Hands Across the World: for Summer Jobs, HLS Students Cross Cultures to Help People in Need
By Kathleen Brill
Students who journeyed to distant lands for summer jobs say their perspective on the law crossed borders that were geographic, cultural, and sometimes political.
About 300 HLS students worked full time in public interest law over the summer, with about 40 stationed in positions outside the United States. Several students tested their intercultural skills within domestic borders, working for international or immigration-related organizations, according to Alexa Shabecoff, director of the Office of Public Interest Advising.
Work experiences ranged from assisting with a United Nations tribunal in Tanzania to representing migrant workers in southern Texas. Beyond expanding their knowledge of international legal systems and cultures, students who return to similar fields, will have a competitive edge in the job market because they have learned how to work within a foreign culture's legal system, says Peter Rosenblum, associate director of the Human Rights Program at HLS.
"Getting a good job is never a given, and to get a job in international public interest is that much harder," Rosenblum says. "It's rare in any of these experiences that anybody's going to hand them a legal memo and say, 'Go research this.' You're trying to figure out what is relevant to local people."
Responding to genocide
Bringing to justice the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was the mission for 2L Anna Rotman and several of her classmates this summer. Rotman worked as a legal intern at the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is based in Arusha, Tanzania. She says her role allowed her to see how international criminal law is an "amalgamation of common law and civil law systems of justice."
Rotman saw the tribunal adapting the law to new styles, blending criminal and civil law, often with its own unique rules.
"Hearsay evidence is permitted and reduced sentences are theoretically available for those who admit their guilt," Rotman says.
Most of Rotman's work involved drafting decisions for pretrial motions. "I learned about the tribunal's jurisprudence on such issues as provisional release, vagueness in the indictment, suppression of evidence, and protective measures for witnesses," Rotman says.
She also observed how the system functioned with lawyers and judges who brought experiences from a variety of countries and legal systems to the tribunal.
"Language is a big obstacle to efficiency, as the tribunal is conducted in English and French, and many of the witnesses testify in a third language, Kinyarwandan," Rotman says.
Rotman and some of her classmates visited Rwanda to see how the country has rebuilt itself and changed since the 1994 genocide. They also toured genocide memorials, including one that displayed preserved bodies of the victims.
"Walking through room after room after room after room of bodies, it occurred to me that justice is only the first step in rebuilding Rwanda, but that without justice, Rwanda would continue to falter between vengeance and reconciliation," Rotman says. "I really realized the tremendous responsibility taken on by the tribunal."
2L Susan Rohol, who worked as a legal assistant to two judges and others in the tribunal, says she spent much of her summer researching issues such as conspiracy and cumulative charges in international law, the use of character evidence as a defense and as a mitigating factor, sentencing guidelines, and Rwandan jurisprudence. Rohol also drafted portions of judgments on sentencing and conspiracy.
"I researched conspiracy to commit genocide . . . and whether you could cumulatively charge and convict an accused [person] for both the substantive crime and the inchoate crime of conspiracy," Rohol says.
Battling HIV in China
3L Tom Kellogg worked for UNAIDS and the U.N. Development Program on a legal reform project related to HIV/AIDS law in China, where government officials often avoid dealing with HIV/AIDS head-on, Kellogg says.
"Taking action on HIV/AIDS means admitting that there's a problem with HIV in your locality, which means by implication that there's a problem with drug abuse and prostitution, which no one likes to admit. So there's often a tendency to want to minimize the issue, despite clear evidence that much needs to be done, and right away," Kellogg says.
In Beijing, Kellogg researched and wrote about HIV- and AIDS-related law in China. He wrote a rough draft for a paper that his organization will submit as part of an advocacy and training program with the National People's Congress. Kellogg's research covered a wide range of topics, including laws related to sexually transmitted disease, prostitution, and drug abuse.
Kellogg advises other students who want to work in China that patience is a required part of the job.
"It takes longer to get things done here than in other places, and even to figure out the scene takes a bit of time," he says.
But the people of China facing the outbreak of AIDS appreciate the assistance. Kellogg recounts a visit to one rural area for a meeting that was packed with hundreds of local residents.
"I got up and introduced myself in my best Mandarin, and the translator translated into the local dialect," Kellogg recalls. "And once he finished translating, he said, 'Thank you, Tom Kellogg, and Harvard Law School,' and there was thunderous, and I mean thunderous, applause."
Migrant worker rights
In the not-so-foreign countryside of Texas, 2L Matt Mazur worked with Texas Rural Legal Aid as a summer clerk, assisting migrant farm workers. About 85 percent of the organization's clients are Mexican, and some are low-income U.S. citizens, Mazur says.
Many of its clients are migrant farm workers who complain that their working conditions or pay did not match what they were promised by recruiters who hired them to travel from Texas to large farms across the country.
"They're very susceptible to being taken advantage of," Mazur says, describing how the lawyers in his group sometimes assume a social work role, helping clients to figure out how to open a bank account, and showing local residents in the area how to fill out forms at a divorce clinic, for example.
As a clerk, Mazur also observed how the legal system in Texas handles typical cases for these migrant farm workers. He says language barriers often impair migrant workers' understanding of the questions they are asked by lawyers.
While he watched Texas judges struggle to keep up with demand in an overburdened system, Mazur says he saw civil cases cut short in early settlements before all of the evidence could be brought before the court. Early settlement may result in lower compensation for plaintiffs who are suing the large farms.
"The judges in court really pressure these cases to settle," Mazur says. "They don't really force defendents to produce documents."
While each of the students faced challenges in their positions, their experience in a different kind of summer job will serve them well in the future, says Rotman.
"All the bureaucracy is there, but so is a tremendous quantity of really interesting people," she says. "I learned a tremendous amount about international criminal law, and through observing my superiors and colleagues, I also learned a lot about the type of qualities and traits it takes to make this emerging area of law a career."