Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at HLS, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.
Ha Ryong Jung (Michael) left big shoes to fill upon his graduation from HLS in 2018. The winner of 2018’s David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award spent five semesters involved in clinics, including the International Human Rights Clinic and the Child Advocacy Clinic. Jung spent his law school summers at the regional office of UNICEF in Thailand and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, and he was an active member of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. He also worked as a judicial intern at the Boston Juvenile Court during his final semester, conducted pro bono projects each spring break including with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and provided remote support to organizations in Southeast Asia during the academic year, while volunteering at a local homeless shelter for youth. His dedication to pro bono work resulted in a contribution of over 2,000 pro bono hours during his time at HLS.
We caught up with Jung to learn more about his path since HLS, his experience serving as a mentor for current law students, and his continued commitment to advancing children’s rights.
Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): Please describe the work you’re doing today, and how your path since HLS led you to your current position.
Ha Ryong Jung (HRJ): I had received a post-grad fellowship from OPIA to work in Cambodia, during which time I engaged and collaborated with various partner organizations, which led to interesting opportunities during and after my fellowship year. I currently work as a legal officer at the Legal Aid of Cambodia and a technical advisor to the Child Rights Coalition Cambodia, while conducting project-based consultancies for organizations at the regional and international levels.
As a child rights lawyer, my work for and with children spans the spectrum, from establishing and coordinating the Child Justice Network in Cambodia, to coordinating the National Launch of the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, advising the development of the ASEAN regional principles and policy guidance on children’s rights to a healthy environment, and supporting the coalition’s engagement with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, among others. But my work has also involved a breadth of other topics, such as developing an e-learning platform on international human rights and criminal laws and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, drafting a practical guideline on legal aid for persons with disabilities and lawyers in Cambodia, and providing stakeholder input on a national action plan to prevent violence against women, national policy on gender equality, and rainbow legal aid report for the LGBTQIA+ communities.
I’ve also been engaging with regional and international partners, such as serving as the Asia-Pacific Regional Focal Point for the 2021 World Congress on Justice With Children, producing a confidential report on the child rights situation in Myanmar since the coup, drafting a book chapter on systemic child participation in justice, and assisting capacity-building efforts.
OCP: You participated in many different clinics, SPOs, and volunteer opportunities while at HLS. Is there a particular clinical or pro bono experience you had as a student that’s remained with you as especially memorable or formative?
HRJ: There were so many memorable clinical and pro bono experiences, but if I had to specify one: it was phenomenal to spend both my 2L and 3L winter terms in Myanmar and Thailand with the International Human Rights Clinic. Working directly in the communities with partners on the ground really put our work into perspective, touching on issues of children’s rights, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, civil and political rights, and the rights of the Rohingya ethnic group, among others. It was such a blessing to learn from the most amazing clinical supervisor, Yee Htun, during the field work. In addition, I flew into the Southeast Asian region earlier than the winter terms to conduct projects during the winter breaks as well, which enabled me to get further work experience in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Malaysia. I continue to benefit from the learnings and networks built during those months.
OCP: How did your work with the International Humans Rights Clinic or the Child Advocacy Clinic prepare you for the work you’re doing today with the Legal Aid of Cambodia or Child Rights Coalition Cambodia?
HRJ: From skills-based training like legal research and writing, strategic advocacy, and stakeholder engagement, to topical expertise in human rights and child protection, my clinical experiences helped prepare me in diverse directions to jump straight into my work after graduation. To mention a concrete example, a skill that has been essential to my work is the ability to read, understand, analyze, and draft legislation, including identifying gaps that need to be filled and gaps that need to be strategically inserted to enable further progress in the future.
For example, I worked at the Child and Youth Protection Unit of the MA Attorney General’s Office through the Child Advocacy Clinic, where I reviewed various bills affecting children and identified weaknesses or possible consequences of individual provisions, so that improvements could be made during the legislative process. In addition, one of my roles in the International Human Rights Clinic was to review and revise a draft law on preventing violence against women, while also developing a model legislation that draws upon protective standards and well-written laws of other countries. I noticed that the draft law had provisions related to statutory rape, but was lacking a close-in-age exemption which is necessary to prevent the prosecution of children from laws that were meant to protect them. It’s insights like these that continue to significantly aid my work today.
OCP: What inspired you to pursue law? Have these inspirations changed for you in the transitions before law school, during your time at HLS, and in your early career? What motivates you in your work today?
HRJ: Entering the legal profession was not something I had imagined as an option until I was around five years out of undergrad. Repeatedly witnessing the struggles faced by children led me on this path, and it’s the children that continue to serve as my motivation to spend long work hours trying to find ways to improve the situation. I’ve rarely had a proper weekend or holiday since law school because I work for multiple employers simultaneously, but I’m grateful to be doing work that I genuinely enjoy and that I trust is adding value to the communities around me. Of course, this isn’t the most sustainable of lifestyles, so I’ve made a mental commitment to slow down this year as best as I can.
In addition, when I hit constant roadblocks while working with the system, I find my hope in the amazing organizations on the ground who are putting in relentless efforts to support the daily lives of the people. Even if progress is slow and at times not clearly visible, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, so I try to balance pragmatism with optimism. It’s these colleagues and the children in the communities that keep my spirits afloat.
OCP: What do you think is the most important thing for new law graduates to keep in mind as they begin careers in law?
