International Entrepreneurial Settings

An exciting way to practice international law is to create your own practice concerning an issue of your choice. An entrepreneur in any profession, whether business, medicine, science, or engineering, is always a risk taker, but those who choose an international, entrepreneurial law project take on yet another element of risk. Law plays a critical and pervasive role in human rights, economic development, poverty, the environment and the establishment of democracy building and peacekeeping programs and organizations. The opportunities are unlimited for those who desire to create an international organization devoted to these initiatives. Lawyers are limited only by imagination and level of perseverance. 

To best inform you about creating an international public service legal practice or a nongovernmental organization (NGO), this section provides an overview of the experiences of several law school graduates, as well as the specific advice from veteran entrepreneurs. If you are inclined to follow this direction, prepare early for what can often be a lengthy, challenging, but rewarding, process.

I. Profiles of Entrepreneurs

II. Risk Taking and Perseverance

III. Requisite Experience and Skills

IV. International Experience

V. How to get Started

VI. Structuring Your Organization: Understanding the Impact of Foreign Government Laws, Policies and Regulations

Profiles of Entrepreneurs

To highlight the various experiences of law school students and alumni, below are brief summaries of the organizations they founded or joined and helped grow. The narratives from various entrepreneurs offers more detailed descriptions of various paths to entrepreneurship. There are literally thousands of entrepreneurs all over the globe working in various capacities, both compensated and volunteer, all with a similar mission to provide a safer, more democratic, and a more developed world.

Katie Redford, University of Virginia Law School, '95, EarthRights International

Katie spent her 1L and 2L summers in law school working for Human Rights Watch in Thailand and studying World Bank projects in Thailand and Burma. Upon graduation, she and two friends founded EarthRights International, integrating human rights and environmental law. EarthRights has grown from a three-person staff to an organization with 26 employees, with offices in Southeast Asia and Washington D.C. and EarthRights Schools in Thailand and the Amazon. As Katie expresses in her narrative, “When I think back on the origins of EarthRights International with three people, one computer, and $25,000 in the bank, I think we were crazy to believe we could sue a multinational oil company like Unocal. But then I look at our success, and where we have come from, and it reminds me that sometimes the crazy ideas are the ones that work.”

Brian Concannon, Georgetown University Law Center ‘89, The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

In 2004, after spending several years with a Boston law firm and eight years with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti, Brian founded the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which promotes justice in Haiti through human rights documentation, lawsuits, and collaboration with activists in Haiti and abroad. Although the organization is based in the U.S., it works closely with the BAI. Brian has the advantage of only having to travel about 25% of the time and can do much of his work via email from his home in Oregon. 

Kenneth Roth, YLS '80, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch, Washington, D.C.

As Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Ken has helped the organization grow from a tiny beginning into one of the largest nonprofit human rights organizations in the country. During his ten-year tenure as Executive Director it has tripled in size to 190 employees and has become a truly global organization. Although not an entrepreneur in the traditional sense, Ken is included in this section because he transformed a struggling organization and became its top executive. Ken’s advice for landing a job in human service organizations, or for starting your own, is to learn foreign languages, spend time in the developing world, and hone investigative and writing skills to distinguish your talents.

Julia Harrington, HLS ‘95, The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa

Julia began her public service career with the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, the Gambia where she worked for two summers while in law school. After graduating from HLS, she obtained an Echoing Green Fellowship to return for two years. After two years she left the Secretariat of the Commission and, with a Senegalese colleague, founded the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, also based in the Gambia. The Institute conducts several capacity-building workshops each year on the procedures of the African system – how to litigate cases and otherwise participate in the African Commission’s mission – and works with other African human rights organizations to present cases under the Article 55 procedure. The Institute also launches its own cases and represents people who come to it for assistance. The Institute is now preparing impact litigation on provisions of the Charter previously believed to be non-justifi able, such as the right to education, and has also published the only volume of the Commission’s jurisprudence. Due to a personal decision to return to the States, Julia presently works at the Justice Initiative at the Open Society Institute in New York. However, she remains connected as the African Commission and the Institute for Human Rights and Development are partners of the Open Society Institute, and she continues to serve on the Board of Directors at the Institute.

