Five new graduates and where they’re headed
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.” Here, five members of the class reflect on influences during their educational journey and how they intend to use their educations 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,” said Seini. Her nation also faces environmental challenges related to the mining industry and from telecommunications companies seeking to place 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 last fall, Seini already had one LL.M., 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 said, 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,” said Seini.
In the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, she helped 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.
Seini plans to sit for the New York bar this summer and may be returning to HLS next year for an S.J.D.
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 HLS’s Human Rights Program 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.
The grandson of labor activists and Holocaust survivors, 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 HLS Advocates for Human Rights, and later 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?
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.
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 a 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 said. 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 after an 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 said.
Yet, influenced by four years his family spent in Jamaica creating a school for children who didn’t have access to quality education, Davis knew he wanted to go into public service.
A summer job as a community organizer in Cincinnati—where he organized health fairs and built 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 health care, education and housing in neighborhoods where residents don’t feel safe. “I walked away with a great understanding of the ways in which crime can impact communities and make it hard for them to thrive,” he said.
At HLS, an evidence course with Assistant Clinical Professor Alex Whiting was particularly influential in his decision to become a prosecutor. As Davis prepares to enter the criminal-justice system, 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.
Almost every weekend for the past two years, Elizabeth “Libby” Benton ’11—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 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,” said Benton, who tallied 2,300-plus hours of pro bono legal service while at HLS.
Now that she has graduated, Benton will continue her anti-foreclosure work. For the next two years, she’ll be working on housing cases at HLS’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center 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,” said Benton. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2006, she worked on the re-election campaign of Gov. Jennifer Granholm ’87 and the congressional campaign of Sandy Levin ’57. Benton went to work for Levin in Washington, D.C., eventually becoming a legislative assistant, where her work on veterans’ issues was particularly gratifying. “What piqued my interest in law school was seeing how our office helped individual vets navigate a big federal bureaucracy,” she said. As a 1L, Benton volunteered doing intake at a homeless veterans shelter.
The anti-foreclosure work at HLS has forged her career plans. Said Benton, “I’m committed to a lifetime of public service and public interest law.”
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.
“As a lawyer, you’re really helping, especially in a friendly acquisition, to create value,” he said. “You’re getting to act like the quarterback of the deal.”
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. After graduating with a B.S. in business administration, he went on to earn an M.B.A. at Fresno’s business school. Before enrolling in law school, he worked for a municipal consulting company, which itself was acquired, 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 of a potential acquisition.
He points to a corporations class taught by Guhan Subramanian J.D./M.B.A. ’98 and an M&A workshop taught by Lecturer on Law and Wachtell Lipton partner Mark Gordon ’94 as highlights of his classroom experience at HLS, providing him with a different perspective from the one he got at business school, he said.
“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,” said Cooper.
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 garnered participation from many students and faculty members.
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 said.
“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.”