In her commencement address to the Class of 2011 on May 26, Dean Martha Minow praised students’ accomplishments at HLS and their vast array of skills and achievements. As they prepared to receive their diplomas, she urged them to cherish their talent for asking good questions: “Indeed, the questions asked by Harvard Law School’s Class of 2011, now and in the future, will define law and leadership in the years to come. Your influence reflects what Harvard Law School is and who you are and who you will become. I simply ask you to use your influence to better your communities and the world,” she said. Here, seven members of the class reflect on influences during their educational journey and how they intend to use their education to influence others.

Humu-Annie Seini LL.M.

What can Ghana learn from the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year? How to more effectively regulate its own emerging oil and gas industry, says Humu-Annie Seini LL.M. ’11, an attorney formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana, who spent this year concentrating in environmental law as a graduate student at HLS.

“I think we need to strengthen regulation and enforcement, and should monitor oil companies more,” says Seini. Her nation also faces environmental challenges related to the mining industry and from telecommunications companies seeking to site cell towers where communities may not want them. The opportunity to study the environmental regulatory system in the U.S. is what drew her to HLS.

When she matriculated at HLS last fall, Seini already had one LL.M. under her belt, from Leibniz University in Germany, as well as an LL.B. from the University of Ghana and eight years of experience at the EPA. Still, she says this year was “extremely intensive” with reading assignments, research papers and clinical work. “Studying was hard,” she says, but the graduate program “was very good in spite of all the difficulties I had to go through.”

She especially enjoyed Climate and Energy Law and Policy, taught by Professor Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’95, director of the HLS Environmental Law Program. The course approaches climate change as a national security issue as well as an environmental and economic issue, and covers such topics as greenhouse gas regulation in the U.S. under the Clean Air Act, renewable energy development and siting, offshore drilling, nuclear energy and “clean coal” technologies.

“I didn’t know much about energy law, only about oil and gas, and I learned a lot about climate change,” says Seini.

Seini also enrolled in the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, where she worked on a project under the supervision of Shaun Goho ’01, clinical instructor and lecturer on law, helping draft a guide for property owners who are considering signing leases with companies seeking to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. Seini also worked at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, doing research projects for a group of administrative law judges.

“The clinic was very interesting, very challenging,” says Seini. “From the experiences, I learned there are lots of things done differently from the way we do them in Ghana.” For one, the EPA in Ghana, unlike the environmental agency in Massachusetts, has no authority to administer fines, she notes.

Seini plans to sit for the New York bar this summer and may be returning to HLS next year: She has applied for the S.J.D. program and will hear soon. She may go back to the EPA when she returns to Ghana, or, she says, “Maybe I’ll work for myself or try something new.”

-Elaine McArdle

Elizabeth Benton

Just before her law school commencement, Elizabeth “Libby” Benton ’11 went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—for the very first time. Indeed, Benton has seen few of the city’s cultural and other attractions during her three years at HLS. She’s been too busy working to save its most vulnerable neighborhoods from the devastating foreclosure crisis.

Almost every weekend for the past two years, Benton—a student lawyer in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and chair of HLS’s comprehensive anti-foreclosure task force—has gone door to door in Dorchester and other low-income neighborhoods, urging people whose homes are in foreclosure not to move out. She’s invited them to weekly meetings at City Life/Vida Urbana, a community organization based in Jamaica Plain, where she and other HLS students informed them of their legal rights; she’s helped them fill out legal paperwork; she’s represented homeowners and tenants in court.

Working 40 to 50 hours a week on anti-foreclosure efforts, including the innovative neighborhood canvassing project No One Leaves, launched three years ago by students determined to keep people in their homes, has been the highlight of Benton’s law school career. “I felt No One Leaves was a great way to draw a connection between what I was doing in law school and helping the community in Boston,” says Benton, who tallied 2,300-plus hours of pro bono legal service while in law school, breaking her class’s record and winning her the Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Service Award.

After graduating, Benton will continue her anti-foreclosure work at HLS. For the next two years, she’ll be working on housing cases at HLS’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain as a Skadden Fellow.

