Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Entrepreneurs Clinic is taking an innovative approach to human rights legal education. Under the direction of clinical professor of law Tyler Giannini and clinical fellow Emily Ray ‘21, the clinic is focused on supporting and incubating new ideas from human rights entrepreneurs. We caught up with Emily Ray to discuss the mission of the clinic, what type of work clinical students can expect to be a part of, and her vision for the future of this pioneering program. 

Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): As an alumna of Harvard Law School (HLS), could you tell us about your involvement in human rights work while a law student here? 

Emily Ray (ER): I chose HLS for law school because of the human rights opportunities. My first introduction to a human rights case was in undergrad reading about the Unocal case that Tyler Giannini (director of the clinic) helped bring as an attorney at EarthRights International. It impacted me deeply.  

When I decided I needed to become a lawyer to make the changes I thought were necessary in the world, it came down to which law schools had the most robust human rights programs. That’s why I picked HLS. Once here, I got embedded in the human rights landscape as quickly as possible – I joined HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Human Rights Journal, and the International Human Rights Clinic. 

In the clinic, I started on a project related to the Rohingya genocide, working with a Bangladeshi group on capacity building for Rohingya women and youth. I traveled to the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to work directly with these groups. After that, I worked with Tyler on a project related to access to justice in Myanmar and on drafting amicus briefs, including one for the Nestlé Supreme Court case as a 3L. It was amazing getting to work on a Supreme Court brief as a student! 

OCP: How did you make your way back to HLS as a clinical instructor? 

ER: I wanted to develop expertise working in the field before potentially returning to the law school environment. I had fellowships at organizations like Partners in Justice International and the Human Rights Law Foundation, working on capacity building and legal research and writing. At Partners in Justice International, I got to assist on the first crimes against humanity case brought to the Kenyan courts, working collaboratively with practitioners in Kenya. I then worked at Cohen Milstein preparing for a trial against Exxon for alleged complicity in human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. The case settled shortly before trial, bringing a measure of justice to plaintiffs who fought for two decades in US courts. I want my approach to my human rights practice to vary – there are so many moving parts to the human rights landscape, and my goal is to step back and get a sense of where I fit most effectively into that landscape as an American white woman with social privileges, with my expertise and things I’m good at, and with what I like doing.  

Returning to HLS to work with students figuring out where they fit in the human rights space with those same inflection points was exciting. The chance to work in this new space of human rights entrepreneurship – taking a step back to analyze where the field is going and how we can creatively and collaboratively move it forward – drew me to this role. 

OCP: Can you give an overview of the mission and components of the clinic? 

ER: We often describe the clinic as being at the intersection of social entrepreneurship and human rights, working to support human rights entrepreneurs who are taking risks and testing new approaches. 

The entrepreneurs we support generally fall into three categories: 1) Traditional startup entrepreneurs wanting to launch a new NGO, 2) Intrapreneurs starting projects within existing organizations, and 3) Idea entrepreneurs trying to shift entire fields in a particular direction, like making business and human rights more community centric. 

Our approach is rooted in entrepreneurial values – taking risks, welcoming failure as a learning experience, and encouraging creative lawyering by merging different disciplines. We run the clinic like a lab, using design thinking, visual mapping, and tapping into both analytical and creative mindsets. We want students to come together to form creative, interesting solutions, learning from and breaking through what has been done to look ahead at what’s possible.  

OCP: How does the clinic contribute to the growing field of human rights legal education? 

ER: We’re hearing from the field that this type of entrepreneurial thinking is necessary as companies and states consistently find ways to stymie human rights litigation efforts through endless procedural filings and jurisdictional battles. We need to adapt existing strategies and try new approaches.  

One of our focuses is therefore on bringing human rights into spaces like administrative law, corporate criminal prosecutions, and other areas beyond traditional tort litigation. How can we speak the language of different disciplines to generate more creative solutions? 

The clinic formalizes a way for human rights entrepreneurs still in law school to translate their ideas for change into strategic, intentional processes. Tyler has been receiving ad hoc requests from student entrepreneurs for years, but HLS didn’t have a dedicated space for incubating those ideas. 

OCP: For students in the clinic, what does the day-to-day work look like? Can you give examples of projects? 

ER: We use a staff meeting model where students work on 2-3 projects simultaneously to mimic the dynamism of human rights practice. Projects range from long-term engagements to 2-week turnarounds on questions. In staff meetings, students report back, troubleshoot, and reallocate resources across projects. We may workshop pitches, analyze evidence, or discuss case strategy. This model also allows students to take on leadership roles in different projects. 

This year’s major focus areas are corporate accountability litigation and community-centric business and human rights. Some examples include investigating a frontier torture case, drafting policy documents on effective community engagement, and researching potential corporate liability through administrative mechanisms.  

OCP: What kinds of legal skills can students expect to be practicing while they’re in the clinic?  

ER: We aim to give students experience with skills like legal analysis, investigations, project management, and creative legal thinking. Underlying all those skills is practice in legal design and working with entrepreneurs. That might look like systemization or ideation – two sides of the same coin. When an entrepreneur comes up with a huge idea, we ask, how do we do that? Systemization is about breaking down a big idea into bite-sized pieces that you can approach strategically. On the flip side, if a student entrepreneur comes to us with a little seed of an idea, ideation comes into play. We do a series of brainstorming sessions supported by legal research to refine their thinking and provide options. 

We also work on factual investigations, including open-source research and interviewing, which I think is a foundational skill for junior attorneys anywhere, but especially in the human rights context. For us, that skill closely ties into the frontier litigation cases that we’re working on.  

OCP: What are you looking forward to in the year ahead? 

ER: I’m thrilled we’re officially confirmed as a permanent clinic offering! I’m excited to build out our work on climate justice at the intersection of business, human rights, and accountability.  

I’ll miss our current 3L and LLM students who helped shape the clinic’s collaborative, human-centric culture. But I’m eager to have a fresh cohort bring new perspectives to push our creative lawyering ever further. Now that we’ve established our model, it’s exciting to see where we go from here. There’s a sense from others that this clinic could be hugely impactful for the human rights field. 

OCP: How can students learn more and connect with the clinic? 

ER: Students can check the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ website and feel free to email me or Tyler with any questions! We’re happy to meet and discuss the pioneering work this clinic is doing.  

Filed in: Clinical Spotlight

Tags: Human Rights Entrepreneurs Clinic

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