In a diploma ceremony on June 4, 731 members of the Class of 2009 received degrees from Harvard Law School: 567 J.D.s, 151 LL.M.s and 13 S.J.D.s. While the new graduates now all share a common alma mater, the diversity of experiences that brought them to law school and the opportunities they took advantage of while at HLS were very different. Here is a look at some members of the graduating class.

Michelle Galdos
Michelle Galdos ’09’s advice to an incoming HLS student includes: “Take advantage of the amazing opportunities.” For Galdos, who came to the school because of her interest in international human rights, those opportunities involved a parliamentary internship on the South African Human Rights Commission; a trip to Israel and the West Bank to meet with Supreme Court justices, legislators and military leaders; and most recently, a clinical course that led to a month of independent research in Santiago, Chile. Galdos—who grew up observing her Peruvian father, an OB-GYN, go on missions for the Peruvian American Medical Society to make birth control more accessible—traveled to Chile to explore the country’s recent flip-flop around emergency contraception. In 2008, the highest court outlawed the government policy that made it available through public health clinics. She interviewed doctors, lawyers and Chilean women during the fieldwork that crystallized her commitment to promoting women’s reproductive rights.

But Galdos would also advise the student: “Be open to new things.” She, for example, came to law school with “completely no interest whatsoever in financial work.” But in the midst of the financial crisis, she decided she “really should know something” and took a class. Corporations led to Secured Transactions, which led to Securities Regulation and International Finance. Professors such as Guhan Subramanian ’98 and Hal Scott opened up her world; Galdos was hooked. If you ask her what has been hardest about her three years at HLS, she might say, “The dilemma of having too many opportunities—a good dilemma to have.”

In the fall, Galdos will work in the corporate department at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City. She looks forward to getting an even more concrete understanding of how the financial world operates—including international transactions. She also plans to pursue her interest in reproductive rights work. “I want to do both,” she says. “I hope there will be a way to do them side by side.”

Mekonnen Firew Ayano

Mekonnen Firew Ayano LL.M. ’09 has traveled far in pursuit of one goal: to return home and help reconstitute a broken legal system.

Ayano grew up in a rural district of Ethiopia, the youngest of nine children. After enrolling in Addis Ababa University, he soon found himself fascinated by the agrarian laws that dictate Ethiopian life.

The same year he graduated from AAU with a Bachelor of Laws degree, Ayano witnessed the complicated realities of the Ethiopian legal system firsthand, serving as a judge on a rural court and adjudicating civil and criminal trials, ranging from property disputes to first-degree murder. Though Ayano said he was by far the least-experienced member of the court, he was also the only one with a university legal education.

Ayano says that his rural upbringing and his experience on the court led him to see discrepancies in agrarian law, the source of some of Ethiopia’s greatest legal issues. Ethiopia is nearly twice the size of Texas, and agriculture forms the bulk of the African nation’s economy. Yet, according to the law, only the state may own land, and urban land holders and investors must lease tracts for up to 99 years. Ayano notes that this rule does not always function in practice: “Even if the constitution says that land is the property of the state, the actual practice is much broader than that and the capacity of the state is very limited.” For agrarian lands, Ayano adds, the law is extremely nebulous. The government can evict agrarians for “any better development purpose,” and eviction is pervasive.

After completing a fellowship at American University in Cairo, Ayano came to Harvard, where he served as a research assistant for Professor Joseph W. Singer ’81, a specialist in property law, and wrote his thesis on “Agrarian Law and Economic Development: The Case of Ethiopia.”

And though much of Ayano’s study has been in the context of American constitutional law, he sees value in comparing this legal system to his own. “I would ask myself sometimes: Why do I study [American law] if I am going to go back to Ethiopia and will work there in a different society?” he says. “Now, I think it is very important for those from developing countries and even for the Americans to study the laws of some other countries. It helps you to see your own system or the laws of a given system from a very different point of view.”

Though Ayano focuses primarily on domestic relations, he says his next step will involve looking at Ethiopian law in an international context. He has accepted an offer to work at the World Bank next year, and hopes that the additional skills he gains will be useful back home.

Matthew Murray
Matt Murray ’09 sees no conflict between family values and gay rights—on the contrary. This April, his wife, Kate, gave birth to their second daughter, the same month that he published an article on gay equality in the Los Angeles Public Interest Law Journal.

He and his wife were married during the first year of his Kennedy School/HLS joint-degree program, and their first daughter was born at the end of his second year. “Since starting the family,” he says, “it’s become even more apparent to me how important family relationships are—how important it is that people’s relationships are respected by society at large. It’s a basic justice issue.”

While at Harvard, Murray chaired the university’s first-ever Student Advisory Group to the Presidential Search Committee, served as President Emeritus Derek Bok’s research assistant and interned at the university’s Office of the General Counsel. He co-founded the new HLS ACLU chapter and interned at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders as a Vorenberg Equal Justice Fellow and an HLS LGBT Alumni Committee Fellow. His 2L summer, he turned his independent study paper on gay rights into the article he published in April. This summer he will revise a paper on gender equality for publication.

In the fall, Murray begins a clerkship with Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He chose the clerkship because he finds Marshall “very accommodating and supportive of family concerns,” and because of her paradigm-changing opinion in the decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which made Massachusetts the first state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage.

Gay rights, says Murray, “is this generation’s civil rights issue.” He believes it’s an area that law can dramatically impact, since it’s not tied to economic or social complexities the way race and class issues are. He also sees equality for gays and lesbians linked to gender equality, noting the same societal forces lined up against both, “for similar reasons, deeply rooted cultural reasons that lead to injustice and unfairness in people’s lives.