Growing up outside Flint, Mich., where the collapse of the auto industry created soaring unemployment, Benton was exposed early to the devastating social consequences of a sour economy. “I wanted to think about using the law to remedy that,” says Benton, who majored in political science and English at the University of Michigan. After graduating from college in 2006, she worked on the re-election campaign of Gov. Jennifer Granholm ’87 and the congressional campaign of Sandy Levin ’57. Both won, and Benton went to work for Levin in Washington, D.C., eventually becoming a legislative assistant, where her work on veterans’ issues was particularly gratifying. “I enjoyed working one-on-one with constituents,” she says. “What piqued my interest in law school was seeing how our office helped individual vets navigate a big federal bureaucracy.”

As an HLS 1L, Benton volunteered at Shelter Legal Services in Newton, doing intake at a homeless veterans shelter. She also joined No One Leaves during her 1L year, and then, as a 2L, began doing housing cases at the Bureau, the oldest student-run legal services organization in the nation, which in two years will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

The anti-foreclosure work at HLS has forged her career plans. Says Benton, “I’m committed to a lifetime of public service and public interest law.”

-Elaine McArdle

Gabriel Davis

In September, Gabriel Davis ’11 will start a three-year stint working for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Yet not so long ago, work as a criminal prosecutor was just about the last line of legal work he wanted to pursue.

Davis grew up in Cincinnati the son of an African-American police officer, and the close perspective he got on the criminal justice system made him want to steer clear. His dad’s stories were “thrilling to listen to, but also very sobering and disheartening, especially given the racial dynamics of some of those issues,” Davis says. During his junior high and high school years, tensions between the police department and the city’s black population were high, culminating in race riots in the spring of 2001 after a young, unarmed black man with outstanding traffic warrants was shot and killed by a white police officer. “Those events left me with an underlying sense that criminal justice was too explosive of an area for me, and that it touched on societal issues that were too intractable or difficult to solve,” Davis says.

Yet, influenced by the four years his family spent in Jamaica while his parents created a school for children who didn’t have access to quality education, Davis knew he wanted to go into public service work.

A summer job as a community organizer in Cincinnati—where he worked trying to close the health gap among different populations by organizing health fairs and building strategic relationships between elected officials and nonprofits—helped focus his thinking on the criminal justice system, as he came to realize how difficult it is to improve areas like health care, education and housing in neighborhoods where residents don’t feel safe. “It was hard to get people to focus on health care because there were all these issues with crime and violence,” he says. “I walked away with a great understanding of the ways in which crime can impact communities and make it hard for them to thrive.”

At the law school, an evidence course taught by Assistant Clinical Professor Alex Whiting during Davis’ 2L year was particularly influential in his decision to become a prosecutor. Whiting, who now works as the investigation coordinator at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, earlier served as a prosecutor both for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice and for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Once Davis knew he wanted to be a prosecutor, he had to decide where he should try to get a job. He was looking for an office that handles sophisticated cases, where he could get trial experience early in his career. The Manhattan DA’s Office, with its huge and varied caseload, fit the bill. As Davis prepares to enter the criminal justice system and be the “best prosecutor that I can be for New York,” he does so with a sense of “balanced optimism”—aware of the system’s imperfections, and of its power to do good. “I have a healthy respect for the criminal justice system but also knowledge of where that system needs to be improved and held accountable. As a prosecutor, you’re part of the system. But there’s a unique ability to hold people accountable.”

-Katie Bacon

Ben Hoffman

It took about an hour and a half for Ben Hoffman ’11 to get hooked. There he was, a prospective student, sitting on a faded blue couch in the lounge of the Human Rights Program at HLS, listening to a student talk about how he helped bring a case against the former president of Bolivia. And that’s when it occurred to Hoffman: This is definitely what I should be doing at law school.

“You’re constantly going to be busy and overwhelmed, fighting for human rights,” he remembers thinking. “And that just seemed like so much fun.”

The grandson of labor activists and Holocaust survivors, Hoffman had some fight in him from the start. He knew from his family about the ugly parts of life. But he was also raised with hope, and the belief that society could—and should—do better.

By all accounts, at HLS, he did more than his part.