Jim Cavallaro, Boalt ‘92, Formerly the Executive Director of Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program

During his law school years, Jim took a semester off to work with a human rights organization in Chile towards the end of Pinochet’s regime, and decided to remain in Chile for the beginning of the transition to democracy. After three years in Chile he returned to Boalt to finish his law degree and also obtain a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies. Upon graduation he went to work for Human Rights Watch in Brazil, which eventually led him to convince Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), which monitors the inter-American human rights system, to open a joint office in Rio de Janeiro. In 1999, he founded his own NGO, Global Justice, with an initial grant from the Ford Foundation. The purpose of Global Justice was to establish a Brazilian organization that researches and documents human rights abuses in Brazil and that has the attention of the international community and to train Brazilian NGOs to do the same. His major challenge in establishing Global Justice was dealing with the politics of the human rights scene in Brazil. In the years since its founding, Global Justice has become the national reference for human rights organizations in Brazil; now, if a human rights abuse issue comes to light, the media will contact Global Justice. In 2002, Jim stepped down from the executive directorship but continues to serve on the Board of Directors.

Risk-Taking and Perseverance

One of the first considerations when pursuing an entrepreneurial endeavor is your tolerance for risk and your patience with this challenging and often difficult process. Julia Harrington advises those starting out to take risks. “This isn’t like firm work: there’s no consensus on a single clear, best path. Cases, partners, politics, clients, funding – everything can turn out differently from what you might expect, but frequently this is positive. Get practical experience as soon as possible; figure out what your interests are and develop an expertise that can’t be learned in a classroom. You can never be too multilingual or too humble.” Being an entrepreneur is all about risk taking, uncertainty, surprises, excitement, incredible highs and lows, frustrations and disappointments, but in the end can impart a huge feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Preparation and research go a long way to make the path less burdensome.

Requisite Experience and Skills

As Jim Cavallaro explains when approached by students interested in human rights: “My first questions always are, what languages do you speak and what countries have you traveled to, or where have you lived and worked?” He also emphasizes that it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge about matters other than the law, including financial skills, diplomacy, political acumen, cultural and language fluency, the operations of government bureaucracies, facilities management, and general knowledge of business marketing and operations. It is not too soon to begin developing your entrepreneurial skills in your 1L year. Depending on your issue and location interests, if you are not fluent in another language, you may consider improving your language skills through courses or tutoring during your free time or semester breaks. Success as an entrepreneur requires tenacity, creativity, a willingness to work hard at whatever endeavor you pursue, and most important, a willingness to take every opportunity to market yourself and your organization. Listed below are a few ideas for developing your entrepreneurial skills while in law school and beyond.

Practical or Field Experiences

Personal experiences with human rights violations, starvation or poverty, rather than academics, can often prove most valuable for entrepreneurial work. As an example, Julia Harrington decided to go to law school after working for a year in Washington, DC with a group of lobbyists promoting U.S. ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They were a diverse group – from the American Bar Association, Amnesty International, and various religious groups. Jim Cavallaro obtained a fellowship and took a three year leave from law school to live in Brazil and work for a joint project between Human Rights Watch and CEJIL. Katie Redford spent two years living in Thailand as a volunteer with WorldTeach. While there she lived in a refugee camp and saw first-hand, people literally fleeing across the border in an attempt to escape further human rights abuses.

Academics

Your academic background as well as the courses you take in law school can be of tremendous value to you in developing your own international project or organization. Undergraduate degree programs in international development, foreign policy, political science, and sociology and culture will provide a solid base for developing your thinking about international practices and settings, and may lead you to graduate work in specific areas or cultures such as Latin American, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and other studies. Most law school curricula contain clinical programs and international courses in both public and private international law that can prove especially helpful.  Jim Cavallaro obtained a graduate degree in Latin American studies at the same time that he received his law degree. Katie Redford wrote a paper in her 3L year exploring the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act to achieve accountability for corporate complicity in human rights abuses in Burma. 

Clinical Projects

Clinical projects are an excellent way to learn from experience rather than simply from reading textbooks and articles. It is possible to design your own project with the assistance of a professor, through an independent clinical project or a legal aid society that may later lead to the establishment of your own program or organization. For example, through Anna Rotman’s clinical work with HLS Human Rights Program, she was able to organize a winter term independent clinical project with a local human rights NGO in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo called the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights. 

