmese border. While there I lived in a refugee camp and saw first hand people fleeing, literally running from human rights abuses across the border. This camp was home to over 10,000 people who had fled the human rights abuses and military offensives of the Burmese military junta. Gunfire and shelling erupted throughout the day just a short distance away. People consistently asked me not to forget them when I left to go to law school. They pleaded that I use my freedom to help them achieve theirs. Living in the camp encouraged a passion in me. If I hadn’t lived there, absent a human connection to these crimes, it would have been harder to keep that passion going all these years.
While in law school I was able to return to Thailand. During my 1Lsummer I worked as an intern for Human Rights Watch, documenting abuses associated with forced labor in Thailand. I received summer funding through my law school, which like many law schools has a Student Funded Fellowship program for public interest work. Then after my 2L year, I got a fellowship through UVA again to study World Bank projects in Thailand and Burma. Not only did I develop language skills through WorldTeach and my summers in Thailand, but more importantly, I also found my niche.
At that time, and even now, human rights concerns were treated separately from environmental issues. But as I came to understand through my work overseas, there is an intimate connection between human rights abuses and environmental degradation that cannot be ignored. I saw how the continued pressure for “development” in Burma brought with it forced removals of farmers from their land, widespread forced labor, and other human rights abuses like rape, torture and killing by soldiers providing security for these projects.
It came as no surprise that the Burmese military—who enslaved and terrorized their own people—would have similar disregard for the environment. Soldiers providing security for development projects regularly hunted rare and endangered species and logged the surrounding forests. Thus, it became clear to me that the environmental degradation went hand in hand with the human rights abuses.
As a third year law school student, finding post-graduate employment in an international public interest field was difficult. The opportunities available to students right out of law school were scarce, particularly with the goal of combining human rights and environmental law. So, two friends and I decided to start our own organization and together we founded EarthRights International. We applied for a public service fellowship through the Echoing Green Foundation and this launched ERI. None of us had any experience with creating a nonprofit. Essentially, we learned how to create a nonprofit organization by doing it. We incorporated and gained nonprofit status in 1995, during our third year of law school and while studying for the bar exam.
It’s not easy. Fundraising is hard. We don’t always win. Yet I continue to be inspired and motivated by our clients, the communities we work with, and the possibility of using the power of law on their behalf. And ultimately, the challenges we face are small in comparison to those faced every day by individuals and communities defending their rights and their lands. This knowledge, and our commitment to their cause, is what keeps us going.
One of my most rewarding experiences working with ERI actually began while I was a law student at UVA. In an independent study project in my third year, I wrote a paper exploring the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) to achieve accountability for corporate complicity in human rights abuses in Burma. Although my professor acknowledged the merit of my work, he remained skeptical of its real application and claimed it could not be done. I set out to prove him wrong. Shortly after starting ERI we used my ATCA research to file a lawsuit against Unocal Corporation for human rights abuses associated with its gas pipeline in Burma. In 1997 a California district court granted jurisdiction, making Unocal the first corporation ever to be subject to federal court jurisdiction for abuses overseas. A year out of law school we were contributing to groundbreaking legal precedent (and I gained some small satisfaction in having ultimately proved my professor wrong). Yet I will never forget the contrast between our feelings as lawyers and those of our clients who are all farmers and indigenous people in Burma. When we told them that their case could go forward, they responded, “Does this mean we can go home now?”
While our clients could not return home simply because a U.S. court had said Unocal could be sued, it did mean that the door was now open for other victims of human rights abuses to seek justice in US courts against corporations. Our clients were thrilled that they could perhaps help people in Nigeria or Ecuador who had experienced similar human rights abuses at the hands of corporations. Their responses were so inspiring to me. Our victory had shown that a farmer from Burma with little formal education could take on a multinational oil corporation and have a shot. It did not secure a final win for my clients at that moment, but it gave them and so many others a chance at attaining justice. The Unocal case has served as a personally memorable one, but has also continued to stand out in my mind as a greater symbol of the power of law. ERI has grown from a three-person staff to an organization with some twenty-six employees, with offices in Southeast Asia, Washington D.C. and EarthRights Schools in Thailand and the Amazon. Our offices on the ground in Asia are conveniently situated to monitor the changing human rights conditions. When crises arise there, our staff is often immediately involved in emergency response needs in the forms of advocacy, relief, and making sure that abuses are documented. Likewise, our office in DC enables our staff to remain vigilant of policy issues, and to respond with immediacy to political and legal developments by issuing press releases, meeting with the media and mobilizing around a particular campaign or event. So, although on some days I spend my time responding to emails, drafting briefs, and participating in conference calls like most people, there are days in which crises or policy changes require the interruption of these tasks for more immediate needs.
