Until recently Emma Fenelon was a Legal Project Manager at the AIRE Centre (Centre for Advice on Individual Rights in Europe). She hails from Ireland and earned her undergraduate law degree at Trinity College Dublin. As a teenager Fenelon was drawn to Law because she enjoyed debate and had read about the efforts of figures such as former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson and Senator David Norris, and how they had used law as a tool for progressive social change. During her first summer of undergraduate study, she interned with a senator in Dublin which developed her interest in public policy and spent much of her time at Trinity involved in the College Historical Society, the University’s oldest debating student society. A year spent on exchange at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia led to an interest in international criminal law and a summer interning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague on the defence team of Radovan Karadzic. This experience made Fenelon realize that she would rather work with everyday public interest law than mass atrocities.

After completing her degree at Trinity, Fenelon spent a year earning her LL.M at Harvard Law School, where she focused on international human rights and the law relating to social movements, studying under Professors Philip Alston, Lani Guinier and Catherine MacKinnon. In addition her experience as a member of the the International Human Rights Clinic, and the supervision of Former Professor James Cavallaro was particularly influential. The summer after receiving her degree she worked on an Irish Presidential campaign and was a legal trainee at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. This traineeship was a formative experience; Fenelon’s interest in European Convention law deepened, and she developed experience that proved useful in her first job at the AIRE Centre a London-based nonprofit that protects vulnerable and marginalised migrants by assisting them in asserting their European Union legal rights, providing legal advice, and representing them before domestic and international Courts.

Funded by HLS, Fenelon joined the AIRE Centre as a Satter Human Rights Fellow and spent her first year working on the Centre’s projects in the Balkans. She was responsible for implementing projects in Serbia and Montenegro, including rule of law projects designed to train judges, prosecutors, and other legal professionals in human rights law, especially the European Convention on Human Rights. The following year Fenelon became a staff member, which involved working for the Center’s advice service, which provides free advice on EU law in relation to immigration and welfare benefits. In addition to written advice, Fenelon represented low-income, marginalized clients before domestic tribunals and, when under the supervision of the Legal Director, at the European Court of Human Rights. During her second year at the AIRE Center Fenelon also became a Legal Project Manager. In this role she works to identify, condemn, and eliminate discrimination against ethnic minorities in the UK and to empower those minorities, particularly members of the Roma community.

Fenelon spends a lot of time with clients, and finds that working with and on behalf of those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal advice is the favorite part of her job. Fenelon also values the opportunity to make a deeper impact by bringing strategic cases before domestic and international courts; because the Center receives many requests for assistance, it has a comprehensive understanding of the systemic legal problems faced by vulnerable migrants and can select strategic cases to advocate for policy change. During the past few years, working on EU law has allowed Fenelon to engage directly with the immigration debate, a particularly controversial issue in the UK and throughout the Continent.

This September, Fenelon left the AIRE Center for the House of Lords, where she became a Parliamentary Legal Officer for Lord Anthony Lester, a Liberal Democrat Peer who often works on human rights matters. Fenelon hopes that this new position will teach her about the machinery of the legislative process and deepen her knowledge of extra-legal advocacy. Moving forward she plans to become a barrister and continue to work on public interest issues, including human rights and immigration.

Fenelon advises students planning public interest careers to talk to as many people as possible in their areas of interest; these informational conversations and informal chats allow students to get a feel for whether they are suited to particular kinds of work. Those hoping to work for NGOs should realize that paid entry-level jobs are extremely difficult to come by, so it is important to be creative about how to make oneself a valuable, attractive potential hire. Students should apply for fellowships and should choose their internships strategically to maximize the likelihood that they will lead to regular employment. Last but not least, Fenelon encourages students to be open-minded about their early career steps. While she could not have foreseen that she would work in immigration and EU law, she loves her work and the opportunity to both help individual clients and pursue international cases with a broader impact.

Written by 2013 OPIA Summer Fellow Julie Yen