HRJ: I would say it’s essential to not lose sight of protecting the best interests of the communities you work alongside. We often stress the need to avoid the “savior” mentality when working internationally, but it can be easy to neglect the need to take a contextualized approach catered to the locality. I often see foreign lawyers trying to dictate conversations and impose standards through their own lens without fully understanding and respecting the local context and expertise, thus leading to recommendations or actions that can in fact be detrimental to the community. To counter this, I’ve tried to get in the habit of critically questioning what I know and believe in, so that I don’t cause negative collateral consequences to the best of my abilities.
In addition, I urge law graduates to be open-minded about how they can contribute to their organization based on what it needs the most. For example, developing and drafting grant proposals are an essential part of the work of NGOs, and legal knowledge can be crucial in designing the priorities, logical framework, theory of change, and implementation approaches of relevant projects. Thus, even if certain tasks may not have been what you expected to do with a law degree, I would suggest that you stay flexible and think about how you can best utilize your skills and expertise to effectively support your organization.
One final word for those interested in the field of human rights: please keep in mind that human rights activists do not all see eye to eye when it comes to their understanding and acceptance of human rights. You will commonly see discrimination by human rights activists, even when we are working on children’s issues. For example, I had come across child advocates in Myanmar who justified discrimination against the Rohingya children “because they are different.” This should not come as a surprise, and it would be best for you to be prepared to overcome this hurdle.
OCP: In your many positions at HLS and your current role with the Legal Aid of Cambodia, advocacy seems to be front and center in your practice. What do you think makes for an effective advocate, especially in the field of child advocacy?
HRJ: When it comes to child advocacy, I think it’s true that it’s relatively easier to at least start the conversations with government stakeholders and other duty-bearers when the common denominator is children. But that doesn’t mean everyone cares equally about the wellbeing of children, if at all, and many aspects of children’s rights often fall behind on the list of priorities. To make things more complex, child rights advocates and laypeople alike all have their own perception of what they believe would be in the best interest of children in a given situation, which is a core principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For advocacy to be successful, it’s important to understand and address what the other side needs and wants, in line with your advocacy goals, and it’s also important to know when to make concessions. Because so much of children’s issues is interdisciplinary in nature, it’s important to be open-minded about better alternatives from a holistic perspective and to not automatically discredit the opposing arguments when the reasons are valid. Genuine and effective child participation is essential in this process, and as child advocates, we shouldn’t simply work for children, but should instead work with children.
OCP: Did you find mentorship within the clinics and SPOs at HLS? What does it mean to you to now serve as a mentor for current HLS students completing pro bono projects with the Legal Aid of Cambodia? Can you speak a bit about that experience?
HRJ: My closest mentors were the faculty and staff of the Human Rights Program and the Child Advocacy Program, along with those of OCP, OPIA, and ILS. They were instrumental during my law school years, and they continue to be a strong source of support. It gives me great joy when passionate law students reach out, as I know how important it can be to hear first-hand stories from people in the field. As a Korean international student, I wasn’t able to find many others with my similar background who were pursuing an unconventional path like the one I was interested in, so I’ve been trying to serve as an accessible resource myself with the hopes that students may consider diverse international career paths as a viable option. I’ve also supervised many students from HLS and other law schools around the world, and I’ve tried to focus on what would be the most valuable experience for them, both in terms of capacity-building and of concrete outputs.
OCP: You received the 2018 David Grossman award, in recognition of your tremendous pro bono contributions while in law school, especially to the field of children’s rights. Your legacy continues to live on, through the Harvard Law Child & Youth Advocates and the Harvard University Child Protection Certificate Program, which you were the first law student to complete. What do you hope law students are doing today to stay involved in the fight for the rights of children, particularly in juvenile justice?
HRJ: I think one of the most important actions any of us can take is to understand and correct the common misconceptions in this field, including being cognizant of how the discussions can be more appropriately framed. Terminology is an important element of this process. The US commonly uses the terms “juvenile” justice and “delinquency” cases, but at the international level, we have for many years been moving towards using the terms “child” justice and cases of “children in conflict with the law” instead. The same can be said about terms related to persons with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ communities, formerly incarcerated individuals, and many others. Though we can’t avoid using the terms specified in the law until they are amended, we must be mindful of how these terms can exacerbate discrimination, fuel negative public sentiment and implicit bias, and lead to a violation of rights. I recall a meeting I had attended to discuss legal aid for people of diverse SOGIESC, and a participant had asked how we can provide specialized services to this population when we lack sufficient legal aid even for “normal” people. There were gasps in the air, and the person realized they had misspoken, but this comes from these subconscious thoughts being normalized in the wider society.
Normative framing plays a big role in our fight for children’s rights. Changing the mentality of justice actors and the general public is crucial, as we often see hard-won progress easily retrogressing when there is a lack of public understanding and support. People often make broad judgments based on incomplete and/or incorrect information. We have seen this happen time after time for the minimum age of criminal responsibility, diversion programs, restorative justice versus purely retributive processes, and many other initiatives for children around the world. We also see child victims, child witnesses, child plaintiffs, children in need of care, and other children in contact with the law very often facing violence and retraumatization by the justice system, especially with justice actors not interested in or equipped to implement child-friendly procedures. Failing to see the importance and true meaning of child-friendly justice hinders progress.
Law students, regardless of whether they’ll work in the public or private sectors, can make a difference by properly informing yourself to tackle misunderstandings and helping to change the perceptions of those around you, such as by reading the Global Declaration on Justice With Children and the World Congress Compendium Report that I drafted. This is an easy place to start. For more concrete actions that need to be taken to protect the rights and wellbeing of children, including in the field of child justice, well, that would be a much longer discussion, and I’d be happy to have a conversation with anyone who is interested.