One of the biggest challenges I face today is continued fundraising. Unlike private attorneys, who charge their clients for their services, all of ERI’s legal, campaign and educational services are free to our clients and constituents. As such, I firmly believe that anyone who wants to go into the nonprofit sector, even as a lawyer, should gain fundraising experience. My role has certainly changed as the organization has grown, but this role is central to the life of this organization. I currently devote a greater portion of my time managing the organization and raising funds so that ERI staff can effectively carry out our mission and goals. This is challenging because I always saw myself as the one doing the work, rather than building organizational capacity so that others could do the work.
Additional challenges have come in addressing a general prejudice against attorneys. In the context in which I work, many of the donors and foundations we seek funding from are distrustful of lawyers, seeing lawyers as part of the problem in the U.S. and not the solution. In addition, our clients are victims and survivors of human rights abuses. These abuses are often committed by government and military regimes – the very regimes who abuse human rights under cover of law, and often in the name of the law. Upon learning that I am a lawyer, people from Burma often say “in our country, when you heard the word ‘law’ you have to be afraid.” As a result, we have to work harder to convince clients, the general public and even our supporters that the law is a powerful tool which can be used for positive social change, human rights and environmental protection.
At the same time, we recognize that legal remedies are of limited value in certain circumstances. To succeed in NGO work, we have learned that we must be able to distinguish between when legal remedies can succeed as a vehicle for change and when other strategies would prove more effective. Our Unocal case is a perfect example. Over the past 8 years we have used the legal system, but we also have devoted considerable time to media efforts with the goal of educating the general public, government representatives and even Unocal shareholders about their potential liabilities for human rights and environmental abuses. Our strategies include traditional legal work, public speaking, organizing, outreach work directly with overseas communities, and education.
If somebody had told me when I was in law school that in ten years I would be working to protect human rights and the environment and to create a more sustainable and just world, I would not have been surprised. But if that same person had told me that I’d be running an organization with offices and schools all over the world, litigating precedent-setting lawsuits, and coordinating national and international campaigns, I would have never believed it. When I think back on the origins of EarthRights International with three people, one computer, and $25,000 in the bank, I think we were crazy to believe we could sue a multinational oil company like Unocal. But then I look at our success, and where we have come from there, and it reminds me that sometimes the crazy ideas are the ones that work. Summer 2004
Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti
After law school, I worked in a large Boston law firm. I was not sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from law school and knew a firm would provide opportunities for rigorous training and student loan reduction. After three-and a half years, I left the firm to make the transition to public interest work. The transition took almost two years. At first I had a strong conviction that I wanted to make a difference in the world through my work every day, but no clear idea of which field of public interest law would be the best match for my talents and interests.
I spent a year doing volunteer and part-time work in the U.S. and abroad, and speaking with lawyers working in different public interest areas. When speaking with lawyers, I would try to picture myself on the other side of the desk, and ask myself if I would find the day-to-day work exciting. I was initially most interested in international environmental law, and had a long interest in global environmental issues. But I found myself more attracted by the daily work of human rights lawyers. I also went to several career counseling sessions, and took some standardized career-interest tests.
Once I decided on the human rights field, I began to network and apply for jobs. I took the first job I was offered, which was with the United Nations Human Rights Mission in Haiti. From there, I moved to the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a Haitian human rights group, which, at the time received most of its support from the Haitian government. The BAI helped victims of Haiti’s 1991-1994 dictatorship pursue human rights cases.
I had been working with the BAI for eight years when Haiti’s 33rd coup d’etat occurred in February, 2004. The coup convinced a small group of us- lawyers, activists and a doctor- who had been involved in human rights in Haiti that a new advocacy organization was necessary. First, we needed an organization that could support the work of the BAI, which no longer received help from the Haitian government. Second, several powerful countries, especially the U.S., Canada and France, supported the coup and the international human rights system failed to adequately respond to it. This convinced us that we needed an organization to advocate in the U.S. for human rights in Haiti. On a personal level, after nine years in Haiti, I was ready to return to the U.S.
In April 2004, we incorporated the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which promotes justice in Haiti through human rights documentation, lawsuits and collaboration with activists in Haiti and abroad. IJDH is based in the U.S., but works closely with the BAI. The Chairman of the IJDH Board of Directors donated $20,000 to start the organization and I worked for six months without a salary to get it off the ground.
