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At Home Abroad

HLS faculty and students look to other countries to better people's lives and increase their own understanding of the world of law

Lucie White
Professor Lucie White '81

Professor Lucie White '81 says it was as if she'd hit a wall. She'd done social welfare work in the United States for 30 years and taught law for 20, but she found that to be able to continue, she needed to put poverty in a global framework. Two years ago, White began taking Harvard Law students to Ghana to work in one of the poorest areas in the capital-- neighborhoods where raw sewage floats in open gutters past people's homes. The students work with the community on the long road to securing sanitation and the access to health care guaranteed under the law. White says it's a journey she's found incredibly rewarding.

Professor Howell Jackson '82 began his career at HLS in the late '80s focusing on domestic financial regulation. He's since researched cross-border securities transactions and advised foreign governments on the way American securities regulation might be adapted for use overseas. This semester he's teaching a new course on international securities. He says it's where many of the most interesting problems in the field now arise.

In the 1980s, in her writing on family law, Professor Martha Minow focused primarily on domestic issues. In 1996, as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission got under way, she began a book on possible legal responses to mass violence. It stemmed from her work with Facing History and Ourselves, a genocide education organization, and her long-standing interest in the question: How do you create a world where difference is respected and not a grounds for extermination? The book, "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence," won an award from the American Society of International Law. She's since run the program for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to promote coexistence when refugees return home, focusing on Rwanda and Bosnia. She's also been part of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, flying around the world to hold hearings about the NATO intervention. She's written books and developed a new course on related topics. Even a book she published last year on school vouchers and the privatization of welfare in the United States has comparative elements.

Photo of open gutter in Ghana

Professor White and her students work with residents to improve sanitation and health care in one of the poorest areas in Ghana's capital. Open gutters carrying garbage and untreated sewage are among the health hazards.

For years, such quiet transformations have been at work among the Harvard Law School faculty. As the legal profession has become more global, so has legal education. In the midst of political and economic changes, faculty like White, Jackson and Minow, who did not begin their careers as internationalists, have found their scholarship taking them outside the borders of the United States. Whether it's working for change or dealing with jurisdictional questions affecting U.S. law, their work sheds new light on old assumptions. They bring new expertise and insight back to the classroom.

Frank Michelman
Professor Frank Michelman '60

Although previously he hadn't worked in comparative law, Professor Frank Michelman '60 has developed a new class looking at the South African and U.S. constitutions. He got involved in 1995, just as the South African Constitutional Court was about to hold its first round of hearings. He participated in discussions in South Africa with other academics as well as lawyers and judges about Bill of Rights interpretation a year before the final constitution was instituted.

Being present at this early stage in a country's constitutional development has been exciting and moving, Michelman says. It's also given him a new angle on teaching. He hopes the course allows students "to get some distance on American ways by getting a close-up look at how matters quite similar looking were developing in another legal system in a country, of course, which is vastly differently situated."

Some striking differences between the constitutional texts, he says, involve specific guarantees in the South African Bill of Rights that are absent from the U.S. Constitution, including housing, means of subsistence and health care. And recently in South Africa, he says, Bill of Rights guarantees have been drawn upon in the resolution of disputes between private individuals in ways they would not be in U.S. constitutional law.

Michelman's outlook is in part what makes 2L Sandra Badin happy to be at HLS. Badin, who is also completing a Ph.D. in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University, came to law school because of her interest in equality and equal protection jurisprudence. She has been working as Michelman's research assistant and is taking his class this semester.

"I love that some people here are really alive to the fascinating intellectual questions that each case raises," she said. She envisions a third-year paper on how the Israeli Supreme Court has dealt with equality claims from Arab Israelis. For her, it's part of a broader question: How does a state's national character set limits on individual rights and on who has claims to equality? Badin hopes to teach law someday and to develop an expertise in comparative constitutionalism. Comparison, she says, can only sharpen your focus.

It seems many faculty at HLS agree. As part of the Strategic Plan, the faculty voted to add an international or comparative course to the list of recommended classes. Professor Bill Alford ' 77, associate dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies, estimates that right now no more than 30 percent of J.D. students take such a course. "The thinking is that ideally you should have some grounding in things international to be a literate lawyer in the 21st century," he said. "There may be international implications to decisions that have been historically domestic."

Although most J.D. students may not be taking international courses yet, they have a growing interest in international work. April Stockfleet, assistant director for international programs and law teaching in Career Services, says more than 100 students have approached her this year about the possibility of working abroad their first summer in law school. It is partly in response to employer demand in a legal workplace that has become increasingly global. But she says it also reflects the backgrounds and experience of the students themselves, more and more of whom have studied abroad and speak foreign languages.

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