Early on, Hoffman dug into human rights work, first through the student group HLS Advocates for Human Rights, and later as a student in HRP’s International Human Rights Clinic. He spent endless weekend hours in HRP’s “war room,” hashing out legal arguments with students and supervisors. Mostly, he focused on corporate Alien Tort Statute litigation, claims brought against companies for their alleged participation in human rights violations abroad. Interviewing survivors of apartheid-era abuse in South Africa was a turning point for him.

“I don’t think the meaning of my work really hit home until I had the chance to meet with some of our clients, and ground the legal struggles I’d been working on for semesters in the actual experience of communities on the ground,” Hoffman said.

At times, the work was intimidating. Most law students feel it at some point or another, he said—the fear of affecting someone else’s life for the worse.

“Depending on how you choose to deal with that fear, it can either be crippling, or it can be a source of incredible motivation to do really good work,” he said.

For Hoffman, it was the latter. He pushed himself—and others—hard. He constantly asked questions: What is the role of the lawyer? How can we best help the community? How can we keep it their fight, not ours? At graduation, his commitment was recognized with the Dean’s Award for Community Leadership.

Next year he’ll explore those questions in Peru, funded by a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship and a Henigson Fellowship to work for EarthRights International, an organization focused on human rights and environmental issues. He’ll work alongside Marissa Vahlsing ’11, a friend who won the same fellowships. As 1Ls, they talked about starting an NGO focused on corporate accountability and environmental justice. It seemed far-fetched then. Now, it seems within reach.

-Cara Solomon

Kevin Cooper

It’s not surprising that Kevin Cooper ’11 would use a football analogy when describing the appeal of working in mergers and acquisitions. After all, he played the game in college. But whereas in football he was one of the burly linemen who block for the signal caller, in corporate law he is seeking to score the touchdown.

Cooper, who played guard at Fresno State (his linemate Logan Mankins now plays for the New England Patriots) before his playing career ended due to injury, is heading to Wachtell Lipton in New York City as a corporate associate in mergers and acquisitions, the culmination of years of business study topped off by an immersion in business law at HLS. After graduating from college with a B.S. in business administration, he went on to earn an M.B.A. at Fresno’s Craig School of Business. Before enrolling in law school, he worked for a municipal consulting company, which itself was acquired at the time, giving him his first practical experience working on the issue. As a summer associate at Wachtell Lipton, he worked on a merger of pharmaceutical companies and analyzed possible antitrust issues involved in a potential acquisition.

He points to a mergers and acquisitions workshop taught by Wachtell Lipton partner Mark Gordon ’94 and a corporations class taught by HLS Professor Guhan Subramanian J.D./M.B.A. ’98 as highlights of his classroom experience at HLS. Those and other courses provided him with a different perspective from the one he got at business school, he says.

“One thing you learn is a different way of thinking, a very structured way of thinking, considering a lot of alternatives and weighing the costs and the benefits and the risks,” says Cooper. “It forces you to have an intellectually serious and strong analysis behind your conclusions.”

But something he found missing at law school was a journal devoted exclusively to business law. So, along with two classmates, he created the Harvard Business Law Review, which attracted many students and faculty members.

“It showed how much interest and vibrancy there is here in law and business and financial regulation and corporate law issues,” says Cooper, who was also a member of the Harvard Association for Law and Business.

His own interest in those subjects helped propel him to top academic achievement, including winning the Sears Prize for one of the top two grades during his 2L year. Students who enter HLS should likewise follow their passion, and success will follow, he says.

“I was really excited to learn the material and engage in class,” says Cooper. “Anyone who comes here, I think, will do well if they’re honest with themselves and they’re taking what they’re truly interested in and what they want to do.”

-Lewis Rice

Amir Ali

For many people, working at a company like Google is a goal in itself. But for Amir Ali ’11, it was his time at that company—during which he came up with a new Web application and convinced Google’s founders to have him implement it—that helped persuade him to go to law school. “I didn’t feel like I was done with school yet,” he says. “I was interested in finding a profession where I could have one-on-one interactions with a client. At Google, I was working more with computers than with people.”