Abbye Atkinson
After teaching special education in Los Angeles public schools for six years, Abbye Atkinson ’09 came to law school because she thought there was “more to be done.” Initially hoping to be a catalyst for large-scale educational policy change, after three years at HLS Atkinson instead found herself embarking on an unexpected new career path—that of bankruptcy law professor.

Coming from three generations of teachers, Atkinson says she was always interested in teaching. After earning her undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley in dramatic arts and even briefly pursuing a career in acting, she began substitute teaching in Los Angeles. Soon, she was working toward teaching credentials in special education.

She describes teaching students who all had moderate to severe learning disabilities as a “privilege.”

Working in neighborhoods that were socio-economically challenged made Atkinson painfully aware of the difficulties her students faced outside of the classroom—ranging from immigration issues to foster care to child abuse. “They couldn’t focus on something as mundane as learning,” she says, “because they were just stressed.”

Atkinson began HLS with a strong interest in social justice as it relates to race and inequality, but soon after having Professor Elizabeth Warren for Contracts, she became interested in bankruptcy law and consumer issues.

“A lot of what affects the community of people that I am interested in has to do with financial issues and having access,” she explains.

Warren, whom Atkinson calls her mentor, introduced her to the idea of becoming a law professor. Atkinson worked as an intern in the Massachusetts public defender’s office and for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. She also spent a summer working in a San Francisco law firm while simultaneously researching and writing an academic paper on student loan policy and race.

Her primary focus remains on teaching—and inspiring—the next generation of law students. “Connecting with students and encouraging them on whatever path they choose to take is what is most important about teaching for me,” she says.

Next year, Atkinson will be pursuing her law teaching career full time as a Reginald Lewis Fellow, teaching and writing a major article for publication.

Sarah Miller
When Sarah Miller ’09 was an undergraduate history major at Princeton,
she learned that her grandfather, whom she describes as “a transformative figure” in her life, had served in the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor
to the Central Intelligence Agency, during WWII.

“He never talked about it,” she says, “at least until close to his death.”

Intrigued, after college she went to England to earn an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in international relations at the University of Cambridge, writing her dissertation on “American Propaganda in the Early Cold War.” After completing her 1L year at HLS, she studied the way MI5 viewed problems of indefinite detention and rendition during WWII. She delivered presentations on the subject to MI5 and the Royal United Services Institute.

Miller spent her HLS summers exploring different branches of national security law: working at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, at the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, and at Skadden Arps, representing clients in transactions to be reviewed by the inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

She describes her work as a research assistant to Professor Philip Heymann ’60 as “an intellectual highlight,” with projects that were policy-heavy, had practical impact and offered interesting legal points of view. “It was a great balance between thinking about what the law might say and taking a really hard look at what U.S. policy and options might be,” she says.

A Supreme Court clinical—living with nine other HLS students in D.C. for three weeks writing cert petitions—was another highlight. The dedication and intellectual caliber of her classmates, she says, was really exciting. “I left that clinical thinking, This is really what I came to law school to experience.”

This summer, Miller has a “dream job” as a clerk in the Office of the Solicitor General, helping prepare merits briefs for the Supreme Court. Next year, she will clerk for Chief Judge Sandra Lynch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Beyond that, she says, she’s considering applying to DOJ’s Honors Program, but for now her future plans are up in the air. “For me, it’s more of a sequencing question,” she says. “It means assessing the tools I’ll need to become the best national security lawyer down the road.”

Matthew Wells
Six months ago, Matthew Wells J.D. ’09 traveled through Sierra Leone visiting more than two-dozen artisanal diamond mines, under the auspices of the International Human Rights Clinic at HLS.

Wells was not on a vacation, but rather engaging in intensive research with a group of fellow students involved with the IHRC, gathering data for a project focusing on child labor in the diamond mines. The research was certainly not glamorous—the group woke up early to travel along bad roads and spent full days under a searing sun. By the end, the students involved had conducted more than 200 interviews with subjects about the sensitive issue of child labor and the nature of work in the mines.

The experience was especially powerful for Wells. “Sitting next to the kids, listening to them tell their stories in the mines, I’ll never forget their faces, their voices, their stories; their words will stay with me forever,” he said.

He also played a significant role in the child labor project when the group returned to Cambridge, helping to crafting the final report, “Digging in the Dirt: Child Miners in Sierra Leone’s Diamond Industry.” Wells, a Human Rights Program student advisor, was involved in the project from the planning stages to final presentation in May.

As a 3L, Wells is already seasoned in international human rights work. While an undergraduate at Rice University, he spent parts of three summers in Honduras engaging in relief work in a village that was struggling in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. With HLS’s Human Rights Program, he has worked on a diverse array of human rights issues including prison reform in Paraguay, access to education in Liberia, and international criminal law related to the ongoing prosecutions of Khmer Rouge leaders at the tribunal in Cambodia.

In May, he traveled back to Sierra Leone in May to present the child labor project’s findings and launch the report, which is aimed at facilitating a response to the widespread use of children in mines. There are already signs the report is having an impact. UNICEF, the BBC, Voice of America and the government have demonstrated interest. “The Ministry of Mine Resources contacted us by e-mail before we left asking for a copy, said Wells. “It was really exciting to realize that we were getting the information out and people were taking notice.”

Wells will spend next year in Cote d’Ivoire working for Human Rights Watch. “My plans are to stay in West Africa for the foreseeable future, working with NGOs and preferably on children’s rights,” he said.