Summer Internships

On-the-ground experience is critical to entrepreneurial endeavors. A summer or even a school-year internship is a great way to gain international experience prior to graduation. This creates the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, develop an appreciation for the cultural differences and foreign legal systems, improve or develop language skills, determine your desire and stamina for international work, and identify where your interests may lie and what countries and settings are especially compelling. There are numerous examples throughout the Guide of students who have taken these summer experiences and used them to pave their future career paths, including the development of nonprofits or alliances with established organizations.

Legal Skills v. Management and Organizational Skills

Those who have chosen the entrepreneurial path need more than legal skills and training. Chris Jochnick (HLS ’94), Co-founder of the Center for Economic & Social Rights in New York and El Centro de Derechos Economicos y Sociales in Ecuador, says, “In the short term, starting an NGO is all about administration, fundraising, and management, which leaves little time for legal training and specialization, but if it works out, you wind up with a broad set of skills and the autonomy and flexibility to forge a new path. When I went looking for human rights work in my third year of law school it occurred to me that it would be easier to start a new group than win one of the handful of available NGO slots. There are more positions available today, but the alternative of starting a new group is still worth considering.” Brian Concannon faced numerous managerial and fundraising issues when he founded his NGO in Haiti. He had plenty of experience with human rights advocacy, but no experience with fundraising or nonprofit management. He found these skills difficult to pick up. Juggling fundraising with rising emergencies, and the need to respond to crises while staying ahead of the curve provides a real challenge.

Litigation and Advocacy Skills

If your nonprofit is set up to advocate for specific causes, litigation skills can be valuable whether you are actually litigating the case or a local attorney is handling it for you. As an excellent example of the importance of good litigation skills, EarthRights International (ERI) filed a lawsuit against Unocal Corporation for human rights abuses associated with its gas pipeline in Burma. In 1997, a California district court granted jurisdiction, making Unocal the first corporation ever to be subject to federal court jurisdiction for abuses overseas. In 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the case to go forward.1 Unocal recently settled the lawsuit by paying monetary damages, and providing funds to develop a program to improve the living conditions, healthcare and education of the people who live in the pipeline region, and to help protect them from future abuses. Perhaps the most important outcome is that a series of federal court rulings in California established that a corporation assisting or encouraging human rights violations can be held legally responsible in a U.S. court. 

Whether the cases are litigated in a foreign court or the U.S. courts, an understanding of the legal process is essential to carrying out the goals and mission of the organization and can be key to the life of the organization. The most important skills for a lawyer in any setting or practice are those of basic advocacy, but they are really put to the test when advocating for human rights or social justice internationally. 

Negotiation Skills

Negotiation skills will be critical at every stage of the development of a nonprofit organization. The importance of being a good negotiator is compounded by the fact that you will be operating in a foreign culture and environment. Typical problems that may arise that will require good negotiation skills include the sharing of information, resolving disputes, dealing with local authorities, developing business deals, pursuing financing, managing staff and employees, and building relationships with international partners. To prepare for these challenges, at a minimum, a good negotiation course would seem essential. Developing a conflict resolution program from the outset would help in addressing problems as they arise and would help to reduce the unnecessary escalation of disputes.

International Experience

Languages

Speaking the language of the country or the community where you establish your nonprofit organization is essential. Even in the U.S., you may need certain language skills such as Spanish, Haitian Creole or Vietnamese, depending on the demographic you are working with. Jim Cavallaro was able to obtain his position with Human Rights Watch in Brazil partially because he spoke Portuguese. Katie Redford developed her language skills as a volunteer with WorldTeach in Thailand and has used them ever since.

Living and Working Abroad

The best way to get your own organization off the ground is by spending time in the country or region where you would like to have an impact. Summer internships are by far the best way to learn about another culture from an economic, political and social perspective. Katie Redford explains the problems you may confront if you do not spend time with and in other cultures, such as the one with which you hope to work: “You aren’t representing your own vision and your own views but those of your clients. Despite the best intentions, if you’ve never been to another country or experienced another culture, you may advocate for a solution that could actually hinder your clients.”