Ali came to HLS expecting that he would draw on his experience at Google and on his bachelor’s in software engineering from the University of Waterloo in Ontario to specialize in intellectual property law. But once he got here, other interests took hold. For his 1L summer he was selected for the Akin Gump Pro Bono Scholars Program, which sponsored his work as a law clerk in the appellate division of the D.C. Public Defender’s Office. He recalls being given real responsibility to go through court transcripts to identify issues for appeal.

In one case, where a juvenile had been convicted of carjacking and robbery, he wrote the first draft of the brief used in court to challenge the conviction. With that experience, Ali developed an interest in appellate law. “It was great to take what I had learned in law school—applying law to fact and coming up with creative legal arguments—and turn that into a brief, edit it and then ultimately file it on behalf of a client. And the quality of the brief would very clearly affect the client’s life.”

As part of the Scholars Program, Ali continued his appellate work as a summer associate at Akin Gump, where he drafted a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review a civil rights case involving the prolonged and forceful detention of two Muslim women (the Court declined to take on the case). At the law school, he concentrated his course work on two fields that complement his interest in appellate law: constitutional and criminal law. And he took the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Clinic, directed by the firm O’Melveny & Myers. During the clinic, which involved researching and writing merit briefs for clients, Ali appreciated the chance to “develop my own arguments, then have them argued before the Supreme Court.”

After graduation, Ali is planning on clerkships in two different courts, in two countries. This fall, he’ll clerk for Judge Raymond C. Fisher in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit; in the fall of 2012 he’ll go back to his native country to clerk for Justice Marshall Rothstein in the Supreme Court of Canada. He says that while it will be interesting to gain a comparative perspective on the two countries’ systems, his main hope is to “get exposure to a broad range of substantive areas of law that I’ve never studied, and practical experience in areas that I’ve never litigated.”

During law school, Ali has had the chance to advise other students, in his role at the Board of Student Advisers (he served as president this year) and as a peer clerkship adviser. And just as Ali’s path during law school has led him somewhere different from where he expected, he counsels incoming law students to be open to change: “Come into law school with an idea of what you want to do and what your values are, but at the same time keep an open mind. There are a lot of great things going on at law school, and your interests may change pretty quickly when you get here.”

-Katie Bacon

Charline Yim

Charline Yim ’11 focused on international human rights from the moment she started her 1L year at Harvard Law School. That wasn’t surprising, because she had actually started focusing on the subject at the beginning of high school and hasn’t stopped since. After graduation, she will continue working on international issues as a clerk for the president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.

A child of immigrants from South Korea, Yim says she’s always had an awareness of the international community, but a world studies class she took as a freshman in high school sparked an interest in international relations and “what it means to be a world citizen.” She went on to help found a model U.N. group in high school, and during college at UCLA she participated in the International Social Justice Committee and Darfur Action Committee. She also had a fellowship in Mozambique interviewing clients of the microfinance organization Kiva. Arriving at HLS seeking to pursue a career in human rights, she joined the HLS Advocates for Human Rights (an organization she later served as co-president), which “gave me a sense of purpose as well as a really great sense of community.”

During her time at HLS, Yim carved out a mix of academic and hands-on experiences, including co-editing the Harvard International Law Journal and participating in the International Human Rights Clinic and the War Crimes Prosecution Clinic. She describes Professor Alex Whiting as “an incredible mentor and guide.” Her clinical experience inspired her to secure a fellowship with the ICTY in the summer of 2009, when she had the opportunity to observe closing arguments in the trial of two men accused of killing hundreds of civilians. Immediately following, she helped draft a final judgment for the case and frequently listened in on deliberations of judges.

“The ability to have a discussion with attorneys and judges on certain points of law really excited me about the process,” she says. “It gave me a sense of ownership and a real understanding of how important something like this is.”

She’ll return to the ICTY in September, clerking for President Patrick Robinson and conducting academic research on the best model for victim participation in the tribunals, a subject she also studied in the winter as an intern with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which documents the genocide by the Khmer Rouge. After that, she may return to the New York City office of the firm Freshfields, where she worked last summer on issues of international law.

“One of my most valuable takeaways of my three years at Harvard is the people I’ve had to work with—not just the clinicians and the amazing professors but the students,” she says. “I look forward to hearing about what they do and learning from each other and growing from each other’s experiences.”

-Lewis Rice