The biggest challenge in founding IJDH has been trying to build the institution and do long term work while still responding to the life-and-death emergencies- police massacres, political prisoners, politically-motivated rape- that arise weekly, if not daily in Haiti. Weare still small. I am the only employee in the U.S., so when I am forced to drop everything to respond to an emergency, everything else, including fundraising, website development, coalition building, report writing and legal research comes to a halt.
A related problem has been learning a set of new skills, especially fundraising and non-profit management. Law school and fifteen years of practice had prepared me well for the program side of my work- advocacy, documentation, etc.- but not to fundraise or manage an organization. Developing those skills has been interesting, but difficult to do in a crisis situation.
We have also struggled to be pro-active, rather than merely reactive. Although we need to respond to yesterday’s human rights violations, we also need to anticipate tomorrow’s needs, and develop structures that can respond more effectively to future crises.
It is difficult to talk about our successes, because while we have done many things right, life for our constituency, the majority of Haitians who are poor, continues to deteriorate. We have been most successful in disseminating information, and in helping others advocate. Our website averages over 2500 hits a day, and has become the best single source for information about human rights in Haiti. We are a trusted source for mainstream media like the New York Times and Washington Post, progressive programs like Democracy Now!, and radio and print journalists throughout the world.
We have also done well helping others advocate. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is receiving a thank-you note from human rights activists who say that IJDH’s work helps advance their work. We often see our documentation and analysis reflected in statements by members of the U.S. Congress, international human rights organizations and grassroots activists.
We have had some successes protecting victims of human rights violations. Seven of our clients have been freed from political prisons, and we have provided medical and other assistance to over 200 victims of rape. It is impossible to prove that we prevented any violations that did not occur, but we believe that our advocacy has protected some demonstrations from police attack, and deterred some political arrests.
I travel about 25% of the time. In the last 18 months I have made trips all over North America, and to eight countries on four continents. When I am not traveling, I am telecommuting. Thanks to the internet, I can stay in daily contact with colleagues throughout North America, the Caribbean, Europe, even Africa and Asia, from a remote town of 700 people in Oregon’s mountains. I spend a good deal of the time answering emails and on conference calls, most of the rest writing or researching. My writing includes preparing documents for Haitian, U.S. and international courts, a weekly action alert and a monthly newspaper column. I work with two law school clinics that collaborate with IJDH on cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and manage our year-round virtual internship program for law students.
The most important thing for a lawyer in any field is basic advocacy skills. Critical reading and strong writing and oral advocacy skills can be transferred to almost any legal field. Graduating students should assess potential first jobs in terms of the opportunities for rigorous training. My job with a big firm did not provide much experience in human rights, but the firm insisted on excellence from its associates, and provided the training to reach that level. The skills and work habits I learned in those three years have been useful my entire career.
Secondary skills that you will not learn in law school, such as fundraising, website design and other skills, accounting and financial management can help you get a foot in the door, especially with a small NGO. They would be useful down the line if you wanted to start your own organization.
I would advise anyone interested in public interest law to try to get a foot in the door as early as possible. I learned this the hard way- I did volunteer and pro bono work in law school and at the firm, and chose work that was worthwhile and interesting. But none of this work was in human rights, and it did not help when I wanted to break into the human rights field. Relationships and track records are all-important in the NGO world, much more so than grades and resumes. Internships, pro-bono work and volunteer work are an excellent opportunity to show public interest employers that you’re committed and that you have the skills they need. They are also an opportunity to clarify career goals, by experiencing the day-to-day work of lawyers in that field.
I would advise against starting an organization directly out of law school, except for recent graduates with substantial experience in the field. Gaining practical experience to complement law school learning and developing relationships and a reputation will make the NGO much more effective in the mid and long terms.
I would suggest that anyone entering the public interest field maintain as much financial flexibility as possible. That includes reducing student loans as quickly as possible, but also establishing a lifestyle that is sustainable on the often low, sometimes unpredictable, public interest salaries.
I would also recommend looking at opportunities off the beaten path. Large institutions are easier to find and have more regular and accessible hiring practices. Smaller organizations may be difficult to start with- you may have to raise your own salary, or apply for a grant, and there may not be a formal hiring program. But small organizations may allow new people to take on more responsibility quicker, and will usually allow individuals to make a more immediate impact. Summer 2004