How To Get Started

Personal Assessment

Before commencing upon the entrepreneurial path, a personal assessment is critical. We have highlighted below some of the obstacles that must be overcome, but also review the personal assessment section in the Entering the Profession section, to determine where your interests lie and whether you would be willing to live with the many challenges you will face as an entrepreneur in the international environment. 

Financing the Project or Organization

Funding may be the first and most important hurdle in establishing the organization. Obtaining funds for nonprofits in the developing world can be difficult as funding organizations are often concerned about the stability and longevity of projects in countries facing economic turmoil or other types of upheaval. Events in Argentina, Brazil, the Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe, the September 11th attacks, the continuing genocide in Darfur, and instability in many corners of the world have had a profound effect on opportunities for financing and foreign assistance from the perspective of the entrepreneur. Funding for international human rights ventures can be scarce in the U.S. but European countries spend a significant amount of money on foreign assistance. 

Fellowships are also available and are often the most generous of the options for financing. Echoing Green, Ashoka, and the Ford Foundation fellowships have been utilized by many students interested in entrepreneurial endeavors. Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda and formerly with the Ford Foundation Human Rights Unit, assesses a good proposal by looking for: (1) an understanding of the field, including challenges and opportunities; (2) a sound theory of change and a capacity to carry it out; and (3) a willingness and ability to work with other organizations. Most importantly, in order for an applicant to show a demonstrated commitment to human rights, s/he must have actual experience in the area. If you are interested in entrepreneurial ventures in international development, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank are tremendous resources for environmental and infrastructure projects in developing countries in Eastern and Central Europe. See the EBRD website at www.ebrd.com for information on entrepreneurial funding.

Finally, multinational corporations are also a key resource for funding, as many operate in countries where relationships with the local people are critical. A good example is Reebok Corporation’s Human Rights Awards project that honors young people from the U.S. and around the world who have made significant contributions to the cause of human rights, often against great odds. The work may include an ongoing project or a start-up organization. If there is a U.S. corporation based in the country where you desire to develop your nonprofit, don’t hesitate to contact the corporation and see what interest they may have in assisting your effort.

The difficulties of fundraising cannot be overstated. It was one of the biggest challenges Katie Redford faced in setting up her organization. Unlike private attorneys who charge their clients for their services, all of her organization’s legal, campaign and educational services are free to its clients and constituents, making fundraising critical. Most entrepreneurs are unaware of the time and energy that will be spent fundraising. Rather than rely on grants and foundations, it is always better to find endowments; however, they are not always easily available particularly for work in a foreign country.

Like Katie, Julia Harrington found that her biggest challenge in founding the Institute was also a lack of money. Julia and her partner both worked without salary for the fi rst year of operations and went into debt buying basic equipment. For the first six months, the organization operated from her house. Applying for an Echoing Green Fellowship, she learned grant writing and organizational skills that later proved beneficial in obtaining funding from other organizations.  To learn more about applying for a fellowship, check out the Insider Guide to Writing a Successful Fellowship Application found here

Like many entrepreneurs, Brian Concannon worked for six months without taking a salary, and has only taken a small stipend since. The financing for his organization during the fi rst year was about 40% from a single foundation grant, 40% from churches, solidarity groups and charitable organizations, and 20% from individual donors. Despite these difficulties, not one entrepreneur interviewed said s/he would change his or her career path for a higher paying position in the private sector or government.

Structuring Your Organization: Understanding the Impact of Foreign Government Laws, Policies and Regulations

Although there is a wealth of information available today on doing business in most countries, there is a dearth of accurate information and analysis on determining exactly how an organization works “on the ground,” particularly in developing countries. Most entrepreneurs would advise you to seek the counsel of a local attorney, accountant and other professionals to aid you in navigating a foreign bureaucracy. Though taking such advice is ideal, one cannot always afford counsel in addition to the costs required in setting up a foreign nonprofit.  Tax liability can also be much heavier in many countries than in the United States. 

When trying to understand the regulatory landscape, don’t hesitate to use the many “free” resources available from the U.S. government and intergovernmental organizations; including the World Bank Offices located in many countries, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration (ITA), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (TDA). In some countries including Eastern and Central Europe, the ABA or a related law organization can be of great assistance. Even state agencies such as the Massachusetts Office of Trade and Investment, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts Export Center can be helpful in highlighting the relevant laws and prohibitions in various countries and regions of the world for setting up a nonprofit organization. 

Nearly every State has local commerce and development offices to assist local entrepreneurs in export financing, foreign direct investment and promotion of international trade and competitiveness. Many have overseas offices that can assist in local concerns and regulatory and permitting requirements. For example, Massachusetts has representative offices in China, Mexico, Germany and Brazil.  California’s Centers for International Trade and Development provides program overviews, export start-up guides, and a trade information database on foreign countries. It is critical to understand that failure to comply with local regulations can be quite costly and may result in the termination of your organization. Local courts and government bureaucracies in developing countries tend to protect local citizens, and the court systems may mandate local favoritism. Thus, affiliations with local professionals and organizations can be extremely helpful.

One way to reduce risk in a foreign state may be to structure the organization as a subsidiary of a parent organization abroad, or to affiliate with a local organization that can easily obtain government approvals. The size and formation of the organization can vary based on the mission and goals you have developed, as well as the potential for expansion and growth through joint ventures, partnering, increased funding and other opportunities. Human Rights Watch has grown from a tiny organization to a staff of 190 today. The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti currently recently had 7 law students in its Virtual Internship Program. The Institute provides most of the support for its Haitian affiliate, the BAI, which has eight employees.

Marketing Your Organization

After establishing the structure and operations of your organization, marketing becomes a key factor that can determine the ultimate success of your organization. Although good relations with the local media and press are one way to market your organization, working with local constituents and seeking their support and assistance is another important marketing tool. Before setting up a nonprofit in a foreign country, do as much background research about the country and its political, economic and social system as possible. Talk to professionals, experts and attorneys in the area where your nonprofit will be located. Take advantage of resources for marketing your organization available through various federal, state and local organizations. Make sure you understand the local politics and how your organization will be viewed in light of competing interests. Finally, search for potential partners and affiliates both in the U.S. and abroad.

Understanding the Local Culture and Customs

Of all the requirements for operating an international organization there is none more important than understanding local culture. Fitting into the local community is critical and this requires an understanding of the legal, economic and political environment in which you will be operating your non-profit. Culture means understanding attitudes, norms, and values of a given community. Developing critical relationships with the local government and potential partners will go a long way to assure the success of your operations. 

Developing a Permanent Presence

Although it is possible to operate a virtual nonprofit from the U.S., establishing a permanent presence on the ground for some period of time is essential. Many business and professional relationships abroad grow from trust and loyalty in addition to agreements and formal contracts. As Jim Cavallaro experienced in Brazil, one way to secure that personal connection is by affiliating with a local organization. Brian Concannon concurs. His organization, though it is based in the U.S., is closely affiliated with a local organization in Haiti.

International Media and the Press: Building the Organization’s Reputation

Understanding the local political landscape and the operations of the news media and local press is essential to the success of your start-up organization. Consulting with local public relations professionals may be the best way to assure proper treatment and recognition for the good work you are doing on behalf of the local citizens. Jim Cavallaro has described working with the media as one of the most challenging, yet important aspects of the entrepreneur’s role. He explains, “the media can generate great publicity for your organization, as well as destroy your organization, so having on hand a person familiar with political issues, the press and relationships with important constituents is a key consideration.”

An additional challenge may require addressing a general prejudice against attorneys. Katie Redford describes this potential obstacle: “In the context in which I work, many of the donors and foundations we seek funding from are distrustful of lawyers, seeing lawyers as part of the problem in the U.S. and not the solution. In addition, our clients are victims and survivors of human rights abuses. These abuses are often committed by government and military regimes – the very regimes that abuse human rights under cover of law, and often in the name of the law. Upon learning that I am a lawyer, people from Burma often say, ‘in our country, when you heard the word ‘law’ you have to be afraid.’ As a result, we have to work harder to convince clients, the general public and even our supporters that the law is a powerful tool, which can be used for positive social change.

Last modified: December 10, 2012

© 2014 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.